Tuesday, April 5, 2016

HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE 1964

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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 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.
I don’t know how old I was when What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) first aired on TV, but I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. I remember watching it expecting to be scared out of my wits (in a fun way), but by the end all I remember is trying to conceal from my sisters the fact that I was crying. Anything I might have been scared by in the earlier part of this Davis/Crawford horrorshow of grotesques came in second to how heartbreakingly sad it made me when Davis said to Crawford at the end, “You mean all this time we could have been friends?’’

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 that 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?
Cecil Kellaway as Harry Willis

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 recounting 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).

PERFORMANCES
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
If my book of favorite movies were a ledger, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte would occupy a double-entry column marked “loss of innocence.” 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
I was a child when Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte had its broadcast TV premiere - a night which 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 (which was no picnic, but at least was a jolt), 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 a 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.

Happily, none of this has lessened my affection for this film or for Davis' memorable (to say the least) performance. My camp 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.

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 (Moorehead is a scene-stealing hoot, but it's Olivia de Havilland who winds up being the film's Most Valuable Player. She grounds it). A viewing pleasure too rarefied and full of surprises to ever be considered "guilty."



BONUS MATERIAL
Who needs Patti Page's willowy-soft vocals singing the Oscar-nominated song Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte when you can listen to Bette Davis' smoky rendition (literally, it sounds like she just smoked a pack) 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
*I intentionally didn't go much into the details of the whole Bette Davis / Joan Crawford feud during the making of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte because not only is the internet full of info, but YouTube has these great "making of" featurettes:
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'

Copyright © Ken Anderson

43 comments:

  1. Speaking of Joan...

    Glenn Erickson at DVDSavant.com shares this tidbit in his review of the 1959 teen pregnancy drama "Blue Denim.

    "The movie is accompanied by a horrendous trailer featuring none other than Joan Crawford reading a pious, sensitive narration assuring us what an important movie this is. Crawford is on the set and in costume for the same year’s The Best of Everything, and she’s lined the camera up in a way so as to keep her neck taut and so look younger. Knowing the calculated insincerity of this woman, the trailer is nothing less than chilling. I looked really carefully, but saw no spiked Pepsi bottle in the frame."

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    1. Thanks Rick
      That amusing description sent me to YouTube (the source of all things) where I found the clip. It does provide a glimpse of Joan's infuriatingly ladylike demeanor which sent "plain Yankee dame" Bette Davis into a rage.
      https://youtu.be/2H6sYf_0qvA

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  2. I cannot believe I've never seen this. (Sheesh!) Thanks for your observations and for sharing your research with us. :)

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    1. You're so welcome! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

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  3. You're so right about Olivia de Havilland's range, especially when not playing the Melanie Hamilton sweetness she was often typecast as after GONE WITH THE WIND. Have you seen her in LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA? She plays the over-protective mother of a pretty but somewhat mentally slow young woman. She does a great job of being the ferocious mama bear.

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    1. Hi Deb
      I Had the opportunity to see that film just recently but passed it up. I'm not much of a Yvette Mimieux fan, so as soon as I saw her, I changed the channel.
      If de Havilland is as good as you say, next time I'll stick around!

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    2. It shows you how much attention I pay (sometimes): until you mentioned Yvette Mimieux, I would have sworn the daughter was played by Carol Linley!

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    3. It's my guess a lot of casting agents at the time had the same problem with those two.

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    4. Ken--given you're lukewarm endorsement of Yvette, I had to chuckle when I checked out her Wikipedia page and the photo they currently have for her is an autographed pic that reads, "To Ken, warmest regards, Yvette." Not from your collection, I take it?

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yvette_Mimieux

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    5. You found me out! The source of my bitterness toward Evie (my pet name for her at once time) is because we were once close and she broke my heart. I posted that picture to Wiki to remind myself never to be that vulnerable again.

