Essays · Movies

‘The Snake Pit’ 70 Years Later: Cinema’s Relationship To Mental Institutions

The Olivia de Havilland classic was an indictment of how patients were treated in mental institutions and it inspired changes in real hospital policies.
The Snake Pit
By  · Published on March 21st, 2018

In Anatole Litvak‘s 1948 film The Snake Pit, the meaning behind the title is delivered late in the film by Olivia de Havilland‘s Virginia Stuart Cunningham. Virginia is a mental patient at the Juniper Hill State Hospital who is struggling to remember how and why she came to be admitted to the hospital. During a therapy session, she explains to her doctor that she “remembered once reading in a book that long ago they used to put insane people into pits full of snakes.” The thought being that an ordeal that would drive a normal person insane could cure an insane person of their illness. Virginia imagines this happening to her, and the film visually illustrates the image of her and dozens of other patients being crowded into a deep hole like animals. This is a striking image, one that even 70 years later conjures up a strong reaction in a viewer. It’s no wonder that at the time of the film’s release it had an unprecedented effect on audiences and shaped the public’s perception of mental institutions.

From the very beginning of its journey to the silver screen, The Snake Pit established a sense of realism. It was adapted from Mary Jane Ward’s 1946 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Ward had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had spent time in a state hospital where she was treated with scalding hot baths and electroshock therapy. The doctor who treated Ward was one of the first doctors in America to treat patients with schizophrenia using psychoanalysis. After being released from the institution she wrote “The Snake Pit,” which drew on her experiences, and the book was released in 1946.

The treatments Ward endured and others like them were also brought to the attention of the public by journalists in the 1940s. In 1946, writer Albert Q. Maisel published a Life article entitled “Bedlam 1946: Most US Mental Hospitals are a Shame and a Disgrace.” Additionally, social activist Albert Deutsch wrote “The Shame of the States,” a novel that exposed the conditions of state hospitals in 1948. Public awareness was growing, but it was ultimately Ward’s successful novel and its subsequent Oscar-winning adaptation that reached the widest possible audience.

In adapting the novel, Litvak and de Havilland took care to maintain the realism of the source material. Litvak did extensive research, visited mental institutions, and attended lectures by psychiatrists. He also insisted his cast and crew accompany him. De Havilland took a great deal of initiative in her research. She observed procedures and sat in on therapy sessions when she was permitted to do so. She also spoke to patients and spent time with them at social functions, such as dances and dinners.

The research done by The Snake Pit‘s cast and crew was exhaustive, but it paid off. Buoyed by a performance from de Havilland that is often cited as her best, the details of the film, from the individual problems of certain patients to the issues of overcrowding and understaffing, all come across as tragically true to life. There’s a moment in the film where Virginia is almost mistakenly given an electroshock treatment when she isn’t supposed to because a nurse is careless and/or overworked to the point that she doesn’t read her patient’s chart. Virginia’s doctor makes a point about how there are alternatives to some of the most extreme treatments, but these alternatives require time and care that are not possible at state hospitals.

In addition to the realistic details of the plot, The Snake Pit also stands out for being firmly grounded in Virginia’s perspective. At the time, other films about mental institutions and the mentally ill were told from the perspective of doctors and others on the outside looking in, or they treated the mentally ill as jokes, or they focused on the personal lives of doctors (think Bedlam in 1946, Arsenic and Old Lace in 1944, Private Worlds in 1935).

The film begins with Virginia narrating her thought process as she all of a sudden becomes conscious of her surroundings while in the hospital. She hears voices in her head that question who the people around her are and what she is doing there. It takes Virginia some time to understand that she is a mental patient. At first she believes she’s in a type of prison — and she’s not exactly wrong. Virginia is subjected to numerous ordeals, from so-called “medical” treatments like electroshock therapy to the way she is belittled by uncaring nurses. With her narrating this as she desperately desires to be cured, it would be impossible for viewers to watch the film and not sympathize with her plight.

And sympathize they did. In addition to being a success with audiences, critics, and the Academy Awards, it was claimed by Fox that the film inspired a number of states (possibly up to 26) to pass legislation calling for reforms in patient treatments and procedures meant to treat the mentally ill. There were also publications such as Daily Variety that reported reforms made in hospitals because of the film. It’s difficult to assess exactly how many of these changes directly came from the lawmakers having seen The Snake Pit, but the film was still a considerable part of growing public awareness about what went on at state hospitals.

When the film was released in Britain, the censor board insisted on a warning appearing before the film to inform audiences that all the extras were actors and not real mental patients. The British censor board also insisted on informing audiences that the conditions seen in the film were not the same as the ones in British mental institutions. The film’s realism hit so close to home on both sides of the pond that it inspired reactions to warn the public about what they would see on screen and to amend laws to better care for real patients.

Screen Shot At Pm

In the time since the film’s release, feminist film critics had pointed out the problems with the apparent “cure” coming in the form of Virginia accepting her role as a wife to a husband she married when she was suffering from her mental illness. It’s also worth noting that Virginia’s treatment wouldn’t fly in a movie set in the present — I lost track of how many times a shot was framed so as to include a portrait of Freud being visible in the doctor’s office, often situation above Virginia as though he is a kind of God watching over her therapy.

But outdated concepts aside, The Snake Pit‘s sympathetic portrayal of the mentally ill still holds up today. In the most moving scene of the film, the patients are all at a dance (likely one that is similar to the real dances de Havilland attended), and one of the patients (played by Jan Clayton) sings the folk song “Goin’ Home.” As she sings, the other patients watch, transfixed by the hopeful message of the lyrics. It even prompts Virginia to wonder, in her voiceover narration, if she too may one day be able to go home.

While the appalling ways that patients were treated may have shocked audiences into awareness about state hospitals, this scene is also vitally important to present the real and simple desires at the hearts of its subjects: to get better and go home. Both of these techniques humanize the characters in the film which, in another story, could have been reduced to jokes or judged as being crazy.

The film is important for not only sympathizing with Virginia but also the other patients in the hospital. Virginia doesn’t take an attitude that she is sane and is surrounded by insane people the way other films with similar narratives do. Just as the “Goin’ Home” scene shows numerous other patients being affected by the song, the film as a whole shows other patients that need and deserve the care Virginia receives. At one point, Virginia tries to help another female patient when the nurses stop caring about her. As Virginia explains, “sometimes a sick animal knows better how another sick animal should be treated.” While she is focussed on her recovery, she doesn’t lose sight of the fact that there are other patients around her who deserve to be helped.

Fittingly, the film also inspired hope in viewers who struggled with mental illness. In 1952, the film was screened at a Boston state hospital, and it was reported that the film had a beneficial effect on the patients. Seeing Virginia’s recovery and the film’s portrayal of their struggles in a serious and honest way gave them hope that they would someday be able to recover and go home.

Cinema has long been interested in stories that take place in mental institutions. From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920 to Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, out March 23, 2018, these types of movies always seem to have a place in the filmmaking industry. To handle the subject matter properly, directors should strive to ensure their films don’t lose sight of the potential impact they can have on the real world and the fact that there are real human stories behind the fictional narratives. As The Snake Pit proved, a little care, hope, and sympathy can go a long way.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.