Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay not a review, therefore many crucial plot points are revealed for the purpose of discussion.
In earlier posts on The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, I wrote about how, as a youngster, I was drawn to horror films and scary movies; this in spite of everything in my personal and psychological makeup only reinforcing how ill-suited I was to the genre. A self-serious kid given to over-thinking everything, I was too literal-minded and took things far too much to heart to appreciate the cathartic benefits of what felt to me to be the casual sadism at the core of so many horror films and scary movies.
It’s not like I was immune to the escapist fun of being frightened by a movie—the rollercoaster thrill-ride of jump cuts and shock effects—but that’s what B-movies were for. Cheaply made, poorly-acted programmers featuring creatures with visible zippers in their costumes were so artificial, their frights were reassuring. Once the genre started attracting Oscar-winning actresses and high production values, and the ghouls and monsters were replaced by cruel behavior and criminally dangerous people with mental illnesses…well, cathartic escapism gave way to inappropriate-for-the-genre empathy.
I grew up at a time when TV violence was full of bloodless bloodletting. Whether it be westerns, spy thrillers or sci-fi dramas, death on television was impersonal and at a remove. When people were killed, they simply fell: no visible wounds, eyes closed. The same held true of those B horror movies from the '40s and '50s screened on TV programs like “Creature Features”—death was just part of the drama and nothing to take seriously.
And indeed, until I grew older and the film took on the mercifully distancing attributes of camp, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has always been for me less a shocker than a very sad melodrama populated with pitiable characters. Some fun I was on scary movie nights.
I had a similar reaction to Robert Aldrich’s follow-up film, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Only with gore levels ratcheted up (as is the wont of horror films cashing in on a previous success) there was enough genuine fright to go around, too.
|Bette Davis as Charlotte Hollis|
|Olivia de Havilland as Miriam Deering|
|Joseph Cotten as Drew Bayliss|
|Agnes Moorehead as Velma Cruther|
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, in reuniting the director, production team, writers, and many of the actors from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, stops just a hair short (make that a big bouffant wig, short) of being an actual sequel to the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford starrer whose surprise success kicked off the whole Grand Dame Guignol horror film trend. Director Robert Aldrich had initially succeeded in convincing Crawford and Davis to appear together again as co-stars, but after roughly ten days of shooting, Crawford bailed and/or was fired (details below*) and was replaced by frequent Davis co-star Olivia de Havilland.
Substituting the Hollywood decay of Baby Jane for dilapidated southern-fried gothic, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte tells the story of Charlotte Hollis (Davis) an eccentric, Delta Dawn-like southern belle (is there any other kind?) who has holed herself up inside her late father’s Louisiana plantation following a scandalous, horrific night in 1927 whose secret she must guard. An unsolved secret involving a daddy’s girl, an illicit affair, a married man, a domineering father (Victor Buono), and an unattended meat cleaver.
|Mary Astor (in her last film role) as Jewel Mayhew|
Jump ahead to 1963. The demure Charlotte has grown into a loudmouthed, hot-tempered, pistol-packin’ plantation proprietress a few mint juleps shy of full pitcher. With the home she shares with her slovenly housekeeper (Moorehead) now threatened with demolition by a highway commission, Charlotte enlists the aid of her level-headed cousin, Miriam (de Havilland). Unfortunately Miriam’s arrival triggers all manner of past rivalries and resentments, not to mention elaborate psychotic episodes in Charlotte which the family doctor (Cotton) barely has time to tend to before the next one erupts. What's the secret Charlotte is guarding, and who is it she's trying to protect? Is Charlotte really off her southern rocker as everyone in town seems to think, or is she getting a little assist off the deep end from seeming well-wishers?
As thrillers go, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte is certainly not one lacking for secrets, suspects, and suspicious characters; so there’s a great deal of creepy fun to be had in trying to figure out just who is doing what to whom, and why. And while it’s been many, many years since the first time I saw it, I recall that after I thought I’d figured everything out, I was blown away how many more surprises the film had up its sleeve.
|Victor Buono as Samuel Eugene Hollis ("Big Sam")|
Only 26-years old and portraying 56-year-old Bette Davis' father
Benefiting from a larger budget (nearly $2.5 million to Baby Jane’s $980 thousand), name cast, a Top Ten theme song (Patti Page’s version on vinyl, Al Martino sung it in the film), and Davis’ tireless promotion of the movie (she was an unbilled associate producer with profit points); Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte garnered seven academy award nominations (best supporting actress [Moorehead], B&W cinematography, score, song, art direction, costume design, editing), largely favorable critical response, and emerged a boxoffice hit. Although not quite as big a hit as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Ranking Baby Jane and Charlotte on the basis of entertainment value alone, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? comes out on top as the most original and conceptually daring of the two. There’s something audacious in both the premise and casting of a story about two washed-up movie actresses making their golden years hell for one another that makes Baby Jane feel like a lost chapter from The Day of the Locust. Horror credentials aside, Baby Jane succeeds in being an ingeniously grotesque Hollywood black comedy with a campy/bitchy bite.
|Bruce Dern as John Mayhew|
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, on the other hand, has two ghosts hovering over it: John Mayhew and Joan Crawford. As good as Olivia de Havilland is, there’s no way I can watch the film without wondering what might have come from the re-teaming of Davis & Crawford. They were a dynamite pair in spite of—most likely, specifically due to—their shared animosity. But in comparing Baby Jane & Charlotte as they stand and on their own terms, I find Charlotte to be the better film overall: better written, better acted, more solidly structured, and less of a one-woman-show. It’s a genuinely riveting melodrama which loses points only for its too-traditional gothic structure (the movie tests one’s tolerance for dark shadows, long staircases, and women in long, flowing nightgowns), and over-reliance on familiar haunted house/woman in peril tropes (Thunder! Lightning! Gale-force winds! Weather is never as unpredictable as it is in a horror film).
