Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Directed by Robert Aldrich, written by Henry Farrell, who also wrote What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), How Awful About Allan (1970) and the made for tv film The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972) scripted by Lukas Heller and Farrell. Starring, the legendary Bette Davis as Charlotte Hollis and Olivia de Havilland as cousin Miriam Dearing, Joseph Cotten as Drew. The inimitable Agnes Moorehead as Velma Cruthers. Cecil Kellaway as Harry Mills and Victor Buono as Big Sam Hollis, Mary Astor as Jewel Mayhew and a very young Bruce Dern as John Mayhew. George Kennedy as the foreman and extra recasting of Wesley Addy as Sheriff Luke Standish and Dave Willock from Baby Jane.
Aldrich apparently had another hit with his 2nd genre film, which opened to generally positive reviews. With the exception of this scathing review in The New York Times, by Bosley Crowther who couldn’t have been more off the mark, he writes “So calculated and coldly carpentered is the tale of murder, mayhem and deceit that Mr. Aldrich stages in this mansion that it soon appears grossly contrived, purposely sadistic and brutally sickening. So, instead of coming out funny, as did Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? it comes out grisly, pretentious, disgusting and profoundly annoying.”
Again, I wholly disagree with Crowther, as this film wasn’t meant to be as campy as Baby Jane, and “funny” is an odd word for the film as well, nor was there an unwritten rule that said Aldrich, had to restrain some of the grisly details from this picture. I don’t believe chaining an invalid to a bed, feeding them road kill and slowly starving them to death, is the less disgusting proposal. And as far as being brutally sickening, I see Charlotte as a hauntingly nightmarish allegory.
Let me say that I loved Peter Shelley’s book. He compiled some great examples of the genre and added a lot of information and insight to the subject matter, I was with him all the way, so the few points of divergence in our opinions of Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte aren’t a slight to the author at all. According to Peter Shelley in his Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother , chapter on Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte the film suffered from the absence of Joan Crawford. Shelley considered the follow up film to be a “bloated reprisal of the pivotal components of the earlier film” (pg.57). Actually I think quite the contrary about this suspenseful, understated film. It has less feeling of a”bloated” extension of the first Hag film, as Charlotte appears more distilled, virtually more refined in it’s subtle use of hallucinatory machinations, with a very cogent argument for Charlotte’s sustained ire and melancholy. Shelley considers the location an attempt to surpass the Grande Guignol aspect of it’s predecessor by placing it in a southern Gothic milieu, the Ascension Parish but he thinks it fails with it’s “florid exoticism” again because it lacks the electrifying cast choice by not rejoining Crawford and Davis. Additionally, I say too much of a good thing becomes a device therefor a reuniting of the two would have minimized the impact that the prior collaboration by both film stars made with Baby Jane. I think that Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte is perhaps even an elegant piece and stands well on it’s own, as a taut psychological standpoint of the regressive woman and at it’s very essence is an ideal Grande Dame film.
I think Crawford would have brought a certain purposeful intensity that worked for her in so many films, but would have overshadowed the interplay between Davis’s Charlotte and Olivia de Havilland’s subtle malignant charm of her characterization of cousin Miriam. Supposedly after the great success of Baby Jane, Crawford agreed to do a follow up film. Aldrich encouraged writer Henry Farrell to create a new story called “What Ever Happened To Cousin Charlotte?” Bette Davis asked that the title be changed to fit the line from the song. And so Aldrich agreed and Davis signed on. Crawford however wanted her name to come first on the credits, unlike Baby Jane where Davis’s name appeared left of screen or side by side. Leftward being the more pronounced association as the star. Bette Davis even agreed to this provision. Once shooting began in Baton Rouge on June 4th 1964 Davis only got to film one scene with Crawford, where she watches Crawford enter the mansion. Otherwise they never did another scene together from that point on. The production was put on hold because Davis was called away to finish some re-shoots on Where Love Has Gone in Los Angeles.