      Ha! OK, fantasy time over...that really is hilarious to see my name on that photo. I love that you saw it and brought it to my attention! Why can't there be a Julie Christie pic out there with a "To Ken" autograph on it? I'd download it, frame it, and lie.

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  4. Ken, your empathy and insight are what make you such a brilliant writer, able to share so much of what you see to both entertain and enlighten us all. I'd say that's a hell of a lot more important than being "fun on scary movie nights" (although I'm sure by now you're that, too!) Thanks for another wonderful essay.

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    1. Aww...that's a very nice thing to say. Thank you. I better appreciate those aspects of my psychological "wiring" now, but as a kid it seemed I lacked a kind of emotional cutoff valve! I'm happy you enjoyed this piece!

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  5. By the way, I think my favorite BD line reading from this movie has to be, "You're a vile, sorry little BITCH!"

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    1. Ha! That is a good one!
      One of my non-camp favorite line readings is when Kellaway asks her if she thinks she's insane and she responds:
      "I used to be positive I wasn't. But just lately...at night...it seems as if I really don't know anymore."
      She's awfully good there.

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  6. I saw this film so long ago that I can hardly remember it but now I have to check it out after reading your marvelous review of it. I'm so glad that Bette had some hit movies in the sixties where she was a main character with lots of opportunity to shine.

    I agree with you about watching horror movies. I just can't bear to watch the new gorey ones. To me it's like watching actual murders committed in real life. Much better with the older campier movies with lots of spooky atmosphere instead. It's true that most films and TV-shows in the 60s and 70s showed people dying without bloodshed, very clinical and with out fuss. It seemed to be just a way to get rid of a character quickly and to move on to the next scene.

    It was touching to read about your empathy as a child for the "Baby Jane" characters. It could have been a good drama movie without the killings too.

    There are so many old films I want to order and see. Do you still buy dvds or do you get most of your films through streaming services? I still prefer the dvds but they're getting hard to find.
    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      Bette Davis really was one of those lucky actresses who weathered various career ups and downs, but in the process snagged more than her share of memorable (and sizable) screen roles.
      I think one day I might write a piece about violence in the movies and that very odd TV phenomenon you mentioned regarding the easy disposal of characters by having their deaths happen quickly and clinically.

      The 70s was a very violent era in movies, but I liked when the violence sought to convey the pain of death, the difficulty of loss, and how it wasn't "easy" or swift. I appreciate it when its intent is to make me pay attention to it. I resent it when its treated like entertainment or a dramatic jolt.

      The gore trend in horror movies now wears me out. People actually walk out of theaters complaining if a film didn't have spectacular or elaborate enough deaths.

      As for old movies, I sincerely like having the DVD as opposed to streaming. Having grown up in the pre-HD TV days, I'm less of a stickler for image quality than I am about possessing them movie. I'm not sure what the ownership side of it means, but I definitely like having a film in my personal collection rather than an internet list for streaming.
      But as you say, those odd, off the wall films are growing ever harder to find. Sometimes the internet is the only place you'll see them.
      Thanks for reading this and commenting, Wille!

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  7. Dear Ken: Hi!

    Although horror movies generally are not my style, I saw "Hush, Hush" back in high school and still remember it quite vividly. Like you, I found myself engrossed by the characters, even though I also found the gore (pretty tame now, but pretty upsetting to me then) disturbing.

    One part of the movie I remember vividly is the opening credits, with the title song being played in a sad and almost child-like way (using a weeping, solo violin, if I recall) over shots of a silent Bette Davis, looking out at us with those huge, pain-filled eyes. That sequence conveys so much more than the average horror film, in which--as you accurately note--we're not really expected to care about the characters. Is it Charlotte who is looking at us with those haunted eyes, or is it Davis herself? So much layering and subtext to ponder over!

