Beth’s Classic Film Club: The Snake Pit

It’s been a while since we sat down with some box wine and a really classic movie, hasn’t it? So we’d better pick a really good one, huh? Well, this next one is disturbing, moving, and uplifting, all at once. From 1948, it’s The Snake Pit.

Olivia De Havilland is the genius who played the angelic Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind. In The Snake Pit, she plays a woman institutionalized because of mental illness. In the parlance of the times, they would call her particular condition a nervous breakdown, caused by some trauma in her past.

Now, as someone who worked for a disability advocacy agency that represented people in mental hospitals, what I find most disturbing about this film is how little these hospitals have changed over the years. When I last toured one in 2000, it looked exactly like the one in this film does. I’m not kidding. I would imagine there is a lot less electroshock therapy and lobotomies going on these days than in the era of this film, and the medications have gotten a lot better…but the physical living conditions, not so much.

De Havilland’s character struggles to reach mental health, and it isn’t an easy road. She moves from ward to ward, as her connection to reality alternately gets better and then worse, helped and hindered by kind and cruel medical professionals, and the film is clearly an indictment of doctors and nurses who lack compassion. At all times, she is motivated in her struggle towards wellness by a desire to get the fuck out of that hospital, and from my work, I’d say that is a pretty common for those living in mental institutions today.

The cinematography is pretty cool, with some really visually memorable scenes, but what really makes this film, of course, is the acting, especially De Havilland’s. She has a gift for playing characters who are vulnerable but with an inner strength that shines through. And Betsy Blair, who plays another patient, is equally outstanding.

So, grab your popcorn and box wine and maybe a box of Kleenex if you’re the weepy type like me, and check out The Snake Pit. And let me know what you think in the comments!