By the time Davis returned Crawford had purportedly checked into the hospital for pneumonia. So Aldrich worked around the scenes with Crawford. She would come back to the set and then leave again. Aldrich claims that Crawford had made herself ill by worrying about his favoring Davis over her. Because of Crawford’s absence the production had to shut down for a while until the insurance company demanded that she be replaced altogether. Aldrich had looked at several other actresses, such as Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, which would have been an amazing choice. Katherine Hepburn, which would have been a colossal mistake and Vivien Leigh who probably would have brought an interesting edge to the film’s already responsively layered narrative. Davis wanted Olivia de Havilland after seeing her in Lady in a Cage , and I think she made the right decision. Although, Leigh or Stanwyck would have been interesting for me as well. de Havilland was the embodiment of spuriously beautiful evil.
It’s 1917 Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono) brutish patriarch of generations of Hollis’ that founded Hollisport Louisiana is shouting at someone off screen. The film opens with Sam arguing with John Mayhew (Bruce Dern) in Sam’s study at the Hollis Mansion. Sam would like to kill John Mayhew who is married to Jewel Mayhew but having a torrid affair with his young daughter Charlotte (Bette Davis). Not only will this cause a scandal amongst the small incestuous community of Hollisport, but Sam considers everything “his” property, especially his baby girl. He tells John that at the night of the big dance at Hollis house, he is to meet Charlotte in the summerhouse and break off their plans to elope and put an end to the entire relationship.
John does so, breaking Charlotte’s heart. He tells her that he really did love her once, as she throws her corsage at him yelling “I could kill you” before she runs out of the room. While John sits and contemplates his decision, an unseen person has entered the room and proceeds to brutally murder John with a meat cleaver, cutting off his right hand and chopping off his head. The scene is quite frenetic and disturbing with it’s shock edits and Noiresque shadows. Close ups of John’s face in abject terror and quick cuts to a blood splatted angel who is the only witness to the crime create a very grisly effect as the love birds in a cage tweet their song against the screaming John Mayhew.
Charlotte walks into the ballroom, the big balls of lights hanging straight out of a Maxfield Parrish painting. She is veiled in shadow but we can see the illumination of her white dress splattered with blood. The crowd is horrified. Big Sam takes Charlotte’s hand and leads her away from the crowd of onlookers at the party talking to her as if she were still a child. “Com’ on baby” all the while Charlotte saying “no papa, no papa I don’t want to.”
And so begins the notorious legend of the gruesome murder of John Mayhew that stains Charlotte forever by the town, with it’s sensational mystery, becoming fodder for the gossips over the next several decades. A crime of passion assumed to be perpetrated by the scorned mistress young Charlotte Hollis.
This is Aldrich’s first prologue. Now the second prologue is upon us in Aldrich style and now it’s 1964 and a group of mischievous boys are walking through a cemetery toward the Hollis Mansion bringing a sheepish boy with them on a dare. He must enter the house, known to be inhabited by the crazy meat cleaver wielding Charlotte and grab a trophy in order to be one of their club members. The little guy enters the house, as if it is an Egyptian tomb with a curse on anyone who dare enter it’s secret chamber. He looks swallowed up by the darkness in the house, at the late hour. John Mayhew’s head and hand, were never found, and could still be hidden in the great house, furthering the intrigue and mystique of the infamous mansion.
He stumbles onto a little music box on a table next to a chair in a sitting room. As he goes to grab the box, he is shocked to find an aged Charlotte awakening from a nap in the chair. She becomes quite startled by the little intruder, yet she seems frozen by the moment, and we are not sure whether or not she is even aware of what year it is.
She is stunned at first, holding her hands to her face. The boy can’t flee the room fast enough grabbing frantically at the door knob. The other boys realizing that Charlotte is there, scramble off the property, running like little phantoms mere flashes of shadows in flight.
