I watched The Snake Pit on Friday night (July 1, 2016) to celebrate Olivia de Havilland’s 100th birthday. While best known for her roles as Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Maid Marion in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), the late 1940s marked a time in her career with bolder and deeper performances that show even more clearly what a special actress she is. Between To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), the two films for which she won Academy Awards as Best Actress, came what I believe to be the best performance of her career (for which we was nominated again for the Oscar but lost to Jane Wyman’s performance in Johnny Belinda).
Antole Litvak’s The Snake Pit is based on the Mary Jane Ward novel of the same title, which she wrote based loosely on her own experiences being treated in a mental hospital at a time when mental illness was highly stigmatized and many clinics were guilty of gross malpractice (much of which was the result of ignorance). Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia Stewart Cunningham, a young woman who has seemingly random lapses of memory and frequent instances of disorientation and paranoia. We hear de Havilland give a voice-over narration of the confusion present in Virginia’s thinking and processing of the world around her. Her husband has seen signs that something is wrong but does not know what to do about it until she doesn’t even recognize him and thinks him to be an enemy. At this point he takes her to an institution.
In the midst of a horrendous setting that could not be conducive to recovery or improvement of conditions, one doctor—Dr. Kik— is set apart from the rest of the staff who takes a stand against electroshock therapy and other standard procedures that he thinks to be ineffective at best and harmful at worst. The relationship we see between the doctor and patient is much like that of Frank Perry’s David and Lisa from 1962. Fourteen years earlier, however, even less was known about mental illness when The Snake Pit was released. Because of this, any type of healing that takes place, happens because of the doctor-patient relationship, because the doctor equips the patient to recognize patterns of thinking that formed as a result of trauma which are now controlling and destroying her life. Dr. Kik (played by Leo Glenn) makes a profound statement when confronted by fellow doctors about spending too much time with one patient when there are millions who need treatment. He tells the doctors that by treating the one well, the millions will have a chance to benefit. In this scene and throughout the film, the character shows his belief in relationship as the primary source of healing.
The doctor’s main focus in working with Virginia is to help her restore her relationship with her husband Mark (played by Robert Cunningham). Seeing Mark’s unconditional support and love for Virginia, Dr. Kik works with him to educate him concerning what his wife is experiencing and how to meet her needs once she is released from the hospital. Dr. Kik discovers that at the center of her illness lies a resistance to being loved. Fears are confronted, and love is demonstrated in such a way that she is able to receive her husband’s love for the first time in her life.
Because the story was made in 1948 and naturally very limited in knowledge of mental illness, it has a universal message about working through difficulties and traumas of the past that hinder people from receiving love; it provides hope for recovery from such resistance. As a Christian, the difficulty to receive love takes on an even greater significance since I believe that God is Love. We are all blocked from receiving the fullness of love (both in the divine sense and in the sense of human relationships) because of beliefs that have been shaped by what we have experienced, what others have spoken into our lives, and many other sources of hindrance. This character’s slowly developing ability to receive love and then to give love is a powerful picture of the challenge and responsibility that all of humanity faces to love one’s self and to love one another, ultimately displaying hope that we can overcome these obstacles to receiving and giving love.
Stumble alert: There is no objectionable material in The Snake Pit, although the scenes of maltreatment in the institution and the depictions of mental illness itself are very intense.
Watch The Snake Pit: The film will air on Turner Classic Movies on Friday, July 15 at 8:00 EST.