Virginia (Olivia de Havilland) marries Robert (Mark Stevens), but she soon becomes profoundly disturbed and her caring husband sends her to a psychiatric hospital. Using Freudian techniques combined with physical modalities of electroshock and isolation, her psychiatrist (Leo Genn) leads her to overcome her amnesia and to understand that her illness is the result of unresolved yet misplaced feelings of guilt over a boyfriend and her father. Just before Virginia is happily restored to Robert, the asylum patients are gathered together at a hospital party where they sing of their yearning for home.


The pipe-smoking psychiatrist, whose office portrait of Sigmund Freud has the uncanny habit of appearing to perch on his shoulder, must defend his patient against his colleagues anxious to free up beds. Virginia is followed through a series of increasing difficulties, some of which are caused by the less enlightened doctors, until she reaches a desperate low--the turning point: she imagines herself and the other women patients in a snake pit. With the added help of electroshock, her recovery begins; it is complete when she is freed of transference and able to say that she is no longer in love with her doctor.

This pro-psychiatry film is cited as one of the first Hollywood movies to give serious attention to the subject of mental illness. Its confidence in psychiatric diagnoses and treatments, especially the combination of psychoanalysis and physical therapies, reflects the increasing optimism of psychiatry in the early 1950s. "Snake Pit" was nominated for six Oscars--winning only one (for Best Sound); one year later, the Nobel prize was awarded to Egaz Moniz for his development of cerebral arteriography and frontal lobotomy.


Based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward.

Primary Source

Fox Studio Classic Series, 1982