Charlotte picks up the music box still in a sort of dream like state, calling for her beloved John. At this point Aldrich brings in the credits, and Frank DeVol’s gorgeously poignant music begins to serenade Bette Davis as she stands right of screen. Tears welling up in her evocative eyes. Aldrich has created with Davis another regressive female, not as grotesquely feminine as Baby Jane, yet quite out of touch with the present day. Growing up under a controlling father figure, and subjected to a traumatic experience in her youth. In fact spending the past decades believing that it was her father Big Sam who killed her lover, yet staying faithful to her papa and his house, out of childlike devotion.
A recluse in a dying house, like a queen in exile, Charlotte lives on the outskirts of society just as Baby Jane did. And not unlike Baby Jane Hudson who started out as the darling of Vaudeville only to become a hideous forgotten relic who turned to alcohol and eventual regression, so too does Charlotte start out as the darling debutante of the south, only to be perceived as a ranting madwomen hold up in her archaic mausoleum of a house with her papa’s portrait still prominently displayed on the wall, a tribute to the bestial patriarch who was bred on entitlement yet had no intrinsic refinement of his own.
Charlotte is now a woman/child longing for her beau to come back. Haunted by his death, and shunned by the community. Charlotte escaped prosecution because Big Sam had influence in the town, and sent Charlotte away to England for a long stay. John Mayhew’s murder remained an unsolved mystery, but rumors of Charlotte’s insanity and her guilt surrounding the murder still circulates throughout the town. Even the foreman of the construction outfit played by George Kennedy, tells her “Some people seem to think they can get away with murder.” After Charlotte takes her shot gun and fires it at the work crew.
Presently, the town is trying to evict Charlotte from her land, in order to link up her property with a bridge. She has been given warning, but refuses to leave her home, the grounds and the grave of Sam Hollis not more than yards from the great house. The construction crew is already wreaking her land, ripping up the ground, plowing through the intricate gazebo, the birds simultaneously singing amidst the great oak trees around the plantation, while the destruction thunders and jolts through this historic property.
Charlotte comes across more like a pioneer woman standing on her balcony with her shot gun, trying to stave off the interlopers with their steam shovels. She stands on her balcony, shot gun gripped in hands, screeching at the construction crew. “Damn you!”
She is always accompanied by her trusted companion and caretaker Velma Cruthers played by the inimitable Agnes Moorehead who also infantilises Charlotte at times, yet cares for her deeply. Dr Drew, a childhood friend and opportunistic dandy who looks in on her is played by Joseph Cotten. Charlotte decides to send for her cousin Miriam who is now a sophisticated business woman, working in public relations. Charlotte sends for Miriam in hopes of having her go to Baton Rouge and help stop the eviction. Miriam had come to live with cousin Charlotte, taken in by Sam Hollis when her parents died. Both were childhood friends although Miriam seemed to live in the shadow of Sam’s dominating exaltation of Charlotte until the night of the murder, and Charlotte was sent away.
In the meantime, a Mr.Harry Wills played by the always lyrical Cecil Kellaway, comes to investigate the crime posing as a newspaper reporter for a pulp crime magazine. Charlotte takes an immediate liking to this kindly older gentleman who claims to have met her when she was hiding out in England. He remarks how rude the press was to Charlotte when she first arrived in London. He also tells Charlotte that she’s been his “favorite mystery”.
Miriam arrives but appears to have a dual motive. She doesn’t intend to help Charlotte stay in the house, she tells Charlotte that she has come to be there with Charlotte through the ordeal and help her find a new place to live where they will “take care of her” Miriam and Drew used to be an item, but the scandal frightened Drew and so he ran away from Miriam. From the beginning of Miriam’s arrival her facial expressions are a portrait of rage in repose, which seeps through at times when there are hints of it in her reptilian smile. Miriam is a morally ambiguous character.
In terms of whether the narrative tries to convince us that Charlotte is crazy, consider a line spoken by Drew when Miriam first arrives at the house, and questions whether Charlotte is stable or not, he responds “innocent fancies become fixed delusions” alluding to the fact that while Charlotte may live in the past which might inhibit a person’s development toward stages of emotional growth , thus the regressive aspect of the Aldrich anti -heroine, technically she is not clinically insane.
