By Alan Hurst
Released in late 1964 in time to qualify for Oscar consideration, Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte is many things: creepy, funny, campy, and probably the best example of Grand Dame Guignol there is with two older but still fabulous stars, an unbalanced central character, severed hands and heads popping up, stray meat cleavers, and victims seemingly rising from the dead. It’s also a surprisingly good film considering all the drama that went on during the making.
If you’ve watched the wonderful Feud: Bette and Joan (2017) on FX you know the back story, but in case you don’t, here it is. Director Robert Aldrich had delivered Bette Davis and Joan Crawford a late career gift with the leads in his production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The story of two sisters – one a former child star, the other a handicapped former screen star – and their macabre game of cat and mouse, was shot on a shoestring budget in less than a month. Davis and Crawford, always wary adversaries, made it through the shoot without killing each other. When the film was released, it got terrific reviews, it was one of the biggest hits of the year, and received multiple Oscar nominations including one for Davis as Best Actress, but not for Crawford. That’s when the war between the two actresses truly began, with some bad behavior on Crawford’s part leading up to and during the evening of the Academy Awards in the spring of 1963. Fast forward to mid-1964 when Aldrich had found another ideal script for them. Both signed on, but soon after shooting started the battles become too much for Crawford who took to a hospital bed and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland, an old friend of Davis’. It’s one of those terrific “what might have been” stories that have become part of Hollywood lore.
Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte is the story of Charlotte Hollis (Davis) who has spent the last 40 years mourning the death of her married lover John (Bruce Dern), who she had discovered with his head and hand severed at a party in the late 1920’s. The state of Louisiana has decided they’re going to construct a highway right through her family’s plantation and estate (where she lives alone), but she refuses to leave. Her cousin Miriam (de Havilland) comes to convince her to leave and to help her pack. And that’s when eerie things start happening in earnest all over the house. Through the course of the two-hour plus running time, we get the answers to all the questions that are raised very quickly at the beginning. Is Charlotte crazy? Did she commit the original murder as everyone suspects? Did John’s wife commit the murder and has she been blackmailing Charlotte? Why is Miriam – a successful career woman – so interested in coming back to the plantation after all these years? And just what role does creepy Dr. Drew (Joseph Cotten) play in all of this?
While not entirely on the same level as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Aldrich’s southern gothic follow-up should still be considered one of the best horror films of the sixties. The director and his design team get the atmosphere just right and the decision to film in black and white was smart – it automatically takes us one step away from reality and ensures some of the cheaper scare tactics have more impact. The sometimes harsh realism of color would have immediately told audiences it’s all fake, but with black and white, you’re just not sure. The cinematography also helps show both the faded elegance and seedy grandeur of the estate. Like Charlotte, it’s a relic from the past but – at times – still beautiful.
Aldrich also does great work with his primary cast – a trio of old pros clearly relishing their roles.
Bette Davis gets – and deserves – the lion’s share of attention as Charlotte. It’s an over-the-top but riveting performance and her choices as the off-kilter central character are sometimes as terrifying for the audience as what she’s experiencing at the hands of others. A favorite scene occurs during dinner near the beginning of the film and the bubbling anger she shows towards de Havilland’s character. Her screeching “What do you think I asked you here for, COMPANY?” is both scary and funny. There’s also a terrific scene following a murder where she encounters the victim at the top of the stairs – after having dumped him in a nearby river. It’s perfect.
Olivia de Havilland as Miriam is a great choice as the replacement for Crawford. Her personae comes with built-in sympathy so you are more than just a little unsettled when you start realizing that Miriam isn’t all sugar and sweetness and is, in fact, more cutthroat than either Davis or Crawford ever were. She also looks terrific – a nice juxtaposition to the disheveled, Charlotte.
Agnes Moorhead scored a major hit as Velma the maid. Here the glamorous Moorehead is slovenly, haggard, sarcastic and very protective of Charlotte. She figures things out pretty quickly, but of course it doesn’t end well for her. Moorehead’s final scene with de Havilland before falling down a flight of stairs is one of the best things she ever did.
Making her final screen appearance here is Mary Astor, a very good actress from the thirties and forties best known for her femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and the mother in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). She has a couple of nice, melancholy scenes as the dying wife of the film’s original murder victim.
The weakest part of the film for me is Joseph Cotten as the family doctor. Cotten was a very good, often overlooked actor but here he plays everything just a shade too slimy, a little too faux southern – to the point that he often comes across as little drunk in all of his scenes.
When the Oscar nominations were announced Davis was counting on getting her 11th Best Actress nomination for her work here. As good as I think she is, the performance had as many detractors as it did champions at the time. 1964 was also one of the more competitive years for Best Actress (click here to read more). Still, the film garnered an impressive seven nominations including one for Moorehead as Best Supporting Actress, as well as Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Song for the title tune, sung by Al Martino in the film and later a top 40 hit for Patti Page.
The success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte helped usher in a series of films featuring older actresses either causing peril for others or being the victim, all to diminishing impact. These included: Strait Jacket (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), and Berserk (1968), all with Joan Crawford; Dead Ringer (1964), The Nanny (1965), and The Anniversary (1968), all with Bette Davis; Lady in a Cage (1964) with Olivia de Havilland and Ann Sothern, Die! Die! My Darling (1965) with Tallulah Bankhead; What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969) with Ruth Gordon and Geraldine Page; Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) with Shelley Winters; What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) with Shelley Winters terrorizing poor Debbie Reynolds. But in terms of quality, scares and box-office success, none of these came close to Aldrich’s two gems.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.