The Snake Pit (1948)

107-108 mins | Drama | 13 November 1948

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HISTORY

Snippets from Antonín Dvorák's From the New World symphony, Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C Minor and Kenneth Casey and Maceo Pinkard's "Sweet Georgia Brown" are heard in the film. Contemporary sources, including items from the Twentieth Century-Fox publicity department, add the following information about the production: The novel The Snake Pit was inspired, in part, by author Mary Jane Ward's own eight-and-a-half month stay in New York's Rockland State mental hospital, following a nervous breakdown. In May 1945, Bennett Cerf, head of Random House, which published Ward's book, gave director Anatole Litvak a copy of the novel's galleys to read. Impressed, Litvak, who was a colonel in the U.S. Army at the time, sent the galleys to actress Olivia de Havilland (whose name is written "deHavilland" in the screen credits), and she immediately agreed to play the lead character "Virginia." Litvak paid Ward $75,000 for the film rights to the novel, in installments, and began taking it to various studio heads, all of whom deemed the subject matter too risky. In the summer of 1946, Litvak showed the property to Twentieth Century-Fox production chief Darryl F. Zanuck, an old friend, who then bought the rights from Litvak for $175,000 and hired him to direct and co-produce with Robert Bassler.

       For the screenplay, screenwriters Frank Partos and Millen Brand changed significant aspects of the novel's main character. In Ward's novel, for example, Virginia suffers from an undefined neurosis and receives unspecified treatment, while in the screenplay, she is described as a schizophrenic with an Oedipal complex who undergoes a range of treatments. To assure the picture's authenticity, Partos and Brand, as well ... More Less

Snippets from Antonín Dvorák's From the New World symphony, Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C Minor and Kenneth Casey and Maceo Pinkard's "Sweet Georgia Brown" are heard in the film. Contemporary sources, including items from the Twentieth Century-Fox publicity department, add the following information about the production: The novel The Snake Pit was inspired, in part, by author Mary Jane Ward's own eight-and-a-half month stay in New York's Rockland State mental hospital, following a nervous breakdown. In May 1945, Bennett Cerf, head of Random House, which published Ward's book, gave director Anatole Litvak a copy of the novel's galleys to read. Impressed, Litvak, who was a colonel in the U.S. Army at the time, sent the galleys to actress Olivia de Havilland (whose name is written "deHavilland" in the screen credits), and she immediately agreed to play the lead character "Virginia." Litvak paid Ward $75,000 for the film rights to the novel, in installments, and began taking it to various studio heads, all of whom deemed the subject matter too risky. In the summer of 1946, Litvak showed the property to Twentieth Century-Fox production chief Darryl F. Zanuck, an old friend, who then bought the rights from Litvak for $175,000 and hired him to direct and co-produce with Robert Bassler.

       For the screenplay, screenwriters Frank Partos and Millen Brand changed significant aspects of the novel's main character. In Ward's novel, for example, Virginia suffers from an undefined neurosis and receives unspecified treatment, while in the screenplay, she is described as a schizophrenic with an Oedipal complex who undergoes a range of treatments. To assure the picture's authenticity, Partos and Brand, as well as Litvak and Bassler, visited mental institutions in the East. Three prominent New York psychiatrists, whose identities, along with those of several other doctors, were kept secret during production, were consulted. These doctors were later identified in a NYT article as Dr. Carl A. Binger, an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Cornell University; Dr. M. Ralph Kaufman, chief psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital; and Dr. Sidney Loseef Tamarin, supervising psychiatrist at a New York mental institution. Correspondence found in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library indicates that Dr. Thomas Rennie also advised on the scriptwriting, but his contribution to the completed film has not been confirmed. A Jul 1947 HR news item added that Tamarin and Dr. Alma Margaret Comer came to Hollywood to assist with "mental hospital sequences" during filming. According to the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts--Special Collections Library, the studio approached Dr. Gerard Chrzanowski, the psychiatrist who took care of Ward and was the basis of the character "Dr. Kik," about advising on the film, but he declined to participate.

       Although some sources state that de Havilland was Zanuck's first choice to play Virginia, HR news items from late 1946 announced both Gene Tierney and Joan Fontaine, de Havilland's sister, as possible stars. Modern sources state that Ingrid Bergman was Litvak's first choice, but that she turned down the role. Studio legal files indicate that Joseph Cotten and Richard Conte were considered for the part of "Dr. Kik." Litvak reportedly instructed the film's principal actors and crew to visit mental institutions prior to production. For her part, de Havilland conducted research at Camarillo State Hospital in California. In a modern interview, de Havilland described her experience at the hospital: "I met a young woman who was very much like Virginia...a schizophrenic with guilt problems. She had developed...a warm rapport with her doctor, but what struck me most of all was the fact that she was rather likable and appealing...it was that that gave me the key to the performance."