I really have to disagree with Peter Shelley on a few points in his chapter on Charlotte in Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother just to repeat in terms of Shelley’s claims that Hush Hush is a “bloated reprisal of the pivotal components of it’s earlier film” he is saying essentially that it’s missing Joan Crawford’s presence. a) I don’t agree about the film being an inflated characterization of the prior seminal work of Aldrich, Baby Jane. Hush…Hush works in it’s own right as a very compelling film, while not as sensational because it doesn’t utilize the feuding legendary persona’s of Crawford and Davis as a basis for it’s draw.
As I stated earlier, I believe that Olivia de Havilland was just as magnetic as cousin Miriam, an ambiguous she wolf with a history of resentment in comparison with Joan Crawford who was merely the reactive character to Jane’s dynamism in Baby Jane, mostly lurking in in the Hudson house, wheeling around in her chair, looking more corpse like with each frame.
de Havilland had a range to work with, in Charlotte so I would not dismiss her role by comparison. b) Shelley labels Charlotte as singularly a “victim” without the ambiguity of Protagonist/Antagonist. And while I’ve stated that Charlotte is way more sympathetic in this role, she has laid bare many layers of ambiguity throughout the narrative. Her explosive outbursts. Her regressive nature, which might lead to mental illness. We do not know whether or not she killed her lover John Mayhew, and let us not forget, that while I am not making a judgment here, Charlotte was having an affair with a married man. This displaces her as the virginal child
who is merely an innocent bystander and lacks complicity in the events of her life. I would say these are the components that set up the pivotal conflict of who is the real antagonist/protagonist of the film until the final climax.
Miriam and Drew both consider Charlotte to be unstable and want her committed. Yet,Velma, Sheriff Luke Standish and Mr Wills seem to be the only people who don’t think Charlotte is truly insane, just someone who is expected to act that way, and who has lived alone for too long. Although after several uncanny and nightmarish incidents Charlotte starts to doubt her sanity as well.
Charlotte may or may not be hallucinating, seeing visions of John’s decapitated head and severed hand. The harpsichord plays the melody that John wrote for Charlotte. Many things are not what they seem. And Charlotte is convinced that Jewel Mayhew, John’s widow, is behind all the hate mail she’s been getting for years. Letters with only the word Murderess written on them.
Has the also reclusive Jewel been holding a grudge for Charlotte having had the affair with her husband? The dying Jewel Mayhew is played by the great Mary Astor who takes Mr Wills into her confidence specifically because he is a stranger in town. She hands him an envelope and tells him that after reading it’s contents only after her death, should he do what he thinks is right.
The film is filled with the iconic dualism, sense of entrapment and MeloNoir motifs that Aldrich is so good at. Is what we see merely a hallucination by a very unstable woman, in Charlotte or is someone trying to drive Charlotte insane? Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte is one of the most riveting and poignant films of any genre. Davis breaks my heart in every scene. The atmospherics and pure genius of Henry Farrell’s Gothic story telling is haunting and memorable. I’ve decided not to reveal the plot as it plays out. I go through half of the film and stop at the point, where Harry Wills befriends Charlotte initially meeting her while she is placing fresh flowers on her papa’s grave.
Unlike Baby Jane, Charlotte is a bit more obscure in terms of it’s cult status. I hesitate to follow the plot straight through to the end, because I’d like to encourage people to either revisit Charlotte or feel inclined to see it for the first time. Bette Davis is one of the most compelling actresses of all time, and Aldrich’s portrayal of the tragic Charlotte Hollis as characterized by the genius of Davis’ swiftly adaptable mood shifts, is nothing short of stunning and heart wrenching. Her portrayal of Baby Jane Hudson embodied a similar emotional agility, but the performance demanded more of an over the top mania, which Charlotte Hollis does not suffer from. I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone who wants to experience the rest of the film for themselves completely unprepared or be reminded of how the spiraling narrative plays out. Therefor I’m going to add some images yet not discuss the dialogue any further than midway through where the delirium starts and the answers to many questions unfold to it’s ultimate climactic end.
