This week’s mystery movie was the 1948 Twentieth Century-Fox film “The Snake Pit,” with Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson, Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, Howard Freeman, Natalie Schafer, Ruth Donnelly, Katherine Locke, Frank Conroy and Minna Gombell.
Screenplay by Frank Partos and Millen Brand from the novel by Mary Jane Ward. Music by Alfred Newman, orchestral arrangements by Edward Powell, photography by Leo Tover.
Art direction by Lyle Wheeler and Joseph C. Wright. Set decorations by Thomas Little and Ernest Lansing. Edited by Dorothy Spencer. Wardrobe direction by Charles Le Maire. Costumes designed by Bonnie Cashin. Makeup by Ben Nye. Special photographic effects by Fred Sersen. Sound by Arthur L. Kirbach and Harry M. Leonard.
Produced by Anatole Litvak and Robert Bassler. Directed by Anatold Litvak.
“The Snake Pit” was a combination of last week’s theme of “women behind bars” and a tribute to the late Olivia de Havilland, whose performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress. She won the best actress award for “To Each His Own” (1946) and would win it again for “The Heiress” (1949). “The Snake Pit” was also nominated for best picture, best director, best screenplay and best music. Thomas Moulton won the Academy Award for best sound for the film.
Trivia note: Celeste Holm was shooting scenes from “The Snake Pit” while also doing “Gentleman’s Agreement,” for which she won an Academy Award for best supporting actress.
Trivia note 2: For 35 cents, fans could buy the pattern for one of Olivia de Havilland’s costumes (designed by Bonnie Cashin) from “The Snake Pit. Apparently this was a monthly feature.
Trivia note 3: Motion Picture Daily (April 19, 1949) reported that British censors cut 1,000 feet from the film, and rated it as “adults only.” Representatives of the nursing profession wanted the film banned on the belief that it would convince young women not to become nurses, the article said.
Trivia note 4: Joan Fontaine was up for the leading role that later went to Olivia de Havilland, according to the New York Times.
Trivia note 5: Two psychiatrists who served as technical advisors on the film were kept anonymous to protect their reputations.
De Havilland is excellent in the film, but the plot is badly dated and serves mainly as a showcase for the antiquated treatment of people with psychological and and emotional challenges. Virginia Stuart Cunningham (De Havilland) undergoes electroshock treatments and various other “remedies” that are expedited because mental institutions are overcrowded. After she endures a suitable number of harrowing experiences, she is deemed cured by a panel of doctors and ready to go into the world and into the arms of her loving husband. The women patients are all raving loonies and the doctors are without exception annoyingly serious and earnest and contemplative and reflective and somber as they zap patients with electrotherapy.
“The Snake Pit” has a huge cast (wonderful for mystery movie purposes) and lots of familiar faces among the female patients. As a special request, I hunted down Lee Patrick, who played the prison boss lady in last week’s “Condemned Women” and after a fair amount of hunting found her in a straitjacket ranting and raving.
Patrick has no lines and is blocked by De Havilland in the farewell scene, where De Havilland’s character is all better and saying goodbye to the other patients.
And here she is in a straitjacket.
However individual tastes may regard its amazingly realistic approach to a grim subject, most audiences, of whatever class, will be irresistibly spellbound by this superbly acted and directed motion picture Olivia de Havilland’s outstanding performance may well rank among the screen’s greatest.
Although essentially a woman’s picture, which factor alone should enhance its box office potentialities, this picture is also certain to provoke much discussion of consequential benefit to the ticket window. Popularity of the Mary Jane Ward novel should also account for added public interest.
“The Snake Pit” is realistic, tense dramatic fare that graphically reveals the mysterious, psychological workings of the mind and its telling effect on a human being….
Whether or not the men look upon this drama with favor depends on their individual masculine reactions, for this is essentially a woman’s picture, and since women constitute the largest percentage of movie audiences, “The Snake Pit” has excellent possibilities of becoming a strong box office picture in practically all situations.
From the artistic and cinematographic point of view, “The Snake Pit” undoubtedly represents an achievement, destined to stand out in Hollywood’s quest for realism and proof of the medium’s ability to interpret problems to the masses.
Director Anatole Litvak here presents exhibitors with a film of unusual interest, a motion picture dealing with a woman gone insane, her long stay in an asylum and her eventual cure. It is merchandise filled with box office dynamite. It is also a frightening picture and what laughs there are come at the expense of some of the poor mentally unbalanced going through the blank and senseless routines their unthinking minds prescribe.
Writing in the New York Times (Nov. 5, 1948) Bosley Crowther said:
Mary Jane Ward’s powerful novel, “The Snake Pit,” is hardly one which Hollywood might have been expected to choose for transcription to the screen. For it puts forth fully and frankly the case history of a young woman in a mental institute, wherein she proceeds through experiences which are not of the most beguiling sort. Yet it must be said to the credit of Anatole Litvak and Twentieth Century-Fox (in the person of Darryl F. Zanuck) that they saw the special merit in this book and they had the imagination and temerity to buy and prepare it for the screen.
…. There are considerations which cannot be dismissed in a review. Though handled with great circumspection, this subject is dynamite. Faint or susceptible people might find it extremely hard to take, and children not baffled by it might be terrifically disturbed. Also, the macabre humor in the behavior of the insane, although treated with faithful realism, seems a poor thing at which one should laugh.
