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On Nov. 4, 1948, 20th Century Fox unveiled the Olivia de Havilland drama The Snake Pit at its New York City premiere. The film went on to earn six Oscar nominations at the 21st Academy Awards, winning one honor for sound recording. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, headlined “‘Snake-Pit’ Is Compelling, Dramatic and Exciting Hit,” is below.
Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit comes to the screen in its Darryl F. Zanuck presentation for 20th-Fox as a picture so compelling, dramatically exciting and frankly courageous as to defy comparison. Nothing like it has ever been done before in films. Certainly The Snake Pit will go down in Hollywood annals as one of the must unusual subjects ever attempted, and what is more to the point, successfully accomplished. It is bold and original — a defiant answer to those who say that our American motion picture creators cannot evolve a mature dramatic subject. The difference lies in the fact that our native craftsmen additionally provide also the highly necessary ingredient called entertainment. Zanuck has created a masterpiece, took a terrific gamble and won.
The Anatole Litvak-Robert Bassler adaptation of Miss Ward’s story about an insane asylum is intelligently geared for the mature mind. It makes no compromise with the shocking facts as presented in the novel. The result is a drama that builds to a fever pitch of tension and holds itself there with superlative artistry. The tempo Litvak achieves in his direction literally takes the spectator’s breath away as he moves his story relentlessly from one dramatic peak to another. It is an extraordinary directorial feat for which the greatest credit must be given.
Evidence of the meticulousness which governs The Snake Pit is found in the excellence of its cast. From Olivia de Havilland down the line to the selection of cabaret star Gracie Poggi and musical comedy leading woman Jan Clayton to perform mere bits, painstaking effort to make The Snake Pit truly outstanding is vividly discernible. Such craftsmanship and integrity should be rewarded at the box office with top-flight business, for The Snake Pit, besides being one of the most fascinating pictures of the year will also be among the most discussed. Talk sells tickets, and The Snake Pit will provide plenty of conversational fodder.
The taut, suspenseful screenplay stays close to the pattern of the novel. It uses first-person narrative to tell the dramatic account of a girl who, soon after her marriage, becomes hopelessly insane and is sent to a state institution for treatment. Only the personal interest of a kindly doctor and the affection of her husband prevent the worse tragedy of permanent confinement. Grimly she fights her way back to mental health but not without tragic setbacks induced as much by the seriousness of her condition as the fact that the overcrowded asylum produces its own terrible hurdles for her to overcome.
Olivia de Havilland, in the role of the unhappy girl, gives a performance that is as exciting to watch as it must have been strenuous to play. It is one of the greatest performances we have ever seen on screen or stage. The deftness which she balances hysterics and the sly touches of humor that relieve the part, shows magnificent mastery of the acting art. Mark Stevens is well spotted as her bewildered husband who, despite his understanding, still makes blunders that impede her recovery. Leo Genn, the psychiatrist who probes her past to learn the reason for her mental aberration, reads with patience, strength and conviction. Celeste Holm is outstanding as a patient who knows her way through the strict rules of the institution, and Glenn Langan is seen advantageously as another wise doctor. Helen Craig proves admirably suited to the role of a cynical nurse.
All the vivid performances of The Snake Pit are not in the upper division of the cast. There are outstanding moments by Beulah Bondi, an elderly lady who imagines herself wealthy; Ruth Donnelly, another inmate; Betsy Blair, a girl who never speaks; and Howard Freeman, playing a doctor whose thoughtless ways harass the unhappy victims.
Leo Tover’s photography catches the flat ugliness of life in an institution and tells its own grim and somber story. Lyle Wheeler’s art direction gets right to the heart of the drama as it faithfully depicts the uncarpeted corridors, the huge, cold assembly hall, and the visiting rooms of the asylum. Alfred Newman’s musical direction matches the motivation with vibrant chords. Dorothy Spencer’s editing is brilliantly attuned to the sweep of Litvak’s direction. — Staff review, originally published on Nov. 4, 1948
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