I hope you decide to watch the film. It will be a memorable experience for those of you who like to discover old cinema masterpieces, just adore Bette Davis, as much as I do and appreciate the work of Robert Aldrich or simply love Grand Gothic Cinema at it’s finest. Not to mention the fine performances by the entire cast, and again Frank DeVol’s music is brilliant.
(Jo Gabriel Sound Page Albums The Last Drive In) Track Sweet Charlotte
Although both Aldrich Films have very special places in my heart, I think Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte has had more of an impact on me. It was hard from the outset of the film,not to be incredibly moved by Bette Davis’s performance. The story itself is set in a milieu that is a particular favorite of mine, the southern Gothic tale. Charlotte’s character persists in breaking my heart, even at her most feral moments. This masterpiece of Aldrich, really should be revisited by people who might not have seen it in a while, or if you’re a first time spectator, please give it a chance, taking it more seriously than merely a vehicle for Davis to act hysterical and campy. This film transcends that on so many levels. And although these types of films laid the groundwork for other similar films in the canon of the monstrous feminine, insane spinster genre, Charlotte is truly poignantly haunting cinema.
Charlotte is a seminal piece of work and in my opinion she is not “insane.” The film is a “poignant” story that digs deeply at people who live on the margins of society, which give them a unique insight, the outer appearance of being eccentric or truly mad. It also is a commentary on how vulnerable some outliers are to those who would take advantage and violate them either by subjecting them to indignities, holding authority over them or worse, mentally torturing them in order to gain control and power. This film is truly something special that reaches across many genres. I am so glad that I decided to spend the time reacquainting myself with it.- MG
First Prologue: Crickets, the isolated melodious chirping of crickets. A divine yet eerie serenade outside the antebellum plantation, just before we hear the booming voice of Big Sam Hollis. An old southern Gothic plantation enduring, a time worn mausoleum behind the grand oaks and wispy moss that dangles. The Hollis Mansion is the first character we meet in Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte. The house, the environment with Aldrich plays a key role in setting up the atmosphere for alienation and madness. As was the house in Baby Jane, the odd angles, the dark Chiaroscuro that Aldrich uses to weave the plot in and around a twisted exquisite set of deceptive plot dynamics that spiral in the same way his shots of staircases and characters are framed by shadow that lock them and us in.
As usual Aldrich shows us in the prologue the outside of the plantation, the southern Gothic architecture, the mossy flowing trees. But we hear Big Sam played by Victor Buono lambasting John Mayhew, giving him a discourse in class hierarchy and self preservation, his own. Hollisport is founded on an established patriarchy handed down by generations of the Hollis bourgeois tyranny that has controlled the town for decades. At first we only hear Big Sam’s voice. A sloppy southern low growling drawl with a tinge of arrogance to sharpen it’s bite.
“This house, this plantation, this whole damn Parish belonged to my family before your people stepped aboard the stinkin’ cattle boat that brought em to this country”… then we here a more strident tone “Don’t you dare talk back to me boy!” the sweet sound of larks and crickets are incongruous with the incendiary verbal lashing going on in the house. Aldrich sets up the contrasting realities.
“My family’s seen this state crawling with these lousy Carpetbaggers that knew more about behaving like a gentleman than you do.”
Again, In keeping with Aldrich’s prologue motif , we now know that It’s 1927.
“I can’t even look at Charlotte without ugly thoughts rippin’ my guts!”
The camera is moving closer to the house. We’re diving through the window, when Sam Hollis’s voice gets much louder, as we are now in the room with him, yet we still do not see him on the screen just yet. “I’d sooner, it’d be one of my “field boys.”