       Twentieth Century-Fox borrowed cinematographer Leo Tover from Paramount for the production. The "adult" sequences were completed first, then after a month-long hiatus, the childhood sequences were shot. Litvak ordered that no hairdressers be present on the film set and that the actresses not wear brassieres or girdles. According to a NYT article, costumer Bonnie Cashin's design for de Havilland's and Celeste Holm's costumes was a composite of patient outfits observed during a tour of West Coast institutions. Studio legal records indicate that recordings of patients were made at the Camarillo hospital for use either on the soundtrack or as a "technical quide," but were later destroyed due to fears of lawsuits. Although a HR news item announced Frieda Stoll as a cast member, her appearance in the final film is doubtful. According to a Dec 1948 HR article, "several scenes which indicated the gradual recovery of Virginia were edited out in the cutting room."

       Just after the picture's New York premiere, Litvak, in a NYT interview, applauded writer Arthur Laurents' uncredited contribution to the screenplay. Although Litvak stated that screenwriting novice Laurents "put in six weeks polishing the screen play" but did not receive credit because he forgot to initial his draft, Sheridan Gibney, President of the Screen Writers Guild in Hollywood, insisted that Laurents' claim of significant authorship was invalid. As part of his arbitration with the Screen Writers Guild, Laurents requested an "additional dialogue" screen credit, but was denied. Despite the Guild's ruling, the SAB listed Laurents as a "contributor to screenplay construction."

       Often described as the first film to deal seriously with mental illness and mental institutions, The Snake Pit received much praise upon its release. The HR reviewer wrote: "A picture so compelling, dramatically exciting and frankly courageous as to defy comparison. Nothing like it has ever been done before in films." Bosley Crowther of the NYT noted at the end of his review: " The Snake Pit , while frankly quite disturbing and not recommended for the weak, is a mature emotional drama on a rare and pregnant theme." For the New York run, theater ads warned parents not to bring children because of the picture's grim subject matter, and in a mid-Nov 1948 article, Crowther strongly advised that the picture be shown in "theatres of limited capacities catering to an adult clientele." Despite the admonitions, the two-million dollar film broke box-office records in many cities and became Twentieth Century-Fox's highest grossing picture of the year.

       The film was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Actress and Best Music (Scoring Dramatic or Comedy Picture). It won an Oscar for Best Sound Recording (Thomas T. Moulton, Sound Director). In addition to her Oscar nomination, de Havilland received many accolades for her performance, including the New York Critics Award for Best Acting of 1948, the Foreign Language Press Film Critics' award for best actress of the year, and a Venice Film Festival Award. The Foreign Language Press Film Critics association also voted The Snake Pit as the Best Picture of 1948. For his work, Litvak received a quarterly Screen Directors Guild award for directorial achievement, and Partos, Brand and Ward were lauded with awards from the Screen Writers Guild. The Committee of American Psychologists praised the picture for "awakening the public to the deplorable conditions existing in public institutions for the mentally ill" and gave it an award for "outstanding contribution by the entertainment industry to the field of mental health." In addition, the California Citizens Committee for Mental Hygiene gave The Snake Pit a scroll, honoring it for awakening "millions to a greater knowledge and appreciation of the causes of mental illness." The 20 Dec 1948 issue of Time magazine featured de Havilland on its cover, as well as an extensive article about the film's production.

