Snake Pit Review (Metapsychology

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The Twentieth Century Fox Studio Classics DVD release of The Snake Pit from 1948 features a commentary by Aubrey Solomon, who has written two books about the films and history of that film studio. The movie was based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Mary Jane Ward, telling the story of Virginia Cunningham played by Olivia de Havilland, who was a major Hollywood star at the time. We see her at the start of the movie in an insane asylum, bewildered by her surroundings, and utterly confused about why she is there. Much of the plot solves the mystery of how she came to be mentally ill, through many flashbacks.

In the 1940s, it was surprising to the public that de Havilland would take on such an unglamorous role as a mental patient, and the film won many awards. This was one of the first films to depict modern treatments such as electroshock therapy and cold baths, and it also shocked people because of the terrible conditions it showed in the mental hospital.

Solomon's commentary focuses on the actors in the film, their work in other movies, the documented facts about the making of the film, and the public reception. He occasionally extols the acting and screenwriting, and tends to take a positive view of everything connected with Twentieth Century Fox. He makes hardly any critical comments. De Haviland's acting is versatile, and it is easy to understand why she won such high praise in the reviews; yet to contemporary viewers her performance will seem a little stilted and exaggerated. The portrayal of Virginia's mental breakdown and mental instability seems rather heavy handed, and does not seem to fit any clear diagnosis -- she hears voices, behaves erratically, loses her memory, and has irrational fears. The other inmates of the asylum are even more caricatured and if duplicated in a modern movie it would probably be condemned as offensive because the portrayals are both unrealistic and heighten the craziness of the patients. They give...
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