Now we see Buono, with mustache, hands in pockets, right of screen looking a lot more red blooded and mammoth than the petulant fat boy he played as Edwin Flagg in Baby Jane. This role is quite the contrasting extreme of his first acting role with Aldrich. He exudes a brutish hyper masculinity. He has no refinement to his coarse appearance and manner. His primacy is endowed more out of the propriety of legacy and tradition than instinctive, yet he is puffing his chest out like the head rooster in the hen house. Sam Hollis represents the founded patriarchy in this film much the way Grant’s family held sway over the town in The Naked Kiss (1964)
I want to address some of the salient points about the importance that patriarchal rule has in this film, but I’ll leave that towards the end of the commentary in part V. But yet again, I digress and hop on my little tangent train.
He continues in a raspy swallowed whisper “I could have killed him.” Sam is referring to the field boy he’d rather Charlotte was having an affair with because then he’d be allowed to “kill him.” Are these “field boys” he mentions “young black men?” The way Sam says “field boy” sounds like an ironic euphemism, and of course Sam being able to “kill a black boy” indicates that Sam is racist and sees them as having no human value, and that the law would not touch him, it was the early 60’s in the south. It’s the way he says it. He drags out the word boys, like Boooyysss. The emphasis on boy being used as a derogatory term for a black male. Sam is a narcissistic tyrant who looks at people as either his possessions or his property with which he has sole ownership. Giving him certain rights and privileges. Everything in Sam’s world either has value for him, or no value at all, depending on it’s relationship or his stake in it.
Now Big Sam is center screen, and we can see the back of John Mayhew, a very young Bruce Dern (you can catch him again as a young buck in yet another great episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller The Remarkable Mrs Hawk, where Dern plays Johnny a farm hand for (Jo Van Fleet) and pig, don’t ask, just watch!)
The boorish Sam is gritting his teeth and his body language is edging towards a violent outburst, he leans in and moves a chair aggressively out his way so he can get closer to John, “Do you know what it’s costing me not to kill you!’ John is just sitting there quietly taking it in so far. There’s a slight pause, then Sam lets out a chuckle like a fat devil’s minion. “My daughter…and Jewel Mayhew’s husband” He digs in deeper with his voice. The shame that has come over his good family name is vexing him.We also know now why he’s so infuriated with John Mayhew. His daughter Charlotte is having an affair with a married man. The gossip and scandal must be treacherous for the Hollis family’s reputation in the community.
Sam finally busts into the physical rage that’s been brewing, and goes after Johnny, forcing him to get up from the chair as Big Sam chases him around the study. “You’ve got that soft smile.” Now we can see John’s face. He is lanky, handsome and dressed in a fine linen suit. He stands behind a chair gripping it as if to use it as a barrier between himself and Big Sam. There’s a long pause between both men who are out of breath. John rests the chair back in place, as the moment seems to have have cooled. Big Sam exudes a sort of peacefulness after his initial outburst.
Now Big Sam starts to wax nostalgic, looking outward off screen as if seeing the past in his view, while we watch him reminisce. John is still focused on Sam “My daddy sat out there on that veranda let this whole place slide to dust….when he died there was nothing but debts and dirt.”
A beautiful melody is starting to accompany Big Sam in his soliloquy. “I touched that dirt and made it blossom”…the music gets more pronounced like a southern lullaby as Sam’s voice becomes elevated again. “I fought to keep this house; to bring it back up.”
Now he walks over to an oil painting, It’s a portrait of Charlotte, Sam stares at it as he speaks his mind “I don’t have a son to give it to, only Charlotte… and she ain’t gonna give it to you!” He digs in, and growls these words at John. Here again, Sam’s daughter Charlotte is equated with the house, a thing, an object, a possession that is to be kept not considered of individual human value but something Sam made, owns and aims to keep to himself. She is merely property to the father who stakes eternal ownership.
Buono’s transformation from the part he played as the pajama wearing man/boy in Baby Jane to this southern version of Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972), or Big Daddy played by Burl Ives in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) even a quasi Orson Welles or William Conrad type rustic mammoth who’s biting, flawed sagely girth is quite drastic from the whiny, sweaty oaf he played in his earlier role in 1962.
