“The Snake Pit” won an Academy Award for Best Sound, and received Nominations for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Writing.
While 20th Century Fox tackled a number of social issues during the Forties and early Fifties with great critical and audience success, “The Snake Pit” nevertheless owes a measure of gratitude to Alfred Hitchcock's “Spellbound,” in which psychoanalysis and the ‘mysteries of the mind' proved to be an attractive veneer for a standard thriller formula.
Based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward, the filmmakers had arguably a greater need to distance themselves from Hitchcock's psycho tale, and treat the trauma of the mentally ill in a docu-drama format (though symbolic dreams and cryptic imagery still proved to be an irresistible indulgence in “Snake Pit”).
Co-author (with Tony Thomas) of “The Films of Twentieth Century-Fox,” historian Aubrey Solomon does a decent job in providing concise notes on the film's production, cast sketches, and background info on the original novel and deleted scenes from early script drafts, but there's a lot of silent gaps between Solomon's otherwise thoughtful observations. What's needed is a second or third participant to balance the weight of a 107 minute commentary track, yet the film's age reinforces a unique dilemma for commentators in general: with many of the original participants long gone, the historian must partially rely on surviving documents, publicity ephemera, and extractions from published interviews and biographies. Solomon makes a fair effort to quote from surviving studio memos and original reviews, but the regular pauses mandate some remote shuttling on behalf of the viewer.
Being a prestige film that earned Oscar attention and awards from secondary critical groups, a substantial collection of newsreels were gathered for this release, and it's fun to watch de Havilland sport a gracious smile each time she's handed a trophy, plaque, or furled certificate. Sound no longer exists for the newsreel “Showmen Honor The Snake Pit,” while “Special Film Award” has stoic Fox executive Spyros Skouras amusingly emphasizing/name dropping director Litvak and studio uber-CEO Darryl F. Zanuck for their “courageous” decision to realize the film.
Though produced in 1948, “The Snake Pit” remains an engaging drama, and a unique time capsule of primitive, and sometimes brutal treatments of the mentally infirm.
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan
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