The Making of “The Snake Pit” (1948)

In 1946, a former psychiatric patient by the name of Mary Jane Ward wrote a book called The Snake Pit, dealing with the living conditions inside mental institutions and the cruel and often sadistic ways in which patients were treated. The book, based on Ward’s own experiences as a patient at Rockland State Hospital, shed a previously unseen light on the practices that were commonplace in institutions, and the book was an enormous success critically and financially, bringing fame and renown to its author, who was at the time of publication still having serious trouble psychiatrically.

Shortly after the book’s release, director Anatole Litvak bought the film rights from Mary Jane Ward for $75,000 and began taking the property to various studio heads in order to try to get a film of the story made. The Hays Code was rooted firmly in Hollywood by 1948, and none of the studios to which Litvak brought The Snake Pit wanted to run the risk of making a film that would prove to be monumentally controversial. However, in the summer of 1946, Litvak brought the property to Darryl F. Zanuck, an old friend and the head of 20th Century Fox. Zanuck agreed to make the film, bought the script for $175,000 from Litvak and hired him as director and co-producer. It was to be the first full-scale examination of mental illness in the history of film.

For the role of Virginia Cunningham, the novel’s main character, the studio wanted Gene Tierney. The beautiful Gene Tierney, who suffered from mental instability herself, probably would have been a stellar choice for this part, was pregnant at the time and was unable to take the role. Litvak approached Olivia de Havilland, a recent Oscar winner for To Each His Own, with the script, and after a brief reading, de Havilland eagerly took the part. She undertook grueling research at Camarillo State Mental Hospital for her portrayal of Virginia Cunningham, including observations of electroshock therapy sessions. In a 2006 interview with the Academy of Achievement, de Havilland recalls what she saw:

In order to convey the starkness of the situation in the hospitals, Litvak permitted no hairdressers on the set, and requested that the woman not wear bras or girdles. For the costumes worn by de Havilland and Celeste Holm (playing a friend of Virginia at the institution), designer Bonnie Cashin made a composite of outfits observed at various institutions during research for the film, mostly consisting of drab, bulky shirts and skirts. The cinematography on the film is really quite incredible, and the credit for that goes to cinematogapher Leo Tover, who doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the masterful use of stark lighting and beautiful editing.

Olivia de Havilland and Celeste Holm in Bonnie Cashin's costumes for the opening scene.

An example of Leo Tover's expert lighting in a key scene of the film.

The film opened to great acclaim, with the Hollywood Reporter calling it “a picture so compelling, dramatically exciting and frankly courageous as to defy comparison. Nothing like it has ever been done before in films.” It was nominated for a multitude of Academy Awards, including Best Actress (the award went to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda) and Best Picture (the award went to Olivier’s Hamlet), as well as Best Directing, Best Writing and Best Music. It won an Oscar for Best Sound Recording. Many film outlets warned their viewers against seeing the film with children, and advised that it was “not recommended for the weak”–nonetheless, it became Fox’s highest-grossing film of 1948 and broke box-office records around the country.

I believe de Havilland was robbed of the Best Actress Oscar for this film. Though I love Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, I think de Havilland’s portrayal of Virginia Cunningham is far more nuanced and complex than Wyman’s of the deaf farm girl Belinda, and think the Academy put too much emphasis on the fact that Wyman didn’t speak and not enough on the fact that de Havilland played an intensely difficult role extremely well.

I want to thank tcm.com for providing many of these notes! Please visit their website and see what other gems they can provide you with. I leave you with the trailer to The Snake Pit. Thanks for reading!

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6 responses to “The Making of “The Snake Pit” (1948)

  1. Gie Schaffer

    I think Olivia de Havilland has always been underrated in Hollywood, and that is quite unfortunate considering how versatile she is as an actress.

  2. She is one of the all-time greats. I never pass up the opportunity to brag that I had the honor of meeting her last year, and she is every bit as sweet and wonderful as you would ever hope. She is a first rate human being, along with being a first rate actress.

  3. This is a wonderful movie, and I was so interested to read about the background of the film. You know, I wonder if it might have been too hard for Gene Tierney to experience it, having suffered mental illness herself. I agree about the Oscar — she should have received it. Thanks for a very interesting piece, and the added plus of deHavilland discussing her experience!

  4. de Havilland was excellent as Virginia. I think the whole film was so realistically done and the story was gripping. I truly felt bad for those patients.

  5. Gie Schaffer

    Gee, I’d brag, too, if I were you! That was an amazing opportunity.

  6. This is a really interesting article. Thanks for posting!

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