For Monday, we have a mystery guest holding a mysterious cigarette lighter. And no, you shouldn’t be smoking in a theater. Or setting fire to our leading man’s hat. I do not approve of such goings-on.
Update: Olivia de Havilland presents Mark Stevens with a monogrammed lighter (RC for Robert Cunningham).
For Tuesday, we have a mystery girl and her mystery father. This will be an important plot point in our mystery movie.
Update: This is Lora Lee Michel as young Virginia with her father (Damian O’Flynn). The Production Code forced screenwriters Frank Partos and Millen Brand to minimize or eliminate some elements of Virginia’s “father fixation” as portrayed in Mary Jane Ward’s novel, according to news accounts.
Brain Trust roll call: Mary Mallory (mystery movie, Monday’s mystery hand and mystery leading man’s initials on cigarette lighter).
This week’s film is an ideal mystery movie because it has a large cast. So for “Hm Wednesday,” let’s meet the mystery staff of our mystery movie. This mystery woman is one of the mysterious nurses.
Update: This is Helen Craig.
Here we have Mystery Doctor No. 1.
Update: This is Ben Erway.
This is Mystery Doctor No. 2 (her hearing aid provides some comedy relief, which says something about the attitudes of our mystery movie).
Update: This is Virginia Brissac.
This is Mystery Doctor No. 3 (and yes, they are all somber, serious, introspective and very, very earnest).
Update: This is Frank Conroy.
This is Mystery Doctor No. 4. (Not shown: His cigar).
Update: This is Howard Freeman.
And here is Mystery Doctor No. 5 with his little friend. There are several more, but I think five mystery doctors is probably enough. (Not shown: His pipe).
Update: This is Leo Genn.
Brain Trust roll call: Mary Mallory (Tuesday’s mystery girl and mystery father), Howard Mandelbaum (mystery movie, Monday’s mystery arm, mystery leading man and Tuesday’s mystery girl and mystery father), Jenny M. (mystery movie and Tuesday’s mystery girl and mystery father) and Mike Hawks (Tuesday’s mystery father).
For “Aha Thursday,” we have this somewhat mysterious chap.
Update: This is Leif Erickson.
And look who else we have. She does not approve of such goings-on.
Update: This is Natalie Schafer.
In addition to all the staff, there are quite a few mysterious patients in our mystery movie. This lady is Mystery Patient No. 1.
Update: There were so many familiar faces I just couldn’t do them all. This is Beulah Bondi.
This lady is Mystery Patient No. 2.
Update: This is Betsy Blair.
This lady is Mystery Patient No. 3.
Update: This is Celeste Holm.
This lady is Mystery Patient No. 4.
Update: This is Katherine Locke.
This mysterious piece of medical equipment is what the staff uses on the patients.
Update: This is the electroshock machine.
Brain Trust roll call: Mary Mallory (Wednesday’s mystery nurse and Mystery Doctors Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5 and You Know Who), Howard Mandelbaum (Wednesday’s mystery nurse and mystery doctors), FunkyPhd (Mystery Doctor No. 3), B.J. Merholz (mystery movie and Mystery Doctor No. 4), Mike Hawks (mystery movie, Tuesday’s mystery girl, Wednesday’s Mystery Doctors No. 2-5), Sheila (Mystery Doctors Nos. 3 and 5), Patrick (mystery movie, Monday’s mystery arm, Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s mystery guests), Thom and Megan (mystery movie, Tuesday’s mystery guests, Wednesday’s mystery doctors), Benito (mystery movie, Mystery Doctors No. 3 and 5).
Note to Sylvia E.: You’re on the right track.
Now here’s what I was looking for: Our Mystery Doctor No. 5 with his pipe. He’s almost never without it.
Update: I had to get Leo Genn with his pipe.
Also for Friday, our mystery leading man.
Update: This is Mark Stevens.
And finally, our mystery leading woman. Who goes from this….
Update: This is Olivia de Havilland at the opening of the film.
And then to this….
And in a straitjacket (with Leo Genn as Back of the Head Guy).
Half a dozen electroshock treatments and voila! Our mystery leading lady is all better!
And finally Olivia de Havilland all better and ready to face the world.
Brain Trust roll call: Sylvia E. (mystery movie, Monday’s mystery arm and mystery leading man, Tuesday’s mystery girl and mystery father, Wednesday’s mystery nurse and Mystery Doctors Nos. 1-5, Thursday’s future TV stars and Mystery Patients 1-4), Mary Mallory (Thursday’s Mystery Future TV Star No. 2 and Mystery Patients Nos. 1, 3, 4), Howard Mandelbaum (Thursday’s future TV stars, Mystery Patients Nos. 1-4 and mysterious electrical device), David Inman (mystery movie and Thursday’s Mystery Patients No. 1 and 3), Mike Hawks (Thursday’s future TV stars and Mystery Patients Nos. 1-4), Beachgal (mystery movie, Tuesday’s mystery father and daughter, Wednesday’s mystery nurse, Mystery Doctors Nos. 1-5, Thursday’s future TV stars, Mystery Patients Nos. 1-4 and mysterious electrical device), McDee (mystery movie and Wednesday’s Mystery Doctor No. 5) and Gary (mystery movie, Thursday’s Mystery Patient No. 3 and mysterious leading lady).