#CleanMovieMonth2020 Guest Article: “’The Snake Pit’ (1948) Review” by Wes Sterling

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The below article was written by Wes Sterling, one of our devoted readers, as his third entry in #CleanMovieMonth2020. Since he has no website, we are proudly publishing it here.

I used to work in pastoral ministry and I quickly learned that people are complex and that they are often weary and heavy laden, bringing in all sorts of heavy burdens on Sunday morning and into my study throughout the week.  In the movie “Harvey” (1950), Elwood Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) is talking to a couple outside of his favorite bar about the people that he and Harvey encounter there.  He says, “They drink with us, they talk with us, and they talk about the big, terrible things they’ve done and the big, wonderful things they’ll do.  Their hopes, their regrets, their loves, and their hates; all very large…because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar.”  Nobody ever brings anything small into church, either.  There’s a desire to help, but soon one realizes how all of the seminary training in Greek, systematic theology, homiletics, etc. doesn’t always prepare you for the realities of the largeness of real-life issues that people bring in with them.  People need Scripture and good theology applied to their lives to be sure, but they need it given to them by those who care for them as people, not just pedestrian parishioners, or projects.  I think that’s the reason why the film “The Snake Pit” (1948) struck such a chord with me and why I’d like to review it for my last article for PEPS’ Clean Movie Month blogathon.

“The Snake Pit” stars Olivia de Haviland as Virginia Stuart Cunningham.  It also stars Mark Stevens as her husband Robert, Leo Genn as Dr. Mark H. Van Kensdelaerik (“Dr. Kik” for short) and Helen Craig as Nurse Davis.  It was directed by Anatole Litvak, produced by Mr. Litvak, Robert Bassler and Darryl Zanuck, and released by 20th Century Fox.  It was based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Mary Jane Ward.

The Snake Pit - Wikipedia

One section of the Motion Picture Production Code rightly reads, “Motion pictures are an important form of art expression.  Art enters intimately into the lives of human beings.  The art of motion pictures has the same object as the other arts – the presentation of thought, emotion, and experience in terms of an appeal to the soul through the senses.”  “The Snake Pit” is a case in point.  I’ll give you a brief plot summary and introduce you to some of the main characters interposed with some personal thoughts on the film.

Virginia Stuart (Olivia de Haviland) is a struggling young writer trying to sell her work to a publisher in Chicago.  After being rejected, she meets Robert Cunningham (Mark Stevens) who works in the publisher’s office and repeatedly runs into him in their cafeteria.  Eventually they begin a courtship.  But one afternoon when they were supposed to go to a concert after spending the day together, she abruptly says that she can’t go and runs to catch a train without any explanation, to Robert’s bewilderment.  He doesn’t see her for about six months, but eventually does find her outside of a theatre in New York City, where he recently moved to.  They resume their courtship and soon marry, but she begins acting strangely and loses touch with reality.  She is often confused as to who Robert is, her marital status, what time of year it is, where she is, etc.  She is then checked into the Juniper Hill Sate Hospital for women where the remainder of the film follows her therapy.  It is here we see the difference between Virginia’s being cared for by sympathetic caregivers and by a detached bureaucracy as she is moved from one level of care to another with a variety of treatments.  This is where we really see the film, as art, “enter intimately into the lives of human beings.”  In this case, Virginia’s life.

Virginia’s primary care doctor is Dr. Kik (Leo Genn).  He is a gentle, caring soul who takes great care to work with Virginia in a personal, yet also always professional, way.  He is a great example of a professional caregiver who treats his patients as people and not projects.  However, because of this, he is often at odds with the hospital administration regarding Virginia’s and other patients’ care.  In one scene where the administrators are having lunch, they tell him, “Trouble is, for you, each case is the one.  For us, it’s one of thousands.”  To which Dr. Kik responds, “Yes…but only by trying to make each case the one can we really help the patient.”  As a former pastor, this scene really resonated with me.  Doctors, either medical or psychiatric, care for the body or the mind.  Pastors care for the soul.  And Dr Kik is exactly right.  Each person in a hospital, or a church, must be seen as an individual if he or she is to receive proper care.  It is too easy to get caught up in “keeping the machine running” and lose sight of why its running in the first place.

To be fair though, the Juniper Hill administration had to be concerned with logistics.  The hospital was only built to house so many patients and they can only afford so many on staff.  When an institution is dealing with overcrowded conditions and understaffing, the people who are there in need of care often get lost in bureaucracy and spreadsheets.  Dr. Kik is not insensitive to the logistic needs of the hospital but does a wonderful job in placing his primary attention on where it needs to be; the patients themselves.  Especially Virginia.

