The Snake Pit

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The Snake Pit
Snakepit1948 62862n.jpg
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Screenplay by Frank Partos
Millen Brand
Arthur Laurents (uncredited)
Based onThe Snake Pit
by Mary Jane Ward
Produced by Robert Bassler
Anatole Litvak
Darryl F. Zanuck
Starring Olivia de Havilland
Mark Stevens
Leo Genn
Celeste Holm
Cinematography Leo Tover
Edited by Dorothy Spencer
Music by Alfred Newman
Color process Black and white
20th Century Fox
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date
  • November 13, 1948 (1948-11-13)
Running time
108 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3.8 million [1]
Box office$4.1 million (US/Canada rentals) [2] [3]

The Snake Pit is a 1948 American psychological drama film directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Beulah Bondi, and Lee Patrick. [4] [5] Based on Mary Jane Ward's 1946 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the film recounts the tale of a woman who finds herself in an insane asylum and cannot remember how she got there.


The novel was adapted for the screen by Frank Partos and Millen Brand, in screen credits order, and Arthur Laurents (uncredited).


Virginia Cunningham is an apparently schizophrenic patient at a mental hospital called the Juniper Hill State Hospital. She hears voices and seems so out of touch with reality that she doesn’t recognize her husband Robert.

Dr. Kik works with her, and flashbacks show how Virginia and Robert met a few years earlier in Chicago. He worked for a publisher who rejected her writing, and they bumped into each other again in the cafeteria. Occasionally she continued to drop by the cafeteria so they get to know each other.

Despite their blossoming romance, Virginia abruptly leaves town without explanation. Robert moves to New York and bumps into her again at the Philharmonic. After she provides a flimsy excuse for her absence and departure, they pick up where they left off, though she remains evasive and avoids his desire for marriage. Eventually, Virginia brings up the possibility of marriage. They marry on May 7, but Virginia acts erratically again. She cannot sleep and loses touch with reality, as she feels it is November and snaps when Robert corrects her. The rest of the film follows her therapy. Dr. Kik puts her through electro-shock treatment and "narcosynthesis". [6] Dr. Kik wants to get to the "causes of her unconscious rejection." The film includes many flashbacks, including her earlier failed engagement to Gordon as well as childhood issues. The film shows her progress and what happens to her along the way.

The mental hospital is organized on a spectrum of "levels". The better a patient gets, the lower the level she is able to achieve. Virginia moves to the lowest level (One), where she encounters Nurse Davis, the only truly abusive nurse in the hospital. Davis is jealous of Dr. Kik's interest in Virginia, which she sees as excessive. Nurse Davis goads Virginia into an outburst which results in Virginia being straitjacketed and expelled from Level One into the "snake pit," where patients considered beyond help are simply placed together in a large padded cell and abandoned. Dr. Kik, learning of this, has Virginia returned to Level One, but away from Nurse Davis's care.

Despite this setback, Dr. Kik's care continues to improve Virginia's mental state. Over time, Virginia gains insight and self-understanding, and is able to leave the hospital.

The film depicts the bureaucratic regimentation of the institution, the staff (some unkind and aloof, some kind and empathetic), and relationships between patients, from which Virginia learns as much as she does in therapy.


Olivia de Havilland Virginia Stuart Cunningham
Mark Stevens Robert Cunningham
Leo Genn Dr. Mark H. Van Kensdelaerik/"Dr. Kik" [7]
Celeste Holm Grace
Glenn Langan Dr. Terry
Helen Craig Nurse Davis
Leif Erickson Gordon
Beulah Bondi Mrs. Greer
Lee Patrick Asylum Inmate
Howard Freeman Dr. Curtis
Natalie Schafer Mrs. Stuart
Ruth Donnelly Ruth
Katherine Locke Margaret
Celia Lovsky Gertrude
Frank Conroy Dr. Jonathan Gifford
Minna Gombell Miss Hart
Betsy Blair Hester
Lora Lee Michel Virginia at age 6


Gene Tierney was the first choice to play Virginia Stuart Cunningham, but was replaced by Olivia de Havilland when Tierney became pregnant.

When the book Snake Pit was still in galleys, the president of Random House, Bennett Cerf, showed it to his friend Anatole Litvak, who bought the rights. Litvak was born in Kiev to Lithuanian Jewish parents and learned filmmaking in Leningrad. He began his career as a director with films in Berlin, Paris, and London. Moving to the United States, Litvak became known as the most prominent director of films with antifascist sentiment Most notably, he directed Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, alerting American audiences to the rise of Hitler. When the United States entered the war, Litvak enlisted in the U.S. Army and codirected with Frank Capra the Why We Fight films, which Capra produced. In his contact with men who survived combat, Litvak became interested in the psychiatric treatment of veterans and the plight of the mentally ill. After buying the rights to The Snake Pit, Litvak sold them to Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox, who had produced films with social conscience, most notably The Grapes of Wrath and Gentleman’s Agreement. With The Snake Pit, Zanuck added mental patients to Jews and the poor as groups left out of the American dream. [8]

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. In fact, when, after the film's release, columnist Florabel Muir questioned in print whether any mental institution actually "allowed contact dances among violent inmates," she was surprised by a telephone call from de Havilland, who assured her she had attended several such dances herself. [9] Much of the film was filmed in the Camarillo State Mental Hospital in California.

Litvak, an early adopter, and master of the whip pan scene transition device, used the whip pan no fewer than eight times in this film.


