Olivia 1

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.


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.


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?


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.