Produced under the aegis of 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, this remains one of the best screen explorations of mental illness and its treatment.
In a bravura performance, de Havilland is a disturbed young woman who is put into a mental institution by her husband, Stevens. While he loves his wife, he realizes that she needs more help than he can give her. Luckily, de Havilland's case comes to the attention of Genn, a patient, thoughtful,
and caring doctor who devotes much of his time to her. Though the hospital is overcrowded and understaffed, Genn manages to concentrate on her case while desperately trying to keep his hospital from becoming the "snake pit" which most people believe mental institutions to be.
Though the portrayal of the causes and cures of mental illness remains Hollywood-simplistic here, THE SNAKE PIT was one of the first films to seriously examine the subject and treat it with--sometimes harrowing--realism. Producer-director Litvak saw the galley pages to Mary Jane Ward's
fictionalized autobiography and immediately paid $75,000 for the film rights. After trying to sell the idea to every other studio in town, Litvak went to his friend Zanuck as a last resort. (Fox rarely took on independent productions.) The studio head was a bit leery about the subject matter, but
he felt that films should deal with important subjects, so he agreed to finance the project. Zanuck worked closely with Litvak to tighten the script so that its "suspense and urgency" would cause viewers to accept the more unpleasant passages. Litvak spent three months in preproduction researching
mental facilities and procedures, and he required his cast and crew to accompany him. De Havilland gave a subtle, passionate performance and was deservedly nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (though she lost to Jane Wyman for JOHNNY BELINDA). THE SNAKE PIT turned out to be a critical and financial
success for Zanuck, and the film called such attention to the treatment of mental illness that 26 states passed new legislation pertaining to procedures in state institutions.
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