Here is one of the most moving scenes in the 1948 drama The Snake Pit:
Residents and staff of a mental hospital are attending a dance. There is a four-piece band on stage, and chairs line the sides of the floor. Patients dance and flirt and talk with old friends.
If you didn’t know these people had mental health issues, you wouldn’t notice anything different about this dance. Some of the behaviour is a little odd, but have you ever been to a dance where someone didn’t behave oddly?
Towards the end of the evening, a woman on stage sings Going Home, a haunting, yearning lullaby:
Going home, going home,
I’m just going home.
Quiet-like, slip away,
I’ll be going home.
It’s not far, just close by;
Through an open door.
Everyone in the scene is now standing at attention and singing. You can feel their desire for Home, to be judged well enough to go home.
But no one’s going home tonight, not even Olivia de Havilland.
The Snake Pit was an edgy movie in 1948; it was the first Hollywood film to explore mental illness in a serious and sympathetic way.
The film takes place inside a psychiatric hospital, and here we meet de Havilland, a newly-married woman who has no recollection of how she arrived at the hospital or why she’s there.
When we first see de Havilland, she’s confused and hears voices. The strongest voice is her own, and it’s a much darker personality than we see on the surface. Outer Olivia is polite, sympathetic and cooperative. Inner Olivia is cynical, suspicious and sarcastic. We realize that if Inner Olivia worms her way out, there’s going to be trouble.
de Havilland is superb in this film. She wears little or no makeup, stringy hair and ill-fitting hospital attire. She also keeps us on edge, the way she switches between Placid Patient and Alarming Patient and back again. We believe de Havilland is this character. We don’t see her Acting.
For example, look at the scene in the doctor’s office, as she remembers her life before hospitalization. “Oh yes,” she says, as though reviewing a meeting agenda. “I was buying groceries, and I was writing a novel. And I couldn’t sleep.” She’s suddenly in tears and says, unprompted, “I can’t love you. I can’t love anybody.”
We note de Havilland’s progress by the wards in which she’s placed, Ward 1 being the last stop before going home. The higher the number, the worse a person’s condition.
So when de Havilland’s character is placed in Ward 33, we know things are Bad. This ward is known as the Snake Pit.
The Snake Pit is based on the critically-acclaimed bestselling novel by Mary Jane Ward, a semi-autobiographical account of her struggle with mental illness and her eight-month stay at Rockland State Hospital in New York state.
The term “Snake Pit” has a double meaning. It refers to (A) an overcrowded mental hospital, and (B) the ancient Greek belief that placing a person in a snake pit would either drive them insane or cure them of their insanity.
Although the film has been criticized for perpetuating female submissiveness, it and the novel helped introduce reforms in many American facilities.
de Havilland spent three months researching her role by visiting hospitals, observing treatments and going to patient social functions. The film’s director, Anatole Litvak, had ordered all cast and crew to research the subject thoroughly, and you can tell by de Havilland’s performance that she did her homework.
The Snake Pit is engrossing, and we highly recommend it. However, don’t let the 1948 date stamp fool you. It’s not an entirely easy film to watch.
- Click HERE for an essay on The Snake Pit and its influence on mental health treatment.
- TCM’s insightful essay on the film is HERE.
The Snake Pit: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn. Directed by Anatole Litvak. Written by Frank Partos and Millen Brand. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1948, B&W, 108 mins.
This post is part of the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click HERE to see the fab entries.