A mentally ill woman struggles to reclaim her
sanity while committed to a mental institution.
The Snake Pit (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Written by Frank Partos and Millen Brand
Starring Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn,
Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig
Based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward
Oscar Wins - Best Sound
Oscar Nominations - Best Picture, Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score
Much like Johnny Belinda the same year, The Snake Pit broke new ground in filmmaking history. It's considered the first mainstream Hollywood film to deal openly with mental illness and serious mental hospitals. This is the film that laid the foundation for future classics like Shutter Island and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And it's a phenomenal film led by a career-defining performance from the late Olivia de Havilland. The 1948 Oscars had some hammers to choose among, and this is one that easily could've taken top honors with no argument.
Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia Cunningham, a mentally disturbed schizophrenic who was recently committed by her husband. Virginia doesn't know why she's been committed, and she is unable to remember important details of her life. With the help of the kind, patient Dr. Kik (Genn), Virginia goes through the ringer trying to find the root of her severe issues. This film really goes the extra mile towards taking mental illness seriously. All of the patients in the various wards of Juniper Hill are not played for laughs or for scares. They're portrayed as real people who are very sick and need help. It's quite astonishing for a film from 1948 to be so progressive, and I feel like I've been saying that a lot lately.
The Snake Pit is an engaging watch, and an infuriating one at times. The character of Nurse Davis (Craig, in an obvious influence to the future Nurse Ratched), for instance, is a constant hindrance to Virginia's health and takes pride in chastizing the patients. This film establishes tropes we will see forever in films that take place in mental hospitals. It deserves a great deal of praise for the smart way it approached the material.