       Because of censorship edicts that prohibited the making or showing of films dealing with insanity, British distributors initially were unable to release the The Snake Pit in England. According to an Apr 1950 MPH article, nursing organizations applied particular pressure on the British Board of Film Censors, complaining that "young girls seeing the film might be deterred from entering the nursing profession." After five months of wrangling, Twentieth Century-Fox agreed to allow British officials to delete certain scenes from the picture, and the film opened in London in mid-May 1949. Approximately 1,000 feet of film, mostly from the more extreme hospital scenes, was cut, according to news items. The picture broke box-office records in London, and won much critical praise there. According to a Sep 1952 DV news item, the film was screened for patients at a Boston state hospital and was well-received by the "inmates...who felt that because the heroine was cured and left the institution that they, too, might be cured." De Havilland, Mark Stevens and Leo Genn reprised their roles on a 10 Apr 1950 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
American Cinematographer
Feb 49
p. 48, 62-64.
Box Office
13 Nov 1948.
---
Daily Variety
3 Nov 48
p. 3.
Daily Variety
20 Dec 1948.
---
Daily Variety
5 Sep 1952.
---
Film Daily
3 Nov 48
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
19 Aug 46
p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Aug 46
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
19 Dec 46
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
12 Jun 47
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
20 Jun 47
p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter
17 Jul 47
p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter
18 Jul 47
p. 15.
Hollywood Reporter
10 Sep 47
p. 15.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Oct 47
, 17467
Hollywood Reporter
29 Oct 47
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Oct 48
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Oct 48
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
4 Nov 48
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
9 Nov 48
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
9 Dec 48
pp. 6-7.
Hollywood Reporter
16 Dec 48
p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter
21 Dec 48
p. 14.
Hollywood Reporter
29 Dec 48
pp. 1-2.
Hollywood Reporter
4 Jan 49
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Feb 49
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
2 Mar 49
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
7 Mar 49
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Apr 49
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
13 Apr 49
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
19 Apr 49
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
26 Apr 49
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
17 May 49
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
20 May 49
p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter
25 May 49
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Jun 49
p. 1, 4
Motion Picture Herald
23 Apr 50
p. 24.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
31 Jan 48
p. 4039.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
13 Nov 48
p. 4383.
New York Times
7 Sep 1947.
---
New York Times
2 Nov 1947.
---
New York Times
5 Nov 48
p. 29.
New York Times
7 Nov 1948.
---
New York Times
14 Nov 1948.
---
New York Times
18 Sep 1949.
---
Time
20 Dec 48
pp. 44-46, 49-50, 52
Variety
3 Nov 48
p. 11.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Dorothy Vaughn
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
Dial dir
WRITERS
Contr to scr const
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
COSTUMES
Ward dir
Cost des
MUSIC
Orch arr
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec photog eff
MAKEUP
Makeup
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod mgr
Tech adv
Psychiatric tech adv
Psychiatric tech adv
Psychiatric tech adv
Psychiatric tech adv
Psychiatric tech adv
Psychiatric tech adv
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward (New York, 1946).
SONGS
"Goin' Home," words by William Arms Fisher, music adapted from Symphony No. 5 in E minor ( From the New World ) by Antonín Dvorák.
DETAILS
Release Date:
13 November 1948
Premiere Information:
World premiere in New York: 4 November 1948
Production Date:
mid July--late September 1947
addl scenes 27 October--30 October 1947
Copyright Claimant:
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Copyright Date:
4 November 1948
Copyright Number:
LP2124
Physical Properties:
Sound
Western Electric Recording
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
107-108
Length(in feet):
9,738
Length(in reels):
12
Country:
United States
PCA No:
12490
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Virginia Stuart Cunningham, a twenty-four-year-old patient at Juniper Hill State Hospital, suffers from extreme anxiety, confusion and delusion. Although she knows that she is married, Virginia insists she has no husband and fails to recognize her husband Robert when he visits. Concerned about Virginia's condition, Mark Kik, her progressive, kindly doctor, questions Robert about her past. Robert admits that Virginia spoke little about her family but recalls the first time they met: In Chicago, Robert, a publishing house clerk, encounters aspiring author Virginia when she comes to collect her rejected manuscript. Robert and Virginia take an immediate liking to each other and begin dating. During one date in May, however, Virginia becomes panicked and bolts from Robert without explanation. Robert accepts a job in New York, and six months later, he runs into Virginia at a concert. Virginia never explains why she disappeared, but Robert gladly reunites with her and begins to talk about marriage. At first Virginia ignores Robert's proposals, but then, after seeing an announcement for a May 12th racing event, she abruptly proposes to him. When Robert suggests they wait until the end of the month, Virginia accuses him of not truly loving her. A few days later, they are married, but their newlywed bliss soon ends when a sleep-deprived Virginia becomes paranoid and withdraws from Robert, crying out that she can never love anyone. Back in Kik's office, Robert concludes his story and gives the doctor permission to use electric shock treatment on Virginia. After the fourth treatment, Virginia starts to come out of her daze and is startled to learn that she has been at Juniper ... +


