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The Twentieth Century Fox Studio Classics DVD release of The Snake Pit from 1948 features a commentary by Aubrey Solomon, who has written two books about the films and history of that film studio. The movie was based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Mary Jane Ward, telling the story of Virginia Cunningham played by Olivia de Havilland, who was a major Hollywood star at the time. We see her at the start of the movie in an insane asylum, bewildered by her surroundings, and utterly confused about why she is there. Much of the plot solves the mystery of how she came to be mentally ill, through many flashbacks.
In the 1940s, it was surprising to the public that de Havilland would take on such an unglamorous role as a mental patient, and the film won many awards. This was one of the first films to depict modern treatments such as electroshock therapy and cold baths, and it also shocked people because of the terrible conditions it showed in the mental hospital.
Solomon's commentary focuses on the actors in the film, their work in other movies, the documented facts about the making of the film, and the public reception. He occasionally extols the acting and screenwriting, and tends to take a positive view of everything connected with Twentieth Century Fox. He makes hardly any critical comments. De Haviland's acting is versatile, and it is easy to understand why she won such high praise in the reviews; yet to contemporary viewers her performance will seem a little stilted and exaggerated. The portrayal of Virginia's mental breakdown and mental instability seems rather heavy handed, and does not seem to fit any clear diagnosis -- she hears voices, behaves erratically, loses her memory, and has irrational fears. The other inmates of the asylum are even more caricatured and if duplicated in a modern movie it would probably be condemned as offensive because the portrayals are both unrealistic and heighten the craziness of the patients. They give the impression that what is so awful about being in a mental hospital is being surrounded by other people with serious mental illness. The concern about overcrowding of the asylums appears secondary.
It is disappointing that Solomon is so uncritical of the film. He also is rather uninformed about some details. He gives minutiae of some of the careers of actors playing minor characters, but says little about the state of psychiatry at the time. He also says that electroshock treatment is now considered barbaric, which is false -- it is a treatment that is still used for people with depression who are extremely suicidal and need alleviation of their symptoms quickly. Solomon's commentary is aimed more at film buffs rather than those interested in the portrayal of mental illness.
Nevertheless, The Snake Pit is notable for its portrayal of psychiatric treatment. Some of the nurses are very unsympathetic, and the treatments are both unpleasant and unsuccessful. They use restraints like straight jackets all too easily. Most of the doctors seem distant and relatively unconcerned about the welfare of the patients. They also adopt Freudian theory as it were proven truth, and in one remarkably naïve scene, with a picture of Sigmund Freud looking over, her doctor explains to Virginia how her problems started when she was a baby as a result of a frustrated infantile desires and feelings of guilt. It is curious to see the mix of Freud with physical treatments such as electroshock and cold baths, and there's no explanation of how these were thought to fit together.
Even with its limitations, Solomon's commentary does provide interesting context about the making of the film, especially Anatole Litvak's direction. The film itself is still remarkable and important as a depiction of psychiatry. Anyone interested in mental illness in the movies needs to see The Snake Pit.
© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.