With that, we are also introduced to Nurse Davis (Helen Craig).  When we first meet her, she seems cold and harsh, just trying to get Virginia and the other patients through the system as efficiently as she can.  It becomes obvious that she is jealous of the attention that Dr. Kik is giving to Virginia, as she has feelings for him that go beyond professional.  Nurse Davis winds up running the Level One wing, which requires the least amount of care, and is the last level a patient needs to be in before they can be discharged.  Virginia is soon relocated to this wing and realizes that Davis hates her because of the attention that Dr. Kik gives her.  She confronts Nurse Davis on this, and it is not received well.  Davis then takes it upon herself to have Virginia put into a straight jacket and moved to a level of care that was inappropriate for her: the highest level where people are considered untreatable.  This level was “the snake pit.”  She found herself among a group of women in a large, commons area engaging in different bizarre behaviors and emotional outbursts.

But even though she is scared, she befriends one of the most difficult patients; a young woman named Hester (Betsy Blair).  Hester doesn’t talk and is violent and seemingly unapproachable.  Virginia thinks what she really needs is a friend and makes attempts to be that for her.  She ultimately does, and Hester is changing by the end of the film.  This is a remarkable example of how a little love and understanding can go a long way in reaching, as Jesus calls us, “the least of these.”  While it was never explicitly stated in the film that Virginia is trying to show the love of Christ, she certainly does.  She is showing Hester the same love and care that Dr. Kik showed her as best she can.

Once Dr. Kik learns where Virginia has been moved to, he has her put back in Level One.  There, she works through childhood issues with Dr. Kik that explain her condition and gets to a place where she is able to leave the hospital and resume life with her husband.  But she has left the hospital a better place, especially for Hester, when doing so.  This is a great reminder that we never know what the Lord has in store for us in His providence when we experience setbacks and when being wronged by others.  Or as the patriarch Joseph told his brothers after they sold him into slavery and he wound up becoming Prime Minister of Egypt, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (Gen. 50:20)

It’s been suggested that “The Snake Pit” led to a variety of changes in mental health care as the portrayals shown unsettled many viewers by exposing what was happening in many such institutions.  This was tricky thing for the PCA in their enforcement of the Code to show these portrayals, but I think they did a great job of handling a sensitive subject honestly and appropriately.  For example, there are scenes where Virginia is having to endure electroshock therapy.  The Code was very clear that electrocutions were never to be shown, but the audience had to know what was going on.  So, they showed the generator and voltmeter being turned on with dramatic music, but we never saw Virginia herself reacting to the treatment as it was occurring.  That was a great way to handle it and be compliant to the Code.

While “The Snake Pit” was at times disturbing, you left the movie feeling uplifted.  Olivia de Haviland is one of my favorite actresses and she plays the part of Virginia flawlessly.  You really engage with her and want to see her recover and do well and rejoice with her and Robert when she does.  Leo Genn as Dr. Kik was equally fantastic.  He made his character one that you would want caring for you or a loved one if ever in such a hospital.  I don’t know if he was modeled from a real caregiver that Mary Jane Ward (the book’s author) had in real life, but he certainly makes for a great model now.   Doctors, psychiatrists, and pastors alike would do well to learn from his example.

Helen Craig as Nurse Davis did a great job of making her character cold and impersonal, but never two dimensional.  You could always tell that things were in turmoil beneath the surface for her and that she was expressing herself the only way she knew how; by trying to maintain control.

Betsy Blair as Hester was also wonderful.  She had very few lines, so her character had to be portrayed almost entirely through her eyes and body control.  That’s no small feat and she executed it splendidly.

Mark Stevens as Virginia’s husband, Robert, was also very good.  However, we unfortunately don’t get to see as much of him and his struggle with the whole situation as I would have liked.  If I could change one thing about the film, I would have liked to have seen some more of Robert’s coping with Virginia’s being institutionalized when he is alone at home or talking with friends, etc.  This would have given his character more depth and I think would have been helpful to audience members who were in his situation.  It would also have been nice to see some of the personal life of Nurse Davis outside of the hospital to see what all was informing such a cold, detached personality.  But screen time is precious and the movie is really about Virginia, after all, and there are many other characters in the film that could have been fleshed out.  Everyone has a story.

And our stories are what good art captures for us.  Especially our broken stories.  Our stories are what fuel film’s “presentation of thought, emotion, and experience in terms of an appeal to the soul through the senses.”  The PCA knew this.  They knew that nobody brings anything small into the theatre, too.  Many challenges were presented to them just after World War II when Hollywood started tackling sensitive subjects like mental health in “The Snake Pit,” alcoholism in “The Lost Weekend” (1945), drug addiction in “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955) and many others.  The Code showed us that it is possible to create films that resonate with people and are honest in their portrayal of life, while at the same time uphold standards of decency and morality while “rebuilding the bodies and souls of human beings”, as one of its core principles.  And “The Snake Pit” does this magnificently.

Happy #CleanMovieMonth2020!

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