Friday, March 7, 2014

"The Snake Pit" with Olivia DeHavilland, Mark Stevens and Celeste Holm (1948)

This is one of the hardest films for me to watch. It is searing. I have planned on reviewing this film for several years, but needed to work up the courage to view the film again. It is that painful in its portrayal of human frailty. I cannot imagine how deeply Ms. De Havilland had to dig within herself in order to play this role. This film was made in the days when actors and actresses had to dig deep within themselves in an effort to bring life to the characters which they portrayed. This film, and Ms. De Havilland's performance, prove the point.

In this film she plays Virginia Cunningham, a woman who finds herself in a mental asylum with people who are seriously afflicted. She cannot recall how she got there. Through a series of flashbacks her husband, Robert, played by Mark Stevens, begins to recount the story of their courtship in Chicago. What follows is the tale of a woman going mad.

As the two continue to date, Virginia becomes more and more shut off, and eventually she leaves for New York with no explanation. When Robert runs into her again, after some time apart, the two are married and all should be well. Instead this is only the beginning of Virginia’s final descent into her own private hell.

While Virginia continues undergoing treatment under the care of Dr. Mark Kik, played by Leo Glenn, she seems to be making progress. But soon she takes a turn for the worse and finds herself back in the most intensive ward of the hospital, known as the “Snake Pit”.

In 1948 a film dealing with a schizophrenic inmate at a mental institution was pretty much cutting edge stuff. Virginia hears voices and is totally out of touch with reality. The scenes of shock therapy and the treatment of the inmates by some of the staff were not yet the stuff of TV dramas and documentaries. The strait jacket scene still sends shivers down my spine; I cannot bear to be restrained.

The film won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1948. It was directed by Director Anatole Litvak, who was adamant that Ms. De Havilland, as well as other key players in the film, undergo several months of research and training before shooting of the film even began.  In the end though, it all paid off. This is one intense film to watch.

Ms. De Havilland, who is still alive and well; living in Paris; has described this as being her favorite movie among the scores in which she starred. I know this to be true; as about 5 years ago, on her birthday in July; I sent her a birthday greeting along with a review of “Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn. She was kind enough to send a reply and mentioned the fact to me then.

The “Snake Pit” is so painful for me to watch; and her acting so realistic; that it has taken me that long to work up the courage to watch it again! It is no wonder she won the Academy Award for her work in this film.

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