Exquisite Movie Moments: 'The Snake Pit' (1948)

As a teenager watching “The Snake Pit” on the Late Late Show some thirty years ago (probably on a school night), this is the scene that hit hardest. At the time, because teenagers don’t know shit, I took the song at face value, not understanding the deeper meaning. Still, the moment was mesmerizing in its poignancy and stayed with me for days. It was only when the film came out on DVD a few years back that I finally saw it again, and being a little older and not-so-shallower, realized what the moment really means.


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Directed by the under-appreciated Anatole Litvak and starring the exquisite but always accessible Olivia de Havilland as a newlywed whose been institutionalized after suffering a breakdown, this was one of studio head Darryl F. Zanuck’s annual prestige pictures. Based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward who suffered a nervous breakdown and wrote about her experiences inside a mental hospital, the film was what we would call an “activist film” today. The hope of all those involved was that the telling of this tale might improve institutional conditions by bringing the sometimes medieval conditions still being utilized to public attention.

The beauty of the story is how it doesn’t demonize anyone in charge of the current system. While some are portrayed as being afraid of change, it’s not like you have them running around screaming left-wing talking points about profits and the bottom line. You can imagine a film like this produced today doing exactly that. Oh wait, no imagining necessary.

Rather than wielding a cinematic heavy hand to strip the humanity from one-dimensional villains as a way to demand institutional change, “The Snake Pit” goes the other route and instead gives humanity to those who are institutionalized, even the sometimes dangerous Hester, an unpredictable catatonic played so memorably by Betsy Blair (who was married to Gene Kelly at the time).

According to studio publicity, the film did result in reform in 26 of the then 48 states. Variety reported that the number was closer to seven. Regardless, few dispute that the harrowing and realistic tale of a woman most Americans could identify with had a very real impact. Undoubtedly, some of the more sensationalized scenes left a mark, including the snake pit itself where the hopelessly lost are pretty much left on their own in a large room. But what does that matter if we don’t care about those who have been forgotten? Which is why the “Going Home” scene, which comes near the very end of the picture, is so powerful.

There’s some dramatic license at work. This collective moment of patient self-awareness by so many in an insane asylum could probably never happen. Regardless, what’s going on there is something much more important than reality. We’re being asked to take note of the fact that except for a very lucky few, these patients won’t be going anywhere, most especially home. The only way out of a terrible place and their own imprisoned minds, the only hope of returning to the lives you and I too often take for granted, is through the release of death.

Mother’s there expecting me

Father’s waiting, too

Lots of folk gathered there

All the friends I knew

All the friends I knew

Whether it’s a great piece of acting, directing, or just by accident, the moment where I start to really lose it is at the 1:35 mark when the man in front row removes his glasses. There’s just something real about that gesture.

Using the art of motion picture to ennoble the human spirit.

What a concept.

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