Care, Compassion and Craft: Into the Pit

Care, Compassion and Craft: Into the Pit

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Mar 27th 2019

The path from bestselling book to the big screen was, like its title, serpentine, but The Snake Pit (1948) nonetheless emerged as a rare Hollywood product that combined a sincerely crafted exploration of mental illness with the then-rising post-World War II tide of bringing a new kind of socially aware subject matter to receptive audiences. Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck, director/co-producer Anatole Litvak and star Olivia de Havilland were all key assets in shaping the dark material into the realm of absorbing entertainment and box-office success in its time that remains, according to biographer Ellis Amburn, author of the 2018 career study Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood, “historically important because it changed the way America viewed mental illness, it improved conditions in asylums, and it triggered a breakthrough in stark realism, paving the way for such movies as The Men, Coming Home and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Seventy years later, it holds up well as riveting melodrama and a plea for improved healthcare. 

Litvak, who’d already dealt in topicality (Confessions of a Nazi Spy, This Above All, several Why We Fight war documentaries) and melodrama (City for Conquest, All This, and Heaven Too, Blues in the Night) during his previous decade as a prolific studio helmer, was the instigator, buying the rights to Mary Jane Ward’s 1945 semi-autobiographical novel, and shopping the property to various studios, finally sealing a deal at Fox. Ingrid Bergman was his first choice to play the stricken heroine Virginia Cunningham, but after a polite turndown, his second choice seized the opportunity. De Havilland told an interviewer at the time: “Now that I’ve done paranoiac [in The Dark Mirror],I guess dementia praecox is next.” Research was intensive. “It was agreed that the picture would be shot in black-and-white in an attempt to give a more accurate representation of the colorless world of the institutionalized,” Anatole Litvak: The Life and Films author Michelangelo Capua chronicled. “Tola [Litvak] spent nearly six months in New York with the scenarists assigned to the project – Hungarian screenwriter Frank Partos [Stranger on the Third Floor, The Uninvited] and noted novelist-poet Millen Brand [whose 1937 book The Outward Room was inspired by his experiences working as a psychiatric aide].” On the opposite coast, de Havilland made three observational research visits to a Camarillo, CA, mental facility. She told profiler Tony Thomas: “It was regarded as a model hospital but it was sadly undermanned as to doctors. There I talked to and watched inmates in varying degrees of mental illness. I steeled myself to look at these cases objectively.” Arthur Laurents, later to adapt Anastasia (1956, a Twilight Time title) for Litvak, came in to rewrite the screenplay but was ultimately denied screen credit, a source of lasting regret to Litvak and Laurents. 

Capua continued: “Tola shot the entire film on a soundstage, making a great effort to recreate the exact atmosphere he had found while visiting New York’s Rockland State Hospital and other mental hospitals with cast and crew members. He borrowed cinematographer Leo Tover from Paramount and took him to the mental institutions to absorb the atmosphere and feel of such places. Tover observed the inmates, their patterns of motions, and the effect of the light falling upon their contorted faces. Tola also demanded that the actresses in the picture look as natural as possible with very little makeup applied. The women were told not to wear any accessories (including girdles, bras, nail or toe polish) since the former were not permitted in mental hospitals. De Havilland had to go through a physically exhausting ordeal, losing weight and getting dark circles under her eyes. False eyelashes were applied because they sunk her eyes and made her face a death mask. In a scene in which she was confined in a tub of warm water prescribed to soothe her hysteria, she was drenched with water coming from a giant barrel placed six feet above her head. It took numerous takes before Tola achieved what he called a ‘perfect take.’ De Havilland was confined in bed for two days to recover from the resultant cold and fever.” The hard work and precise preparation paid off, affirming Litvak’s estimation that the public was “always grateful when they get something different, not a message – perhaps, just some pure information presented in an interesting, dramatic form.” 

The film was nominated for six Academy Awards® – Best Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, Score (by Alfred Newman), and took home the trophy for Best Sound Recording (Thomas T. Moulton). Besides her Oscar® nomination, de Havilland won Best Actress honors from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics and the Venice Film Festival. (For a bit of ironic trivia, Helen Craig, the actress who portrayed the hard-edged Ward Nurse Davis, had earlier created the title role in the original 1940 Broadway production of Johnny Belinda, and it would be Jane Wyman’s 1948 film portrayal of that character that bested de Havilland for Oscar® gold.) Also starring Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Beulah Bondi, Leif Erickson, Natalie Schaefer and Ruth Donnelly, The Snake Pit arrives April 16 on TT hi-def Blu-ray courtesy of a 2017 4K restoration, and features a penetrating Audio Commentary with film historian Aubrey Solomon, five celebratory Fox Movietone Newsreels, two riveting Radio Show Adaptations starring de Havilland and Agnes Moorehead, and an Isolated Music Track of Newman’s innovative score. Preorders open April 3.