The Snake Pit (1948)

The Snake Pit
Olivia de Havilland and Leo Genn

'The Snake Pit' is a dramatic movie and one of the first to be made about mental illness. It was made in 1948, directed by Anatole Litvak and stars Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn and Celeste Holm.

It was a ground-breaking and challenging film, one of the first Hollywood movies to deal seriously with the issue of patient treatment in mental hospitals. It made a major impact on public consciousness and led to changes in the conditions of mental institutions in America and the treatment of patients. Following the film's release many states changed their laws concerning mental health issues.

Despite the harrowing nature of the subject matter, the movie was a major commercial success, breaking box-office records in many cities and becoming Twentieth Century-Fox's highest grossing picture of the year.

It won one Academy Award, for Best Sound Recording, and was nominated unsuccessfully for five further Oscars, including Best Actress for Olivia de Havilland, Best Picture, and Best Director.


The movie tells the story of Virginia Stuart Cunningham, played by Olivia de Havilland, an inmate of an all female mental hospital. By means of flashback we understand her domestic situation and we see the various treatments to which she is subjected, such as hydrotherapy and electric shock treatment, in an environment which is more like a prison than a hospital.


The movie was inspired by the 1946 novel of the same name, by author Mary Jane Ward, which was based on her own eight-and-a-half month stay in New York's Rockland State mental hospital, following a nervous breakdown. The book caused an outcry when it was released and became a runaway best seller.

Prior to the book's publication Anatole Litvak purchased the film rights from Mary Jane Ward for $75,000. In 1946 Twentieth Century-Fox production chief Darryl F. Zanuck agreed to make the film and paid Litvak $175,000 for the rights as well as hiring him to direct and co-produce with Robert Bassler.

Litvak was determined to make the movie as realistic as possible and he and the cast and film crew spent three months visiting different mental institutions. Olivia de Havilland spent much time at the institutions observing treatments, attending doctor-patient therapy sessions and social events organised for the inmates.

Most of the interiors were filmed on the 20th Century-Fox Sound Stages with a few location scenes shot in actual wards at Camarillo State Mental Hospital in California.

Litvak was an early advocate of the so-called whip pan device, whereby the camera pans so quickly that the picture becomes an indistinct blur and the the setting and action can be easily changed.He actually uses the technique eight times during the movie.
The success of the movie is due in a large measure to the magnificent performance of Olivia de Havilland in the central role of Virginia Cunningham. Although it is now difficult to imagine another actress in the part, other actresses were considered including her sister, Joan Fontaine, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney and Ingrid Bergman.

Similarly, Joseph Cotten and Richard Conte were considered for the part of Dr. Kik. De Havilland personally requested Mark Stevens to play Robert Cunningham. Stevens had previously worked with the actress's sister, Joan Fontaine in 'From This Day Forward' in 1946.

Main Cast

Olivia de Havilland ... Virginia Stuart Cunningham
Mark Stevens ... Robert Cunningham
Leo Genn ... Dr. Mark H. Van Kensdelaerik/"Dr. Kik"
Celeste Holm ... Grace
Glenn Langan ... Dr. Terry
Helen Craig ... Nurse Davis
Leif Erickson ... Gordon
Beulah Bondi ... Mrs. Greer
Lee Patrick ... Asylum Inmate
Howard Freeman ... Dr. Curtis
Natalie Schafer ... Mrs. Stuart
Ruth Donnelly ... Ruth
Katherine Locke ... Margaret
Celia Lovsky ... Gertrude
Frank Conroy ... Dr. Jonathan Gifford
Minna Gombell ... Miss Hart
Betsy Blair ... Hester


Director … Anatole Litvak
Producers … Robert Bassler, Anatole Litvak, Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay … Frank Partos, Millen Brand
Based on … the novel "The Snake Pit" by Mary Jane Ward
Cinematography … Leo Tover
Music … Alfred Newman
Distribution Company … 20th Century Fox
Format … B & W
Release Date … November 4, 1948
Running Time … 108 minutes

Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Sound Recording ... Thomas T. Moulton
Five Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Olivia de Havilland
Best Picture ... Darryl F. Zanuck
Best Director ... Anatole Litvak
Best Writing, Screenplay ... Frank Partos, Millen Brand
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture ... Alfred Newman