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    1. Hello David
      You're so right about that title sequence. Before writing this essay I hadn't seen the film in some time and had forgotten about how it opened.
      By now everyone should know I get waterworks at the drop of a hat, but I really do get choked up at Davis during this sequence. She honestly has the saddest eyes sometimes.
      It's just that sort of emotional engagement I often take issue with in "horror" films. Unless a director and writer are very skilled, I really do think there is something passively sadistic in making an audience feel sympathy for a character it plans to spend the next two hours abusing and putting through the wringer.

      I don't like the sort of nondescript teens lined up for slaughter thing in most slasher films (you don't care about their deaths because they're not even human); but horror films as a genre do well when they make us care for a character, but don't abuse that power (Rosemary's baby is an excellent example of audience sympathy respected).
      You're similar to my partner in not being one drawn to cruelty in films, but like him, it sounds like you appreciate when movies make you respond and encourage you to feel something.
      Thanks for calling reader's attention to the title sequence. I thought it was a marvelous beginning to the film.

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  8. Hey Ken,
    I just saw this childhood afternoon movie favorite again just recently! It's still an engrossing and highly entertaining movie.

    Things I love about Hush, Hush:
    Even though Bette/Charlotte has been a prickly recluse for years, Gene Hibbs was still nice enough to stop by with his skin tapes and magic marker makeup! I guess Gene was on his way to Hooterville to do Lisa Douglas and he figured what the heck!

    Olivia as Miriam is a sly puss in this melodrama, why she nearly outdoes first-cast Joan Crawford, who I'm sure would have also excelled in honeyed insincerity.

    And Bruce Dern didn't fare a much better fate here in the prologue than he did in the flashbacks of "Marnie," did he?

    What a great cast, this is really the key to these kind of movies, really. Joseph Cotten just oozes sleaze, Mary Astor very commanding as Jewel Mayhew, and Agnes Moorehead as Velma--yikes, where did she take the bus from to work, Tobacco Road? Fascinating!

    Love framing the piece from your childhood, it makes it much more than a movie essay!

    Rick

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  9. Hi Rick
    So funny your mentioning Charlotte not being so "gone in the head" to neglect her grooming! I for one have always been thrown by Davis in those long braids, Ellie Mae Clampett dress, and those very stylish 60s high-heel pumps. I don't know what I expect her to wear, but those shoes always looked too chic for a woman stuck in the past.

    And yes, something about Bruce Dern must have said "kill me quick" to early casting agents.

    I love the cast here too. I think de Havilland is great, but oh, how I wish Crawford had dug in her heels and made the film. But as they allude on the DVD commentary, it's unlikely Crawford welcomed the idea of Bette Davis triumphing over her...even in a movie.
    Thanks, Rick! Loved your fun observations!

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  10. Hi Ken,

    Wow, I had the same reaction when I first saw this. I remember it clearly because it was one of only a handful of films I saw with my father. Scared out of my wits but when I got home I was crying. It didn't help that in this, Bette Davis looked uncannily like my grandmother. I felt so bad for her.

    After so many viewings so many lines stick in my head:

    "Where you are I could in spit in your eye with noooooo trouble at all."

    "What's going' on up there that you don't want me to see?"

    Even the name Luke Standish needs to be shouted.

    At eight years old I'm guessing it was the first time I'd really seen Davis, de Havilland, Astor, and Cotton but what an introduction! I assumed they were all horror stars.

    Thanks, Ken!

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    1. Hi Max
      I'm not sure if I could have taken this movie at that age had I saw it in a theater. Those commercial interruptions helped (not to mention the minor edits during the meat cleaver scene). But I'm glad to hear that you felt something similar.
      Like you I kind of associated most of the players here with horror movies (I saw Lady in a Cage not long after this).
      By the way, I neglected to mention in my piece that I absolutely love all the names of the characters. Your mention of Luke Standish reminded me.

      And so many good quotes! The Agnes Moorehead one was used in the promos for the TV broadcast. After all these years I still recall how unsettling it was and how it made me want to see the movie more.
      Thanks for the shared memories, Max!