Virginia Stuart Cunningham, a twenty-four-year-old patient at Juniper Hill State Hospital, suffers from extreme anxiety, confusion and delusion. Although she knows that she is married, Virginia insists she has no husband and fails to recognize her husband Robert when he visits. Concerned about Virginia's condition, Mark Kik, her progressive, kindly doctor, questions Robert about her past. Robert admits that Virginia spoke little about her family but recalls the first time they met: In Chicago, Robert, a publishing house clerk, encounters aspiring author Virginia when she comes to collect her rejected manuscript. Robert and Virginia take an immediate liking to each other and begin dating. During one date in May, however, Virginia becomes panicked and bolts from Robert without explanation. Robert accepts a job in New York, and six months later, he runs into Virginia at a concert. Virginia never explains why she disappeared, but Robert gladly reunites with her and begins to talk about marriage. At first Virginia ignores Robert's proposals, but then, after seeing an announcement for a May 12th racing event, she abruptly proposes to him. When Robert suggests they wait until the end of the month, Virginia accuses him of not truly loving her. A few days later, they are married, but their newlywed bliss soon ends when a sleep-deprived Virginia becomes paranoid and withdraws from Robert, crying out that she can never love anyone. Back in Kik's office, Robert concludes his story and gives the doctor permission to use electric shock treatment on Virginia. After the fourth treatment, Virginia starts to come out of her daze and is startled to learn that she has been at Juniper Hill for five months. Satisfied that he has made contact with her, Kik stops her shock treatments and begins psychoanalyzing her. During their first session, Kik asks Virginia about the significance of the date May 12th, but she has no apparent memory of it. Later, after a successful visit with Virginia, Robert concludes that she is well enough to live with him on his mother's farm. Worried that Virginia may be released from the over-crowded hospital before she is ready, Kik decides to use narcosynthesis to speed up her recovery. Under the drug's influence, Virginia recalls what happened on the evening of May 12th, when she ran away from Robert in Chicago: Aware that she has promised to attend a banquet with her hometown boyfriend Gordon, Virginia abandons Robert in a bar and dashes to her house outside the city. On the way to the banquet, Gordon, an older, controlling type who is unaware of Robert's existence, proposes to Virginia. Conflicted, Virginia complains she is ill and asks Gordon to take her home. As a storm rages, Gordon turns back, but his car soon collides with an oncoming truck. Gordon is killed, and Virginia is consumed with guilt. Back at Juniper Hill, Kik reassures the still drugged Virginia that she was not responsible for Gordon's death. Later, against Kik's advice, his superiors, Dr. Curtis and Dr. Jonathan Gifford, schedule a staff meeting to discuss Virginia's release. During the review, Virginia, distracted by the violent thunderstorm blowing outside, acts confused and paranoid and is unable to answer the doctors' simple questions. When the brutish Dr. Curtis begins wagging his finger in her face, demanding that she tell him her home address, Virginia suffers a complete breakdown. Virginia is sent down to Ward 12, where she receives intense hydrotherapy and learns that, during the interview, she bit Dr. Curtis' finger. Virginia's mental state improves slightly after a chastened Robert admits to her that he was the one who pushed for the review, not Kik. Later, Virginia pretends to be ill in order to speak with Kik, and her calm, rational demeanor convinces him that she is ready for Ward 1. While there, Virginia becomes attached to a rag doll made by another inmate. Using the doll as a bridge to Virginia's past, Kik prompts her to recall her early childhood: As a girl of six, Virginia angers her mother after she trades her big doll for her neighbor's small one and refuses to return it. Jealous of her beloved father's attentions to her pregnant mother, Virginia becomes incensed when he takes her mother's side and, in a fit of pique, breaks a soldier doll her father had won for her at a carnival. Soon after, her father falls gravely ill and dies. In the present, Virginia confides to Kik that she felt responsible for her father's demise, which caused her mother to withdraw even further from her. Later, Virginia suffers a major setback when she insults head nurse Miss Davis, who is jealous of Kik's interest in Virginia, and, fearing punishment, locks herself in a bathroom. When the vindictive Miss Davis tricks Virginia into coming out, Virginia becomes hysterical and is put in a straightjacket. Virginia is then sent down to Ward 33, the section for the most severely disturbed patients, but survives and even makes friends with Hester, a violent woman who refuses to speak. Despite conditions, Virginia improves and tells Kik that being in Ward 33, a place she likens to a snake pit, has made her realize that she is not as sick as the others. Kik then explains to her how she transferred feelings of guilt from her father to Gordon, who reminded her of her father in some ways, and then to Robert, who resembled her father in other ways. After Virginia agrees that "husbands and fathers can't be the same thing," Kik informs her at a hospital dance that he is recommending her for release. During her review, Virginia easily impresses the staff and is approved for discharge. Before leaving, Virginia says an encouraging farewell to Hester, who utters a few words in response. Virginia then confesses to Kik that she knows she has recovered because she is no longer in love with him. After Kik reassures her that she never was in love with him, Virginia boards a waiting bus with the devoted Robert. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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