Critical reception

The critics were generally positive, with Louella Parsons declaring: "It is the most courageous subject ever attempted on the screen". Walter Winchell wrote: "Its seething quality gets inside of you." On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 100% based on 6 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 8.1/10. [10]

Author and film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film three and a half out of a possible four stars, calling it "gripping" and "one of the first films to deal intelligently with mental breakdown and the painstakingly slow recovery process". [11]

Among liberals and leftists the film was received as politically progressive. Thus, the Communist Party’s Daily People’s World hailed it as “A Film Achievement” and explained that it “does not foster an argument that the solution to our problems lies in new regiments of psychoanalysts” [12]

A contemporaneous account by Millen Brand said that leading psychiatrists found the film “sensational.” Writing about a special showing arranged for sixty psychiatrists in New York City, Brand told a fellow screenwriter that “the psychiatrists not only were enthusiastic without reserve, but they were swooning around at the lengths to which we had gone to show the real complexity and scope of analytic treatment” Mary Jane Ward and journalist Albert Deutsch also expressed support for the screenplay and the film. [13]

The film has come under fire from some women's rights authors for a seeming misportrayal of Virginia's difficulties and the implication that accepting a subservient role as a wife and mother is part of her "cure". [14] Other film analysts view it as successful in conveying Ward's view of the uncertainties of post-World War II life and women's roles. [15]


Due to public concerns that the extras in the film were in fact real mental patients being exploited, the British censor added a foreword explaining that everyone who appeared on screen was a paid actor and that conditions in British hospitals were unlike those portrayed in the film [16] and cut 1,000 feet of the film deleting all sequences involving patients in straitjackets and lighter scenes evoking laughter. [17]


It won the Academy Award for Best Sound Recording (Thomas T. Moulton), and was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Olivia de Havilland), Best Director, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay. [18]

The film also won the International Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1949, where it was cited for "a daring inquiry in a clinical case dramatically performed." [16]


The film led to changes in the conditions of mental institutions in the United States. In 1949, Herb Stein of Daily Variety wrote "Wisconsin is the seventh state to institute reforms in its mental hospitals as a result of The Snake Pit." [19]

Publicity releases from 20th Century Fox claimed that twenty-six of the then forty-eight states had enacted reform legislation because of the movie. This is a very difficult claim to verify because few of the bills introduced, regulations changed or funding increases implemented specifically mentioned The Snake Pit as a motivating factor. [19]

While it is wise to be cautious about claims that a film changed social policy, recent scholarship suggests that such a claim may be valid. One reformer connected to The Snake Pit who does not appear in histories of psychiatry was Charles Schlaifler, a key figure in getting federal support for mental health after WWII. In 1942 Schlaifler became a vice president for advertising at Twentieth Century Fox and was put in charge of public relations for The Snake Pit. In that role his consciousness about the mentally ill was raised and soon Schlaifler began testifying before Congress on the need for more funds for the NIMH. Then, in 1951 he became a spokesman for the National Mental Health Committee, founded by Mary Lasker. In the transcripts of Congressional hearings in the 1950s, one sees how effective Schlaifler was with Congressmen and the business executives who he brought to testify that research on mental health problems would be good for business. While Schlaifler had no interest in creating a social movement, he played a key role in making mental illness a national concern, not just the business of individual states. More concretely, he helped convince members of Congress to dramatically increase funds to combat mental illness and was treated as an authority because of his work on The Snake Pit Thus, that film influenced the public’s attitudes directly and had an effect upon elites who controlled budgets related to the mentally ill. [20]

Other adaptations

The Snake Pit was dramatized as an hour-long radio play on the April 10, 1950 broadcast of Lux Radio Theatre , with de Havilland reprising her film role. [21]

See also

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  1. Variety January 1949
  2. "All-Time Top Grossers", Variety, January 8, 1964, p. 69
  3. "Top Grossers of 1949". Variety. January 4, 1950. p. 59.
  4. Variety film review; November 3, 1948, page 11.
  5. Harrison's Reports film review; November 6, 1948, page 179.
  6. Harris, B. (2021). The Snake Pit: Mixing Marx with Freud in Hollywood. History of Psychology. 24, 228-254
  7. Dr. Kik is never referred to by his family name.
  8. Harris, B. (2021). The Snake Pit: Mixing Marx with Freud in Hollywood. History of Psychology. 24, 228-254.
  9. Clooney, p. 141
  10. "The Snake Pit (1948) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 16, 2017.
  11. Leonard Maltin; Spencer Green; Rob Edelman (January 2010). Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide. Plume. p. 610. ISBN   978-0-452-29577-3.
  12. Harris, B. (2021). The Snake Pit: Mixing Marx with Freud in Hollywood. History of Psychology. 24, 228-254.
  13. Harris, B. (2021). The Snake Pit: Mixing Marx with Freud in Hollywood. History of Psychology. 24, 228-254.
  14. Fishbein, Leslie, "The Snake Pit (1948): The Sexist Nature of Sanity," American Quarterly 31: 5 (1979): 641-655.
  15. Harris, Ben. "Arthur Laurents' Snake Pit: Populist Entertainment in Post-WWII America." Paper presented at the annual meeting of The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, October 11, 2007, abstract found September 13, 2008.
  16. 1 2 Clooney, Nick (November 2002). The Movies That Changed Us: Reflections on the Screen . New York: Atria Books, a trademark of Simon & Schuster. p.  143. ISBN   0-7434-1043-2.
  17. "British Snip 'Snake' By 1,000 Ft.; For Adults". Variety . April 20, 1949. p. 2 via
  18. "The 21st Academy Awards (1949) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved August 18, 2011.
  19. 1 2 Clooney, p. 144
  20. Harris, B. (2021). The Snake Pit: Mixing Marx with Freud in Hollywood. History of Psychology. 24, 228-254.
  21. "WFMJ and WBBW to Begin New Week-Day Give-aways". Youngstown Vindicator (Ohio). April 10, 1950. p. 11. Retrieved November 26, 2020.