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  11. First: thanks to that clip of Bette singing I was led to her rendition of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" on the Andy Williams show. What a hoot!

    Love this movie! LOVE! IT! Of all the movies I was obsessed with as a teenager Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte took top honors. Anytime it showed up on the ABC 4:30 Movie I'd be glued to the set. I think I'd seen it a dozen times by the time I graduated college. It became an obsession for a variety of reasons. HHSC allusions and quotes showed up in my plays, short stories, and other writing in my post college days. Interesting you mention that bit about empathy for Davis when watching these Aldrich movies. I had similar reactions, maybe not bringing me to tears but experiencing profound emotions out of place with what you would expect to feel from a lurid thriller. Is it a sensitive gay boy thing? Probably. "I feel for ya, sister. I been there too." Of course as a 12 year old kid I hadn't lost my boyfriend to a meat cleaver wielding wronged woman, but I felt like I had. ;^) I definitely understood the feeling of being tormented. Throughout my teens I craved movies about revenge and movies that showed nasty ends to nasty people. I often dreamed about shoving a giant concrete planter onto my tormentors. What victim of cruel bullies wouldn't want to do the same? So odd how sometimes the most incongruous movie can offer an unexpected solace for a callow impressionable soul.

    Thanks for another excellent essay and for the wave of nostalgia I just went through. Now I have to see this again!

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    1. Hi John
      Yes...Ms. Davis had quite a lot of confidence in her singing skills!
      Interesting to hear that you're such a big fan of "Charlotte"...that this film in particular struck a chord. I find that stuff fascinating.

      Equally interesting is the empathy issue and what is it about this exploitation film that had the power to register on that level in ones so young. I know for me I've always had this thing about stories and films in which people lose or waste parts of their lives due to some internalized fear or self-protection. It's why I always get emotional about any version of "A Christmas Carol"; tales in which a person, at the conclusion, is brought to some realization that years that could have been happy ones have been spent in some kind of self-imposed prison. My being such a shy child and a late bloomer who came into my own only after leaving high school...I think that plays a part.

      Fantastic that you were able to access all those memories, and I'm happy you felt like sharing them.
      I'm just crazy about the unique and unexpected ways movies can impact our lives.

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  12. I finally watched this yesterday on your recommendation. Now I'm going down a hagsploitation and Southern Gothic rabbit hole for the weekend.

    I've always been a fan of Olivia de Havilland - I've seen her play cold, or warm, or frantic, but I never knew what my life was missing was her playing gleefully malevolent. SO much fun!

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    1. That's wonderful, I'm so glad you enjoyed it!
      As much as I would have loved to see Crawford in this film, de Havilland supplies exactly what Crawford could never get away with at this stage of her career: a sense of ambiguity regarding the true nature of the Miriam character. De Havilland is awfully good when she's being bad.

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  13. Your post on 'Charlote' provoked me to order a copy on eBay. I've never seen the film. I know why. It's the song. And Patti Page. And the combination of the song AND Patti Page. I know that both have their merits, but both make me run the other way. Joan's exit and Olivia's stepping into the role have also made me wary of the final result.

    But you have achieved what everything that went before you could not. I, and an eBay vendor, thank you.

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    1. Wow! Now hat's saying something! At least you can be comforted by the knowledge that Patti Page doesn't sing on the film's soundtrack (just as I find comfort in knowing Bette Davis doesn't, either). Hope you enjoy it!

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  14. When you mention Southern Gothic movies, it brings to mind the wonderful quote by Julia Sugarbaker in a “Designing Woman” episode:

    “I’m saying this is the South. And we’re proud of our crazy people.

    We don’t hide them up in the attic. We bring ’em right down to the living room and show ’em off.

    See, Phyllis, no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family.

    They just ask what side they’re on.”

    I never forgot it because it’s so true!

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    1. Hi Robert
      That terrific quote is indeed a perfect summation of and virtual credo behind the entire Southern Gothic genre. The kind of genteel approach to mental illness that perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald introduced became old hat with the Williams, O'Connor, McCullers, and Capote crowd. Thanks for sharing that!

