My family didn’t have cable TV when I was growing up. We didn’t watch much TV (although we watched lots of movies on the weekends), and my mom thought that cable didn’t have much to offer, so my first real experience with cable was in college, when most of my apartments offered free cable. That’s when I found out that my mother was right; cable didn’t have much to offer. But there is one awesome cable channel that I still miss: Turner Classic Movies. It’s a fabulous station that shows (surprise) classic movies. I couldn’t always convince my roommates that it was a fun station, but when I was home alone sick or just on a quiet night, that was my channel of choice. And that is where I first saw The Snake Pit. At that point, I missed the beginning, but I was still blown away by the honest look at the treatment of the mentally ill in the 1940s.
So what’s the story? Virginia Stuart Cunningham has had a mental breakdown and has been committed to a mental institution in upstate New York. She doesn’t know where she is or why she’s there at first, but with the help of a caring, patient doctor, she slowly discovers what brought upon her breakdown.
The Good: Olivia de Havilland is always good, but she is amazing in this movie. Her acting is never over the top; she makes Virginia a very sympathetic character. She puts a human face on mental illness. Leo Glenn as the understanding Dr. Kik also does a good job. The cruel Nurse Davis is played wonderfully well by Helen Craig.
The story and screenplay were wonderful. There is still a lot of prejudice and misunderstanding when it comes to mental illness, and based on the care Virginia received, I’m sure it was even worse in the 1940s. And yet this movie is very respectful and understanding toward the mentally ill. None of the patients were mocked or despised by the filmmakers themselves. In fact, the villain of the movie, Nurse Davis, is a nurse who openly despises her charges. Her treatment of Virginia and the other patients is shown as cruel and terrible. The sensitivity and kindness that the movie shows towards people with problems gives hope that things will get better.
The Bad: Some of the treatments used on the patients are not nice. Watching people get electroshock therapy or being put in a straightjacket is kind of scary, but it does make me glad that we have come so far in the treatment of mental illness.
The Ugly: There is nothing really ugly about this movie. It’s really very good.
Oscar Won: Best sound, recording.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Olivia de Havilland); best director; best writing, screenplay; best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.