The Snake Pit (1948) from Tuna

The Snake Pit is based on Mary Jane Ward's autobiographical account of her own journey through mental illness and its treatment, changing many particulars from Ward's life, and focusing on a linear narrative of her psychoanalysis, but still portraying her experience realistically enough to move you. The film takes its title from an ancient practice of throwing insane people into a pit of snakes, based on the theory that any situation which would drive a normal person insane would also drive an insane person normal. We see the modern snake pit of a public mental health institution through the patient's eyes, and we hear her thoughts.

The film opens with the central character on a bench in what appears to be a park. Men are asking her questions. The camera gradually pulls back from her face to reveal that there are no men around, only a single female patient, and that the male voices must be in her head. She and various other patients are then lined up, and marched into the building, but she has no idea where she is or why, and remembers nothing of her past life.

This is followed by a period of exposition in which her husband tells what he knows of her history to her doctor. Over the next several weeks, the doctor begins to break through a little at a time. Her husband, encouraged by some administrators who want to free up a bed, then requests her release against the advice of her doctor. Before she can be released, however, she must "go to staff", a process something like a parole board hearing, in which the entire staff interviews her, and then approves or disapproves her release. This hearing proves to be such a traumatic experience for her that she regresses, and ends up in a ward for patients who are more seriously ill.

Ultimately, her treatment would include electroshock therapy, ice baths and being placed in one of the "back wards," where the most deeply disturbed patients were kept. Time after time she would make progress, only to have some event trigger a relapse.

Censorship and the standards of societal decency being what they were in 1948, some of the seedier sex and language aspects of state mental health institutions could not be depicted in the film. Were it made today, a more accurate portrait could be painted, but the filmmakers still did a wonderful job of allowing us to experience what she experienced. Much of the film was shot in actual "back wards" at Camarillo State Hospital in California. I had occasion to visit two state mental institutions in the early 60s, and can tell you that the film makers did their homework. Many of the scenes were 100% accurate, based on my first hand knowledge. The film was rather balanced in showing that some staff were caring, while others were detrimental to the patients. It was also very strong in showing both the positive and negative effects of the insane upon each other.

The role required a very strong performance by the lead, and Olivia de Havilland delivered one which was nominated for an Oscar. Had she not already won a Best Actress statuette just two years earlier for To Each His Own, she probably would have won this one over Jane Wyman.



DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by film historian and author Aubrey Solomon

  • Theatrical trailer(s)

  • Movietone News

  • Still gallery

  • Full-screen format

In actuality, the real Mary Jane Ward was first placed in a private institution that was very good at costing her husband money, but not at all competent at treating her. When he ran out of money, she was transferred to a state institution. Finally, her husband was able to find and afford a decent institution, where she did, in fact, recover.

The state mental health system is all but gone now in the U.S. The current practice is to detain, medicate and release those deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. Granted that modern psychoactive drugs can allow some patients to function normally in society, there are still a lot of people wandering around who are not successfully functioning. One has to wonder how much progress we have really made since 1948.

The Critics Vote ...

  • It won an Oscar for Best Sound/Recording, and nominations for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Music and Best Writing.

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a B, with one of de Havilland's best performances coming in a fascinating and true story. Yes, there was a certain 40s quaintness to the film, and such things as language and nudity could not be portrayed accurately, but The Snake Pit still delivers an emotional punch today.

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