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  15. Great writeup. I think my favorite thing about this movie is Agnes Moorehead and her willingness to let herself look like hell for the sake of the role.

    One thing that bugs me: a lot of the post-Psycho movies that use the "sins of the past" theme, felt they needed a pre-credit sequence actually showing the past action (Homicidal, Strait Jacket, Baby Jane). But the one for Charlotte must go on for 20 minutes!

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    1. Hi MDG
      Yes, Moorehead goes full tilt "character" as Velma. A performance that really should have upended the movie, but somehow seems to work.
      And you comment about the extended pre-credits prologues is something I hadn't taken notice of before. It's always interesting when film styles seem to follow a pattern- one you can't necessarily discern without the passage of time.
      Thanks very much for commenting!

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  16. Hi Ken,

    Loved reading your memories of watching these films for the first time. There is something profoundly sad about both this and Jane. Though both have underlying horror themes and get clumped together because of Davis they really are very different films whose lead character are quite dissimilar, Jane despite some outside influences has caused much of the trouble she is in while poor Charlotte is a complete victim of circumstance.

    Baby Jane is the flashier of the two but I’d agree that Charlotte is the better film with a stronger narrative thrust. While I appreciate all the different facets of films for me the thing I respond to first foremost and always is the performers and their work. Someone else mentioned the powerful opening with Bette just forlornly staring out in the distance and it sets the tenor of the film and her quieter work.

    Moorehead is memorable even given that hers is a vaudeville turn but I think Cecil Kellaway’s performance makes more of an impact in the long run. He was one of that great group of character actors that seem to have vanished now with everyone trying to be as young as possible and types being frowned on. With the twinkle in his eye, which he could give an ominous twist-he was wonderfully devilish in I Married a Witch, usually employed to an elfin kindly effect he gives his character a subtle focused center making it believable that he would have no trouble seeing though the smoke and mirrors that the other characters are putting up and being the only one who truly SEES Charlotte.

    Which leaves Olivia de who does ground the film in a way that Crawford never could have. Her silky honeydew, butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth act comes across as innate whereas Crawford, while always dignified, was also always studied and brittle. I love her in the film but I often find myself wondering what the quartet of actresses, Kate Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young and Vivien Leigh, who were offered the role when Crawford bailed and before Olivia came aboard would have done with the role. The mechanical Young probably would have given the performance closest to Joan’s but without any warmth whatsoever. Missy Stanwyck would have been interesting and varied, and from what I’ve read the tension between she and Bette would have been just as strong off-screen since they had a long standing enmity dating back to when Bette had a small role in the Stanwyck starrer So Big in the 30’s, but the genteel softness the role really called for wasn’t her strong suit. Same goes for Hepburn who nailed her one foray into Southern Gothic, Suddenly, Last Summer, but Violet Venable is an ironclad ogre with only the thinnest sheen of gentleness and I’d guess that her Miriam would be cut from the same cloth. Vivien would have been ideal but like Kate the offer to her was complete wishful thinking on the producer’s part. Neither of those two women were at the point where this sort of project was their only option nor would they ever be.

    I almost forgot Mary Astor! Physically she’s so sadly diminished but her small performance is rock solid and a great way to close out her career.

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    1. Hey Joel
      Really terrific observations on the film and the performances. You're very keen in detailing the specific qualities of a performance that appeal to you.
      Whatever this film's strengths or minuses as a genre piece, it is a particularly well-acted film and benefits tremendously from the talented cast.
      Especially enjoyed reading your assessment of the various actresses considered for the Miriam role.
      Good to have you back, Joel! Thanks.

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  17. Oh, Ken!

    I obtained a copy of "Charlotte," as promised. What a hateful little movie. If Mary Astor had only killed Bette Davis in the first five minutes, it all would have been so much better.

