Before "The Snake Pit" (1948) films that featured mental illness were usually used to layer or advance the characteristics of a horror film such as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920) and "M" (1931). It was because of "The Snake Pit" that such films like "Marnie" (1964), "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), and most recently, "Girl Interrupted" (1999), were not only the cause of mental illness exploration but the treatment or lack thereof was questioned on the silver screen and in reality too.
Based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward, "The Snake Pit" is about Virginia Cunningham, a woman who finds herself a patient at the Juniper Hill State Hospital and cannot remember how she got there. So she searches her new, frightening surroundings for answers. The novel itself was controversial in its own right because it was based on Ward's own undercover experience at the Rockland State Hospital, where she witnessed firsthand how mental patients were treated.
The film's director, Anatole Litvak, took a similar approach with his actors and crew in order to prepare for the production. All of them traveled with him to mental institutions to witness what they would be working to try to portray accurately onscreen. The film's star Olivia De Havilland, took the preparation to heart and emersed herself in the life of a mental patient. She watched the procedures of electric shock treatments and therapy sessions. She also attended the dinners and dances which were very similar to the one portrayed in the film.
And the work paid off. In De Havilland's Oscar-nominated portrayal of "Virginia Cunningham," the actress has us sympathizing with her delicate condition in which the film's narrative travels between Virginia's current predicament of being stuck in the hospital, with her diagnosis of being Schizophrenic and her days before.
When the film was released, "The Snake Pit" rocked not only Hollywood for being a harrowing film but the medical field as well. According to 20th Century Fox's publicity releases for the film, they indicate that legislation and regulations pertaining to state hospitals and asylums were changed because of the realistic mistreatment of patients shown in the film.
Today, 63 years later, modern viewers view this once controversial film into a harmless B-film. One of the problems viewers point out is the narrative that is too melodramatic or disjointed in order to be taken seriously. However, "The Snake Pit" should be viewed as a time capsule to how little we understood the mind, and the inhuman belief that a mental patient's best fate was to be tucked away from society. And that is why it is a serious film.