Olivia de Havilland is in The Snake Pit (1948)

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This post is dedicated to Crystal and Phyllis who are commemorating the 100th birthday of Olivia de Havilland with a blogathon. I chose The Snake Pit (1948).  Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) has a mystery to solve. How has she come to be in an insane asylum, and how will she escape her ordeal? The unraveling of her delusions and the connecting-the-dots to uncover the truth is the tale based on the semi-autobiographical book, The Snake Pit, which spellbound the nation and became an instant success for its author, Mary Jane Ward.

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Published in 1946, I can’t help but wonder if rosters in mental institutions skyrocketed due to the aftershock of World War II? Physical and emotional deprivation affected the minds of its citizenry as well as its soldiers. The Snake Pit initiated the dialogue of mental illness, the need for reform in mental institutions, and women’s mental health in general. In the film, patients were classified by the extent of their illnesses and placed on corresponding floors.  The craziest resided on the top floor. Overcrowded areas, overworked nurses, and herd-like procedures within sterile interiors stir up the cacophony of noise that replicated the internal battle of minds run amuck. No one could get better in that environment and that was the point of the book and the film. The Snake Pit makes the later classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, seem like a vacation resort by comparison.

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Virginia is submitted to electroshock and scalding baths as treatment, but after months of sessions using psychoanalysis, saintly Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) gets results. Virginia descends one floor at a time until she reaches the first floor, the one closest to the exit. Will she overcome her illness and be set free?

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The film employs effective cinematic shots by director Anatole Litvak. The analogy of the snake pit explained by Virginia Cunningham visually shows her looking down the 32 floors where the patients slither over and around each other and the nurses. All the best shots in the world would have meant little if it were not for the outstanding performance by Olivia de Havilland. Most are familiar with her soft-spoken, polite countenance such as Melanie in Gone with the Wind. Here, in The Snake Pit,  it is a delightful surprise to see her reach deep inside and play a complicated character with complete conviction. Happy Birthday, Olivia. Thank you for a fine performance; my respect for your talents has reached new heights.

I knew so little about this legend other than she was Maid Marion to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. If you are like me, this article in VANITY FAIR was fascinating.

42 thoughts on “Olivia de Havilland is in The Snake Pit (1948)

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  1. Hi Cindy, this is a wonderful tribute to one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses. I saw Snake Pit around twenty years ago, but still remember Olivia’s very fine performance.
    Thank you!

    1. You are kind to say so, Rafael. I’m glad I could contribute in a meaningful way. This was the first time I had seen it and I was surprised she pulled it off. I didn’t know Olivia had the range.

    1. John, it sounded like an interesting premise; she was an actress I knew too little about. I’ve only seen in her a couple films and GWTW is what comes to mind when one says her name. So this was a fun opportunity, this blogathon, to see her in something completely different. The film was well made and I’m glad I watched it. Check it out if you get the chance.

  2. This is a great choice, Cindy, and a spot-on review. I saw this film when I was in my early teens, and found it very disturbing indeed. It could do with a modern showing, as the imagery it contains must surely have inspired many later film-makers.
    Wonderful to realise that Olivia de Havilland lived to see 100 years. A dignified lady indeed.
    (And I never knew that Joan Fontaine was her sister!)
    Best wishes, Pete.

        1. I thought so, too. Since Hollywood has been born, stars have complained, studios have complained, the public has complained that it’s all a charade, a crap-shoot, a despicable industry. Not much has changed, eh? Yet, we still go to the movies and cheer for our favorite stars.

  3. The only golden age actor still alive, I believe! I read a really interesting piece about her recently, and how she took on Jack Warner and basically changed the studio system so that actors were no longer tied in to long contracts. It meant that she didn’t work in Hollywood for two years during her mid-to-late 20s too, which were key years for an actress back then. Also the podcast What It Takes included an interview with her recently (though I think the interview itself was archive). I haven’t seen The Snake Pit (hadn’t heard of it until reading this!) but I’d like to see it based on what you have said.

    1. I wasn’t aware of her influence with Jack Warner. I’d love to read an auto/biography on her. I hope you get a chance to watch The Snake Pit. I liked the cinematography a lot.

  4. This sounds like an interesting film but I don’t know if I’m “mentally” up for it.

    Thanks so much for contributing to this Blogathon!!!

  5. I can’t believe Olivia is 100 years old!! She’ll always be Melanie Wilkes to me, that film made an impression to me as I saw it in Jr High. I’ve only seen her in The Heiress besides that, which is also very good. I’ll check out that article too, thanks Cindy!

    1. Thank you for stopping by and saying so! I thought it its progressiveness for 1947 paved the way for looking at women and their struggles. I remember growing up and hearing about this aunt or that or a grand who was sent off to the insane asylum. The connotations and perceptions of mental health then were atrocious.

  6. I was astounded at Olivia’s performance the first time I saw this film, and Litvak’s directing is truly impressive. It’s a film that deserves to be more well known, that’s for sure! 🙂

  7. WoW!! ‘The Snake Pit’ sounds really good. Is it really better than ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, which happens to be one of my Top-5 favourites, from the 1970’s!!
    Am not a great fan Olivia de Havilland, maybe ’cause of the way she treated her sister, Joan Fontaine!! But, anyway, I’ve seen her in a very few films, like ‘Gone with the Wind’ (loved her in that), ‘Light in the Piazza’, and ‘Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna’!!!

    1. I think you would like this, Nuwansen. It’s a film exclusively showcasing her ability to express with her body language, her face, and her words a complicated, interesting character. Add in fine directorship and a message regarding mental health–there’s a lot to like.

  8. Great post… and this is not related to the topic, but I am not sure where to as to where to ask this question. What were your thoughts on “Son of Saul.” I would be interested in reading your thoughts on that film since it is set during the holocaust and you mentioned that this is a period in history that interests you.

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