Olivia de Havilland Visits the Snake Pit

Olivia de Havilland... Image: whenwewerecool.tumblr.com
Olivia de Havilland is not impressed. Image: whenwewerecool.tumblr.com

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.

Leo Genn probes Olivia's Memory. Image: Passion for Movies
Leo Genn probes Olivia’s Memory. Image: Passion for Movies

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.

Olivia with highly disturbed Betsy Blair. Image: nybooks.com
Olivia with highly disturbed Betsy Blair. Image: nybooks.com

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.




  1. Reblogged this on The Last Drive In and commented:
    The Snake Pit is an intense film to digest and nuanced star Olivia de Havilland is magnificent as the emotionally troubled Virginia Stuart Cunningham in Atatole Litvak’s excursion into the contradictory institution of mental health! In honor of Olivia de Havilland’s grand 100th birthday on July 1st, a day which we both share, I thought it fitting to feature Ruth’s from Silver Screenings marvelous post about the 1948 film. de Havilland is extraordinary in the film, the images are unsettling as they are memorable and Ruth is always a shining example of a writer who manages to drive home the most salient points with her wonderful insight. Thanks for sharing this great piece on The Snake Pit 1948, as both Ruth and myself wish Miss Olivia a most grand 100th birthday! Cheers Joey

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This songs like a really intriguing film but I don’t know if I could watch it. I may try one day.

    Thanks so much for contributing to this Blogathon and helping us celebrate Olivia’s birthday!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great piece, Ruth, I’ve wanted to see this for a long time – hope to get the chance before too long. Interesting how films started exploring mental health issues more after the Second World War, for instance with Spellbound.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point! Many “social issues” movies were made in the late 1940s, no? Likely influenced by WWII and its aftermath. Hope you get the chance to see this. I think it’s an important film.


  4. Great review!. I bought a first edition of this book when I was a teenager (I still have it) and read it before watching the film. I love Olivia in this role. She’s pretty amazing.


    • I’m going to track down a copy of the book. All the online reviews say it’s a compelling read.

      I find Olivia’s performance here to be timeless. It doesn’t feel like “old movie acting” if that makes sense?


  5. While I have conflicted feelings about the movie as a whole, I agree with everyone that Olivia is quite excellent as Virginia. Thanks for including the links to the other interesting articles, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Olivia is marvelous in this film – I was so moved by her performance! The end let me a little down (why everything has to do with sexual tension and childhood trauma?), but it certainly was a groundbreaking film for 1948.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Have mixed emotions about THE SNAKE PIT – it does get into the medieval, harsh and brutal treatment of patients suffering from mental illness and for that should be commended – but needs a script at least half as good as Olivia de Havilland’s stellar performance. Almost 70 years later, the topic of mental illness, portrayed honestly, remains a third rail in filmmaking.

    As a side story, my girlfriend and I were on a vacation in NYC and turned on the hotel television, only to find TCM was running a double bill of THE SNAKE PIT and Samuel Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR!

    Liked by 1 person

    • No way! A double feature of The Snake Pit and Shock Corridor would be something indeed.

      Yes, I agree that Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness is still a “third rail”, as you put it. And this is surprising given that society is much more open about mental illness today than in the late 1940s.

      Thanks for dropping by! 🙂


    • No way! A double feature of The Snake Pit and Shock Corridor would be something indeed.

      Yes, I agree that Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness is still a “third rail”, as you put it. And this is surprising given that society appears to be much more open about mental illness today than in the late 1940s. Would you agree?

      Thanks for dropping by! 🙂


  8. A great selection for this tribute and a very fitting review of this classic film. One wonders at all the horrible experiences that the “patients” suffered through over the century and a half of mental institutions. Ms. de Havilland gives us a very good idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have been a patient at one of these facilities back in the day – or to see a loved one in this kind of institution. As you say, Olivia de Havilland gives us a pretty good idea of what those people went through.


  9. This sounds like an important and enlightening film. I look forward to seeing Olivia de Havilland’s performance. I like the fact that the director encouraged all the actors and actresses to do research. It must have made a huge difference in the movie. Thanks so much, Ruth, for the heads up on this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You said it, Shari. This is an important film because it led to reforms in US hospitals and because it was a groundbreaking subject. It’s worth watching, but you have to be in the mood for it.


  10. Ruth, just seeing your post now…now that I’m screening “The Snake Pit” for my film club tonight! Can’t wait for the reaction from the group. It was tough competition for Best Actress in 1948: Olivia in “Snake Pit,” Stanwyck in “Sorry, Wrong Number,” Bergman in “Saint Joan,” Dunne in “I Remember Mama,” and the winner Jane Wyman for “Johnny Belinda.” Ironically, the mean nurse (Helen Craig), played Belinda on the stage. Olivia is terrific though and the movie is filled with great character performances.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Well the folks who came our to see “The Snake Pit” absolutely loved it. They loved de Havilland’s bravura performance. One person also noted that Mark Stevens played a difficult role very well. The scene where he’s eating the chocolates and just zoning out because Virginia doesn’t seem to be improving; you can see the disappointment in his eyes and body language. In a movie totally centered around de Havilland’s dominating presence, it’s easy to ignore the supporting cast, which is uniformly excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad to hear the screening was well received. Good point re: supporting cast, and especially Mark Stevens. I’m going to pay closer attention to his performance next time. The Snake Pit is an important film & I’m so glad you featured it. Well done!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. A great film, unfairly overlooked.

    Clearly a massive influence on “Shock Corridor” and “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.

    Its’ depiction of mental illness is years ahead of its’ time. Unfortunately, it is very hard to obtain on
    DVD which adds to its’ neglect. A DVD version should be immediately purchased.

    A very important film and possibly Oliva’s finest acting. 9/10.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed! Olivia de Havilland is superb here, and I definitely think this is one of her best performances.

      I was lucky enough to find this film on a 20th Century Fox DVD collection celebrating their 75th anniversary. But, like you said, it’s not a film you run into every day…which is a shame.


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