“I remembered once reading in a book that long ago they used to put insane people into pits full of snakes. I think they figured that something which might drive a normal person insane, might shock an insane person back into sanity.”
As of this post I have reviewed fourteen of Olivia de Havilland’s films and every time all I do is go on and on about what an incredible and versatile actress she was. The woman was outrageously talented and she proves just how talented she was in The Snake Pit. De Havilland was nominated for an Academy Award for her leading role as the mentally disturbed Virginia Cunningham who gets tossed around to different floors of an asylum. Let me tell you her performance is one of the most deserving Academy nominations ever.
The film starts with Virginia sitting outside in a garden wondering how she got there. One minute she thinks she can hear her doctor’s voice and the next minute she is sitting on a bench she does not remember originally sitting in. She does not recognize her surroundings or who anyone is around her.
Her husband Robert tells her doctor Kik about how they met and all he knows about why she had to be placed in the hospital. When they first met she was a writer and he was working at a publishing company. They started having lunch together and going out at night after work. One night she got really nervous and left saying she had to get back home she was late for something. After that they did not see each other again for several months when they met in New York City. Virginia was fine and they eventually married. After a while she began to not feel well and forget things. She finally snaps when she finds out the date is May twelfth and she cannot even remember who Robert is.
As the film progresses we find out where Virginia’s problems stem from but while we are learning about her history and where her problems originated we are put through a rollercoaster of emotions and shock just like she is. Her illness goes from being partly under control to full blown out of control. She cannot understand why she is the way she is.
At one point the doctors are convinced Virginia can go home with her husband but only because they do not see her as serious as some other women and they want to make room for more patients. Dr. Kik does not believe that Virginia should be released he knows she is in no way ready to leave. At the hearing a doctor shakes his finger in Virginia’s face and in her mind she says for the man to stop she does not like what he is doing to her. The next scene is Virginia being forced into an ice bath she sees as an ocean. Dr. Kik tells her that she bit the other doctor’s finger but she cannot remember doing that at all.
With some help from Dr. Kik, Virginia is moved to the first ward where the ladies still have problems but they are a little more stable. She seems to be doing fine until one day she snaps over something and runs away screaming trying to get out. She hides herself in a nurse’s bathroom for hours until she is found. After that incident she is brought down to one of the worst wards where the women are completely out of their minds and some are even extremely violent. While in this ward Virginia begins to see where her problems come from along with some help from Dr. Kik. She tells him that being around those women she felt like she was in a snake pit where she was looking down at herself with all these other crazy people. She realizes that by talking to Dr. Kik she will feel better and that is exactly what she does and she gets better.
Virginia is given another hearing for her release and this time she pulls it off and gets to go back home with Robert. Before she leaves Virginia tells a woman she grew close to who is violent and does not talk that if she talks she will get better. The woman says goodbye to Virginia as she leaves.
There is no possible why my review of the film was coherent enough. The film is not complicated at all anyone can follow the plot it is just complex there is so much in the story.
Ginger Rogers has a chapter in autobiography where she talks about all the film roles she passed up. Two of the roles she passed up were the leads in To Each His Own and The Snake Pit both of which were given to Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland won an Academy Award for To Each His Own and as I mentioned was nominated for The Snake Pit. Rogers wrote “It seemed Olivia knew a good thing when she saw it. Perhaps Olivia should thank me for such poor judgment". I think it should be the other way around I think Ginger should be thanking Olivia for taking the part because Ginger would not have been good at all. De Havilland was flawless from the way she allowed herself to look completely unglamorous and unstable. Rogers would have been too over dramatic and I think at the same time would have played the role with too much innocence. Virginia has a sweet innocence to her mixed with this complicated problem and even more complicated emotions that had to be balanced very carefully and skillfully and de Havilland played everything together without a flaw her performance was utter perfection. The more I watch Olivia de Havilland in her films the more amazing she becomes to me. How she did not win the Academy Award for this role is beyond my comprehension.
Mental illnesses were not something that was widely spoken about when this film was made in 1948. Today we know that mental health is very important and that it is ok to talk about your problems with a psychologist and seek help. There are many mental illnesses that are still not widely spoken about if someone has them but the medical attention for them. I always feel terrible whenever I read in history books or see in films where people are mistreated in mental asylums. I could not believe that in the 1800s the institutions would allow the public to come in to see the ill patients as if they were a sideshow attraction at a fair. That is what I imagined when I watched the film I felt like a public reveler watching these poor sick people and seeing this one woman fighting for her stability. The story and the setting are very unsettling and I felt terrible that I had to keep watching that I was so drawn into the character worrying about her if she would get better or not. The film comes from a book of the same title that was released in 1946 by Mary Jane Ward. When the book was released it caused a great controversy as it showed how the mentally ill were treated.
The Snake Pit is one of the best films I have seen from any era. Too many filmmakers today think that a good mind-screw movie has to be totally confusing and sometimes gross but great mind-screw films like The Snake Pit and Gaslight are fantastic because they really do make you nervous and tense and make you feel for the characters they do not confuse or gross you out. From start to finish the film grabs your attention and emotions and never lets go.