    The whole thing hinges on the decades long blackmailing of Mary Astor, but I didn't buy any of that. I watched to the end, but Davis's screaming and carrying on was just all too much. Bette. Agnes. Modest Joseph Cotton. All of them seemed to be graduates of the Mugoshlovsky School of Dramatic Art.

    But I'm happy it's there for everyone who does enjoy it. We can't like them all.

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    1. Yay! Congratulations for "surviving" Charlotte!
      I totally get that it's a thriller rooted in a rather sour perception of humanity ("hateful" is actually a good word for it) and, I suspect, if one is first coming upon it as an adult with fresh eyes, a tolerance for a certain kind of Bette Davis performance that is, under the best of circumstances, an acquired taste.
      (Mugoshlovsky...Ha!)
      Kudos to you for taking a chance on a film your instincts had up to now shielded you from. At least now you can no longer say "I've never seen it!"- and should the film ever come up in conversation (god help you) you can chime in and proudly show your battle scars!
      Very cool of you to give us the follow-up to you Ebay purchase! Thanks, George

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    2. Thank you. I do keep thinking about it, though. The list of atrocities committed by Miriam is impressive. And those are just the atrocities that we know. What sort of life must she have been living after she left the homestead and before her return? What else did this awful woman do? That's the interesting movie, but we don't see any of it.

      Charlotte is just a half-baked Blanche DuBois. Both are victims of circumstance, Southern aristocrats stuck in a rotting South that no longer has its aristocracy. Raised for one kind of privileged life, but it crumbles around them. Blanche is destroyed by events that no one could prevent and no one could bear. Charlotte is destroyed by another person's malevolent act. That difference might have been very interesting. But look what different stories the writers crafted from that similar background; that of a tragic heroine and that of a screeching harpy.

      I think that's where it all fails for me. You are a prince for so graciously accepting my dissent on a film that seems a favorite of yours. I thank you.

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    3. Well, as I see it, every movie has its fans and detractors. I already know why I like this movie- therefore I tend to find it fascinating to hear about how others see it...especially if it's from a perspective different than my own.
      For example, your speculation as to what kind of life Miriam must have led is different, yet precisely on point with what I think about when I watch this movie.
      For all the wailing and yelling, what always gets me about the film is the specter of the long-dead patriarch looming over these people's lives.
      He's shown to be a bully and a controlling brute, and you're left with wondering how badly must he have made things for Miriam for her to carry around so many years of resentment; how he ruined both the lives of his darling Charlotte and John by interceding (she's always saying "He never even..." alluding to their "affair" being chaste); and you think of how painful it must have been for Miriam to have her beau (Cotten) abandon her for something her dreaded cousin did.
      All pretty fascinating stuff, but given the exploitation treatment here, not really delving into the psychological.

      So even though you didn't care for the film, It sounds like you actually gave it a good chance and merely found it wanting. Who could ask more than that?

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  18. I'm really enjoying your blog and I liked this review a great deal. I first saw this as a boy, when "Bewitched" was still in heavy syndication, and I was just blown away by Agnes Moorehead's performance here. Such a switch from the familiar Endora. Many years later I was arguing with a "friend" who was revealing himself to be something of a phony and I couldn't resist using Velma's line: "Well, you're finally showing the right side of your face." My favorite BD line is one she says to Miriam: "What is that you do? Public relations? Sounds like something pretty dirty to me."

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    1. Thanks, very much, Rich!
      Yes, I think to a great many of us who were kids during the "Bewitched" days, Moorehead's Endora was our first exposure to the actress. To see her so very much in contrast in this role was quite an enjoyable shock. In later years when I discovered her work in Orsen Welles' films and others, I realized that Endora was barely scratching the surface of this actress's talent.

      And in a film full of quotable lines, the two you reference in your comment are really great! ZThanks for reading and for for the kind words!

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  19. Hello Ken and fellow commenters,

    I saw "Charlotte" for the first time just about a year ago, and at first I thought it was going to be one fun ride of a movie. But I was let down, on the whole.

