In The Snake Pit, Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia Stuart Cummingham, a young woman who finds herself committed to a mental hospital but doesn’t know why. The title comes from the practice from long ago when mentally ill patients were placed in literal snake pits. Of course, they’d be shocked and traumatized, but once they got out of the snake pit, they’d be able to cope with the world, which had less to scare one. (Who thought of that?)
Virginia never goes into a literal snake pit, but the mild mannered, though schizophrenic woman is surrounded by utter madness. Through flashbacks when Dr Kik analyzes Virginia, who has a history of reacting with fear, wild fear, in her romantic relationships. Virginia’s also plagued with irrational guilt which has compounded her instability.
De Havilland drew me, while her fellow patients repelled me despite my sympathy for their suffering. Most of the staff at the hospital were professional and kind, but one was a Nurse Ratchett-type dictator and when that nurse finds fault with Virginia who was ultra-careful to stay on her good side, has the heroine reassigned to the ward with the most disturbed patients. It’s a real hell on earth.
The Snake Pit reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with less corruption, drugs and sex. Virginia is able to help those around her through kindness. She comes to understand the source of her troubles. The Snake Pit shows us what life’s like inside a mid-century psychiatric hospital. Lots of drama and some hope.