But being a longtime fan of the whole crazy-in-the-heat southern gothic tradition, what I enjoy most about Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is how it feels like the explicit, pulp novel reworking of one of those dark, family-related secrets poetically alluded to or whispered about in the works of Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte was adapted from the unpublished short story What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? author Henry Farrell (who obviously had a thing for these kinds of titles: What’s The Matter With Helen? How Awful About Alan).
Although I’m never quite sure what to make of everyone’s southern accents (I have no ear for their authenticity, only the giggles they sometimes inspire), I like all of the performances in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte a great deal. The very capable cast of classic Hollywood stars appear to be enjoying themselves in roles which capitalize on and play off of past performances (both Cotten and de Havilland are likable personalities with screen experience showing their darker side). None more so than the Oscar-nominated Agnes Moorehead, who pulls off the amazing feat of making an over-the-top, very funny characterization, if not necessarily believable, certainly sympathetic. No one kids themselves that they're appearing in Eugene O’Neill, but neither do they condescend to the material.
|As de Havilland demonstrated in The Heiress (1949), few people can |
play the flip side of sweetness and light to such chilling effect
However, it’s Bette Davis as the titular Charlotte in need of hushing who serves as the film’s center and driving force. Make that tour de force. Playing another pitiable, mentally fragile woman haunted by the past, Davis achieves moments of surprising sensitivity and subtlety of emotion almost simultaneously with instances of full-blown, drag-queen-level histrionics. It’s precisely what the role calls for, and Davis, clearly giving it her all, must have been disappointed when she was overlooked for an Oscar nomination.
|Cecil Kellaway plays an insurance investigator looking into the unsolved Mayhew murder case|
Davis & Kellaway's scenes are my favorite
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Happily, none of this has lessened my affection for this film or for Davis' memorable (to say the least) performance. My appreciation for Bette Davis—the rabid scenery-chewer with the yo-yo-ing southern accent and forceful screen presence—is matched by my genuine admiration for Bette Davis the talented actress, and the nuances she brings to a role (at least in the film's quieter moments) written in such broad strokes.
Were my list of favorite movies a ledger, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte would occupy a double-entry column marked “loss of innocence”: movies that have changed as I've grown older. There, alongside such titles as The Birds, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Bad Seed, and Valley of the Dolls; Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte would represent yet another film I enjoyed in my youth as dead-serious, straight drama; now, well into adulthood-bordering-on-dotage, I appreciate mostly for its camp value and unintentional humor.
|Tact...Tact, Sweet Charlotte|
As with the aforementioned Baby Jane, I was a child when Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte had its broadcast TV premiere. A night that stands out as an evening of traumatic firsts: 1) It was my first exposure to gory bloodshed: the meat cleaver murder in the film’s prologue was bad enough, but the sight of blood splattering on the statue of a cherub fueled more childhood nightmares than I’d care to count; 2) It was the first time I ever saw anyone die with their eyes open. Yikes!
Add to all this the fact that I had yet to see the influential French thriller Les Diaboliques (1955), so Charlotte’s borrowed denouement twist was nearly as terrifying for me as it was for poor, put-upon Bette Davis.
So while Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte did a superb job of scaring me to death, like its predecessor, it was also a movie my younger self found to be very sad. Honestly, I must be the biggest softie around, but even today Bette Davis' crestfallen demeanor and wounded eyes can fairly make my heart break. But as a child I was just worn out by all the film put her character through...and as it turns out, unnecessarily. So once again, as the credits rolled, I had to conceal from my sisters that I had been reduced to waterworks by the thought of her character's life spent in misery for nothing.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
These days, my memory of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte as a scary film has fallen prey to too many years of Bette Davis impersonators, too much quotable dialog, a 2015 drag spoof titled Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte, and too many laugh-filled evenings with my partner cracking up at this, his favorite line (and line reading):
Truth be told, I would have given Bette Davis an Oscar for this bit alone.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a watchable, fun, atmospheric old-style escapist movie (still a little sad for me in parts, but in a nice way) featuring a cast of good actors giving solid performances. Agnes Moorehead is a scene-stealing hoot, but it's Olivia de Havilland who winds up being the film's Most Valuable Player. She has an easy naturalism that grounds the high-flung theatrics surrounding her. While no classic, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is nevertheless a viewing pleasure too rarefied and full of surprises to ever be considered "guilty."
HERE. With a full orchestra, yet.
|Olivia de Havilland & Agnes Moorehead (r.) recreating a scene first filmed with Joan Crawford.|
Although nothing alike, de Havilland replaced Joan Crawford in
1964s Lady in a Cage as well as Airport '77
AMC Backstory: The Making of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Wizard Work: a 1964 featurette narrated by Joseph Cotten
Hush...Hush, Sweet Joan: The Making of 'Charlotte'