The Snake Pit

Rated: Not Rated

        Although Olivia de Havilland was a well-known and respected actress by the time Gone with the Wind came along, it is for the role of Melanie Hamilton that she’s most famous for. And while I certainly didn’t think that Gone with the Wind was her only acting credit, I never really gave it much thought as I’d never seen her in anything else, until The Snake Pit.
The Snake Pit came out nine years after Gone with the Wind, and the character de Havilland plays in it couldn’t be more different than Melanie Hamilton. De Havilland played Hamilton as a meek but dutiful, fiercely faithful and cool headed Civil War wife, always at the ready to defend those she holds dear, albeit quietly.  In her role has Virginia Stuart Cunningham in The Snake Pit de Havilland plays a woman who is confused not only about who she is, but where she is. She’s not entirely sure about anything, including whether she’s insane or not.
        According to
The Snake Pit Wikipedia page, de Havilland was able to pull off such a stunning performance because “Director Anatole Litvak insisted upon three months of grueling research. He demanded that the entire cast and crew accompany him to various mental institutions and to lectures by leading psychiatrists. He did not have to convince Olivia de Havilland who threw herself into the research with an intensity that surprised even those who knew her well. She watched carefully each of the procedures then in vogue, including hydrotherapy and electric shock treatments. When permitted, she sat in on long individual therapy sessions. She attended social functions, including dinners and dances with the patients.”  I’d say that’s some dedication to a role!
The Snake Pit was revolutionary for the time in that it covered a topic that most felt were taboo, mental health and the mental health system. Based on the semi-biographical book of the same name by Mary Jane Ward, the film covers all of the ups, downs, uncertainty and just plain scariness patients at mental hospitals had to endure at the time. The title of the book and subsequent film comes from Ward’s experiences at Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg, NY, and the “lowest” ward in the hospital, where all of the worst patients are thrown in a room together and locked in to fend for themselves, in an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
        Despite its seemingly defiant subject matter and its authentic portrayals of the many trials mental patients at the time had to endure, the film was well received and broadly praised. It received six Academy Award Nominations and one win. It also sparked a conversation and subsequent reforms in this country’s handling of the mental ill, for better or worse.
        According to the article
Fixing the Mental Health System: Snake Pits, Dungeons, and Back Alleys on “Soon [after the film], deinstitutionalization was the big new idea—the way to provide a much brighter future for the most vulnerable in our society who had previously been so shamefully neglected…[Then] de-institutionalization turned far too often into trans-institutional­ization—moving the patient from a snake pit hospital into a dungeon-like prison… [Now] the police have been forced to assume the role of mental illness first responders. They find it a waste of time to take patients to emergency departments because there are usually no psychiatric beds available and at best an outpatient appointment may be weeks away. Jail becomes the default solution. Consequently, the low tolerance for disorder introduced by “broken window policing” has fallen most heavily on the severely mentally ill.”
        It’s plain to see that after 68 years
The Snake Pit and its lessons are still relevant. If you follow the news at all it seems like almost every time there’s a mass shooting in the U.S.  two conversations begin (again), gun control and mental health care. It’s obvious that more needs to be done in terms of mental health care, but no one can decide what. Perhaps it’s time that our lawmakers, police and health professionals spend time watching The Snake Pit so that history is not doomed to repeat itself.

The Snake Pit is not rated, was directed by Anatole Litvak and stars Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn and Helen Craig. Its available now on DVD, digitally and in your local library.