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The Snake Pit
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Produced by Robert Bassler
Anatole Litvak
Darryl F. Zanuck (executive producer)
Written by Millen Brand
Arthur Laurents (uncredited)
Frank Partos
Mary Jane Ward (novel)
Starring Olivia de Havilland
Mark Stevens
Leo Genn
Celeste Holm
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Leo Tover
Editing by Dorothy Spencer
Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Release date(s) November 4, 1948
Running time 108 min
Language English

The Snake Pit is a 1948 film which tells the story of a woman who finds herself in an insane asylum and cannot remember how she got there. It stars Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Beulah Bondi and Lee Patrick.

The film was adapted by Millen Brand, Arthur Laurents (uncredited) and Frank Partos from the novel by Mary Jane Ward. It was directed by Anatole Litvak.



Virginia, the wife of a wealthy financier, is hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. Unable to perceive what is going on, for a long time she is not even sure where she is. The film follows her progress through the various wards and her psychotherapy sessions with an understanding doctor. In flashbacks she returns to her childhood and explores incidents which might have caused her breakdown. Over time she gains insight and self-understanding, and is able to leave the hospital. The film also depicts the bureaucratic regimentation of the institution, the staff — some brutal and ignorant, some kindhearted — and relationships between patients, from which Virginia learns as much as she does in therapy.


The critics were generally kind, 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 the other hand, Herman F. Weinberg, a noted psychiatrist, was unimpressed. He wrote, "A film of superficial veracity that requires a bigger man than Litvak; a good film with bad things in it."[1]

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".[2] Other film analysts view it as successful in conveying Ward's view of the uncertainties of post-WWII life and women's roles.[3]


It won the Academy Award for Best Sound Recording, 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.

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."[1]


Actor/Actrees Character
Olivia de Havilland Virginia Stuart Cunningham
Mark Stevens Robert Cunningham
Leo Genn Doctor Mark Kik
Celeste Holm Grace
Glenn Langan Doctor 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
Frank Conroy Dr. Jonathan Gifford
Minna Gombell Miss Hart


DVD cover.

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

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 didn't have to convince Olivia de Havilland. She threw herself into the research with an intensity that surprised even those who knew her best. 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.[4]


The British censor required a foreword added to the movie that explained to the audience that everyone in the movie was an actor — and that conditions in British hospitals were unlike those portrayed in the film.[1]


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.[5]

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.[5]

Adaptations to Other Media

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

See also


  1. ^ a b c 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.  
  2. ^ Fishbein, Leslie, "The Snake Pit (1948): The Sexist Nature of Sanity," American Quarterly 31: 5 (1979): 641-655.
  3. ^ Harris, Ben. "Arthur Laurents' Snake Pit: Populist Entertainment in Post-WWII America." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007, abstract found 2008-09-13.
  4. ^ Clooney, p. 141
  5. ^ a b Clooney, p. 144

External links

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