    I'm not altogether sure why, but I'm going to say it was due mainly to some of the performances and to some of the plot points. As to performances, Bette just seemed to spend most of her time chewing up--and spewing out!--the scenery. Not all, but a lot. And Joseph Cotten's corn-pone drawl just plain worked my nerves. I realize this is more a comment on my tastes than on Cotten's abilities. As to Agnes M, while she chewed her fill of scenery as well, it seemed to work. Maybe because she seemed to me to be pretty much a one-note character.

    Then there was the plot: I'm afraid I found it irksome that it was so unclear as to when Olivia and Cotten decided to plot against Bette. And how did Cotten, who was on foot, get home before Olivia and Bette, who were by car?! lol And though the details are fuzzy in my mind, there was one scene in particular where Bette is cowering or hiding or something while Olivia is on the phone and Joseph Cotten is wrapped up in gauze or something that made no sense whatsoever. And then Bette having to hack and wheez on the stairs--Puh-leeze!

    I suppose it sounds like I'm nit-picking, since most people seem to have enjoyed it. After all, they rated it even a tenth point higher than "Baby Jane" on the imdb. And not that I didn't find it entertaining here and there; I did. The cinematography was gorgeous, and I found Mary Astor to have hit all the right notes. But, to sort of paraphrase Jackie Susann, "One *was* Enough!" lol

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  20. Hi Allen
    Thank you for sharing your very amusing thoughts on "Charlotte." I'm glad you were able to break down just why the film just didn't work for you.
    I think if we're all honest, a great deal of what we respond to - good or bad - comes down to a matter of personal tastes, so it's perfectly valid to find certain performances thoroughly annoying while other's don't mind them at all.

    No one can say you're not speaking an observable truth when you say Bette kind of goes for the fences, performance wise. And I think there's much to said for seeing this film as an adult as opposed to my first exposure to it as a youngster.

    It's been my experience (speaking for myself and a lot of folks writing in here) that the films we take a liking to at impressionable ages largely hold a soft spot in our hearts as we grow older. It doesn't mean the films are bad or ill-chosen, I just think nostalgia and what the film "means" to us (in terms of time, place, and feelings) become part of the package.
    Arguably, your mature point of view about this film is a good deal more clear-eyed than my own, nostalgia-laced feelings; but that's what it seems to come down to: our personal subjective take on a movie.

    I got a kick out of reading your list of grievances with "Charlotte," partially because so many are understandable!
    And it's not at all nit-picking. I do the same thing. If a few things start to rankle me about a movie, I have a lot of trouble giving it the benefit of the doubt, but if a movie grabs me in some way, the latitude I give it for flaws and inconsistencies is broad indeed.
    No, I have a hunch a few readers (sympathetic to your point of view) will find your comments a amusing breath of fresh air after reading my rave. And what can be more balanced than that?
    Thanks again, Allen!

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  21. Thanks for your reply and additional thoughts on "Hush," Ken. Yes, Bette does go "for the fences," doesn't she?

    I appreciated your comments about how our reactions to movies reflect our personal tastes, and that a lot of those tastes can develop from when, where, and how we were feeling when we first saw a movie. I know that some movies that I first saw as a child remain dear to me, even though I now see "through" them as an adult. "Invaders from Mars" comes to mind, with the zippers so obviously sewn into the backs of the "Martians," though the idea of ones parents turning against you and that sight of that barren landscape where people sank through the sand into the Martians' lair is still a bit on the disturbing side. Whereas other pictures I saw as a child now embarrass me to watch, even leading me to resent them for no longer holding the magic they once did. Then there's the one of a kind "Wizard of Oz," which I loved as a child but probably would have loved just as much had I first seen it as an adult. My parents both first saw it as adults, and they both fostered a life-time affection for it.

    Thanks Ken for sharing both your writing gifts and your love of "le cinema" with us.

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