This essay on the 1948 drama The Snake Pit was written by Megan Boyd, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm archival print of The Snake Pit will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series honoring the centennial of Olivia de Havilland on December 4 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.
By Megan Boyd
It is not mere coincidence that 20th Century Fox’s unsettling film, The Snake Pit, was released the same year as the monumental Paramount decision. Even before the Paramount decision ordered studios to divest themselves of their theaters, 1940s films like The Snake Pit were rendered possible by shifting production practices and power relations between studios, directors and performers throughout the decade. Directors and performers were able to obtain some influence within the studio system, and the 1940s would be marked by these developments—developments that would allow personnel to explore controversial ‘prestige’ themes and for performers such as Oliva de Havilland to have more control over their projects.
Even before the Paramount decision in 1948, studios like Fox had already been shifting from central producers to a package-unit system that granted certain producers, directors and performers a certain amount of independence during their working process. This encouragement of certain directors and performers, particularly those associated with A pictures, to pursue riskier but more ‘artistic’ projects was partially in response to the lessening of B-level production in the 1940s. Studios now had to compete with one another primarily with A films and thus, there was increased competition to make the A projects distinctive from those of other studios. At Fox, Daryl Zanuck produced a series of ‘social problem’ projects that might have previously been considered box office poison. The Snake Pit’s use of psychoanalysis and Olivia de Havilland’s performance both demonstrate critical shifts in film content engendered by this more permissive atmosphere.
Following the critical acclaim and award onslaught for Zanuck’s Academy Award-winning Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), an indictment of anti-Semitism, Zanuck went on to produce The Snake Pit. The Snake Pit was based on Mary Jane Ward’s semi-autobiographical novel, which described a woman’s mental breakdown and experiences within a mental institution. While The Snake Pit is often examined within the context of Zanuck’s social problem films, the content of the film correlates more directly with a rising interest in psychoanalysis in 1940s American cinema. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, The Snake Pit both benefits and suffers from its 1940s cultural context. By this decade, Sigmund Freud’s notions of psychoanalysis, particularly in regards to social repression and women’s hysteria, had acquired a significant pop cultural cache. Filmmakers frequently explored character psychology, sexual repression and problematic familial relations, seen in films such as King’s Row (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Locket (1946) or Mourning Becomes Electra (1947). As in many of these other film efforts (with the exception of Spellbound), the female mind is presented as a fragile, problematic site to be investigated. While Ward’s novel was much more critical of mental institutions as a whole and openly addressed some of the restrictive elements of marriage that led her to her breakdown, the film adaptation, as with Gentleman’s Agreement and some of Zanuck’s other social problem films, rewrites the institutional problem as an individualized problem—often localizing blame for social injustices on female characters. For instance, many of the dislikable male nurses from the book are removed and replaced with cruel, female nurses, who are given extended sequences in the film where they are shown tying protagonist Virginia in a straight jacket or speaking harshly to other patients. The blame for Virginia’s condition is assigned in flashbacks to the cold, callous nature of her mother, which forced her to become unnaturally fixated on her father. These childhood concerns are attributed as the source of Virginia’s inability to let her husband touch her. This maternal source of Mary’s breakdown differs from the blame placed on marital discord and stifling domesticity present throughout Ward’s autobiography. Finally, while the character Virginia is equally critical of her male doctors in the book, Virginia’s male doctor in the film is portrayed as a sympathetic savior—the only one willing to treat Virginia like a human being. In the book, Virginia critiques, “I do not like thee, Dr. Kik. I think you are rather silly.” This is quite a contrast from Virginia’s reliance on Dr. Kik and male diagnosis in the film, where she instantly accepts his judgment with responses such as, “It’s funny…everything you’ve said makes sense. I feel as though I know it.” The troubles of mental and marital institutions then, are reassigned to ‘nasty’ women—the callousness of the institutions’ nurses, Virginia’s mother and Virginia’s own frigidity.
Despite the troubling nature of the film’s recasting of institutional problems, the film presents Olivia de Havilland in a memorable performance. De Havilland’s treatment by film scholars often seems to reflect her treatment by characters in her films; she is never a source of fascination or fixation, but rather, acknowledged as dependable and competent. Yet de Havilland’s double Academy Award-winning career, particularly in the 1940s, was nothing short of remarkable. Though de Havilland began her career in sweet, ingénue roles, such as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) or Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), she transformed her career (partially thanks to a lawsuit against Warner Brothers that encouraged more freedom of choice in actors’ selection of screen roles) by specializing in plain or somewhat unsympathetic characters that are underestimated by those around them. These were the crowing achievements of her career—not the seductive or glamorous roles embodied by many of the 1940s female stars, from Rita Hayworth to Betty Grable.
De Havilland’s performance as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939) provided a blueprint for many of her memorable 1940s screen performances, including The Snake Pit. De Havilland performs Melanie largely as a sweet, liltingly voiced character, almost too gentle for this world—until she begins to create key vocal shifts in moments of surprising grit. The audience is almost taken aback when, having gotten used to the contrast between Melanie’s sweetness and Scarlett’s spirit, Scarlett has shot a Northern soldier and Melanie emerges from her room to pronounce in a low, husky voice (while holding a sword), “Scarlett, you killed him. Good. I’m glad you killed him.” This ability to shift abruptly from lilting to harsh vocal tones remained a key staple throughout de Havilland’s most acclaimed performances. De Havilland incorporates this in The Snake Pit as we see the contrast between early moments of happiness between Virginia and her husband and Virginia’s later jarring screeches and cynical, dry narration in the mental institution. The performance contrasts are perhaps most effectively employed in de Havilland’s Academy Award-winning appearance the following year in The Heiress (1949), in which the audience watches de Havilland’s plain, naïve protagonist gradually shift to a bitter, stronger woman determined to teach her former, fortune-hunting suitor a lesson. That de Havilland could remain such a star in the 1940s, when her Academy Award nominated performances contain such a lack of romance—even bordering on the grotesque—is particularly worthy of note in a decade not often seen as opportunity-laden for female film performers.
Please enjoy The Snake Pit, both for its place within a radically shifting 1940s film industry and for Olivia de Havilland’s unusual position amongst Hollywood screen heroines.