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Fox Home Entertainment presents
The Snake Pit (1948)

"It was strange. Here I was among all those people, and at the same time I felt as if I were looking at them from someplace far away. The whole place seemed to me like a deep hole. And the people down in it like strange animals...like snakes. And I'd been thrown into it. Yes. As though, as though I were in a snake pit."
- Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: June 01, 2004

Stars: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan
Other Stars: Leif Erickson, Beulah Bondi, Natalie Schafer
Director: Anatole Litvak

Manufacturer: PDMC
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (intense depiction of mental illness)
Run Time: 01h:47m:50s
Release Date: June 01, 2004
UPC: 024543119821
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In the late-1940s, no studio produced more socially relevant or controversial films than 20th Century Fox. Topics once considered taboo were ripped wide open and examined with integrity and perception. Pinky (1949) dealt with a young black woman "passing" for white, while Gentlemen's Agreement nabbed the Best Picture Oscar in 1947 for its depiction of insidious anti-Semitism in New York City society. After the tremendous success of the latter film, producer Darryl F. Zanuck eagerly sought a follow-up project that would yield the same rewards. He settled on The Snake Pit, an adaptation of Mary Jane Ward's bestselling novel, which exposed the deplorable conditions at many of the nation's mental institutions. Not exactly cheery subject matter, but in the hands of director Anatole Litvak, the film treats its difficult issue with sensitivity and hope.

Upon its release, The Snake Pit generated shock waves for its uncompromising, often harrowing look at one woman's odyssey in a state mental hospital. The film can seem a bit over-the-top today, but still maintains much of its power and bite, thanks in large part to Olivia de Havilland's tour-de-force performance. Raw, fearless, and heartfelt, de Havilland's portrayal strikes just the right tone, and reflects the confusion, suspicion, and self-doubt that characterize psychological illness. Although she engenders sympathy, de Havilland isn't afraid to expose her character's coarse, paranoiac side, and the result is a three-dimensional, realistic portrait that steers focus toward the character not the star.

Fresh from Oscar gold in the maternal soap opera To Each His Own (1946), de Havilland set her sights on another statuette for her portrayal of Virginia Cunningham, a troubled newlywed whose deep-seeded guilt and fear of love sends her spiraling toward a nervous breakdown. Her young husband, Robert (Mark Stevens), entrusts her to the compassionate Dr. Kik (Leo Genn), but hospital overcrowding and impersonal care from the beleaguered staff forces Virginia's recovery to become prolonged, and her case to fall through the bureaucratic cracks of the porous health system. Virginia endures a rigorous regimen of drastic therapies, from electro-shock treatment and cold baths to truth serum, before Dr. Kik can get to the root of her mental problems.

Litvak brilliantly depicts the asylum as a microcosm of society, with hierarchies and etiquette ruling each numbered ward. Often resembling a prison, the stark hospital is governed by a dictatorial staff intoxicated by its autonomy, and unwilling to relax the carefully crafted atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. As Virginia navigates this illogical maze, flashbacks flesh out her illness, and provide a break from the bleak, institutional setting. Many of the "inmates" are little more than kooky caricatures, but almost all possess a kernel of truth that keeps the film real and unsettling.

Though de Havilland lost the Oscar to Jane Wyman, the New York Film Critics Society honored her as the year's Best Actress, and her performance holds up remarkably well today. Genn makes Dr. Kik a strong, soothing presence, a man who never lets his sympathies interfere with his professionalism, while Stevens underplays the sketchily drawn role of Virginia's husband with quiet, long-suffering patience. Fans of classic film will especially enjoy spotting dozens of familiar character actresses in bit partsóCeleste Holm, Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, Natalie Schafer, Betsy Blair, Virginia Brissac, Mae Marsh, Barbara Pepper—the list goes on. Most play resident loonies, but all make solid impressions.

Time hasn't dulled the impact of The Snake Pit, but many of its elements make it very much a film of its era. Alfred Newman's melodramatic score, the charmingly batty interpretations of disturbed women, the simplistic (by today's standards) explanation of Virginia's problems, and the hospital's primitive, almost barbaric conditions anchor the movie in the 1940s. Yet viewed in the context of its period, the film is even more powerful, and fuels one's admiration for Fox's willingness to tackle risky subjects. By exposing such horrendous problems, socially conscious movies like The Snake Pit effected change, and their far-reaching influence can't be underestimated. Then and now, watching one woman overcome such an oppressive environment and fight tooth-and-nail to regain her sanity remains inspirational and uplifting.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Fox continues to lavish enviable care on its Studio Classics series, and this full-frame transfer possesses marvelous clarity, contrast, and gray level variance. Blacks are deep and rich, and the print sports a vibrancy that belies its advanced age. Although much of The Snake Pit transpires in murky mental wards or antiseptic examination rooms, shadow detail is excellent. Only the faintest speckling can be noticed, with long stretches of the film remaining amazingly pristine. From start to finish, this is a terrific classic movie transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, French, Spanishyes
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The stereo soundtrack is a bit uneven, with the bombastic music score often overwhelming the action and forcing a volume reduction. Otherwise, the audio remains crystal clear, with minimal defects marring the presentation. The track contains no hiss and only a few pops and crackles, and dialogue remains easy to understand throughout. Despite the occasional uneven levels, the sound enjoys fine presence and good fidelity for a film of this vintage.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring All About Eve, Gentlemen's Agreement, The Song of Bernadette, The Three Faces of Eve
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian and author Aubrey Solomon
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 57m:38s

Extra Extras:
  1. Movietone News shorts
  2. Still gallery
Extras Review: The supplements for The Snake Pit aren't quite as extensive as other discs in the series, but Fox provides a nice offering of special material. Unfortunately, the audio commentary by 20th Century Fox historian Aubrey Solomon is rather weak, presented in a droning monotone and containing frequent, lengthy gaps. Solomon knows his stuff, and offers biographical information on all the major players and technical staff, discusses the adaptation process and the differences between the novel and the film, and relates some interesting trivia (such as de Havilland's experience with a stalker during filming). His sleepy style, however, prevents one from becoming engaged in the track, and only the film's diehard fans will likely hang around to hear the whole thing.

Several Movietone News clips from the Fox archives show the high regard in which critics and public alike held The Snake Pit at the time of its release. All are quite brief, but historically relevant and interesting. Snippets include de Havilland accepting her New York Film Critics award, Bob Hope presenting the actress with a Look Magazine achievement award, and cinema owners in Manhattan celebrating the five-month anniversary of The Snake Pit in a first-run Broadway theater. There's also a brief recap of the 1948 Academy Awards, where The Snake Pit took home only one statuette, for Best Sound.

A still gallery featuring 43 rare, behind-the-scenes photographs is also included, as well as the film's original theatrical trailer.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, The Snake Pit stands as one of the most socially relevant films of the 1940s, and still packs a potent punch today. A bravura performance by Olivia de Havilland, terrific ensemble work from a distinguished cast of character actresses, and Anatole Litvak's fluid direction make this psychological drama riveting from start to finish. Fox's superb transfer and decent extras complete the fine package, and make the disc another stellar entry in the Studio Classics series. Highly recommended.


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