“You ain’t gonna have my home or my child…I created both and I’m gonna keep ’em.” His massive figure starts to move closer to John again. “I ain’t watched over my girl all these years just to have some…to have some creature take it all away!”
Big Sam is up in John’s space now, the furniture gets jostled around a lot in this little game of dominance, of “I’m going to get you”. John is visibly nervous, unsure what this behemoth will do with his wrath. Suddenly John seems to find an inner courage to speak to Big Sam.
“I’m gonna tell you something…your daughter ain’t a little girl anymore, and there gonna be other men in her life besides you.” Big Sam moves in closer, the strings allow for a break in the dialogue, John moves closer to the door that leads to the outside garden. The music swells as if Sam were combustible but we are misdirected as the music dies down and Sam starts to chuckle. He’s a man who has to be in control at all times. He likes to invoke fear. He sits down as his massive body collapses into the chair, he is still chuckling to himself.
John very serious, tells him “that’s not funny” He moves away from the door and positions himself back in front of the big wooden desk in Sam’s study. Sam very calmly asks John “tell me somethin’…boy….how’d you have this elopement planned out?”…he lights his cigar… “How were you fixin’ to go about it?”John looks out toward the garden and answers “tomorrow night, during the dance, Charlotte and I planned to meet out in the summer house.”
Aldrich uses his “jump cut” close up to rock back and forth between John’s dead serious face, and Big Sam’s sardonic jeer puffing on his fat cigar, looking smug. John continues “She was gonna have her bags packed and we were gonna go away together, that’s all” the last two words John almost swallows. “And I had got us a room in Baton Rouge, we were gonna stay there.”
The camera zooms back in on Sam’s virulent yet disdainful face, looking sideways at the young man who has made a claim to his property, his child, Charlotte. Sam blows up “I don’t wanna hear about that!” John a little more cocky now says “You asked me so I just told ya that’s all” Sam starts to rile up again, staring at Johnny straight in the face.
“Now!!! very breathy, leaning forward, the leather of his chair sighing as the weight of this giant man digs in, “You shut…your filthy mouth, then you listen to me…”
We hear the sweet song of birds oddly external yet part of this ugly conversation.”Charlotte doesn’t know about this…she doesn’t know you’re here now…she doesn’t even know Jewel was here last night.” Now Johnny looks worried and asks “What do you mean Jewel was here last night?”…he’s combative again “you mean to tell me that my wife come over here to talk to you?” Big Sam points with his huge finger, “As I recollect she was sittin’ right bout here” Johnny looks down, as if he is feeling shame now.
Music starts to play within his silence, more strings and birds singing coming in through the window. Flutes are joining in. Johnny sits down sluggishly as if he’s defeated. Big Sam dealt a mortal blow, when he spoke about his wife Jewel. Sam speaks “Now…you’re gonna come to that dance tomorrow night with your wife (the portrait of Big Sam looking down upon Johnny, like a father figure holding judgment on the son. The leveler of the game. The giver of the law. The true patriarch of the narrative.)
Sam is speaking but we are still gazing at John Mayhew a felled man.”You’re gonna meet Charlotte out in the summer house just like you planned…but what you’re gonna whisper in her ear, it’s gonna be something else again.” John looks broken.
Still part of the 1st Prologue -Cross fade – we are at the dance. Ball lights adorn the place right out of a Maxfield Parrish painting.
Lanterns hanging like little moons that glow over head. Bourbon Street Jazz music is floating around the scene. It’s dark and shadowy in the realm of a classic Noir thriller. Couples are walking like black silhouettes along the promenade of the house. Like other prologues there is a flirtatious woman’s voice, but she is off screen.We do not see yet hear her ask “Come on baby, we haven’t even danced once.”
We’re moving in closer to the gala, people still rustle about in shadow. To the left of the screen it’s obscured in darkness, to the right, we see elegantly dressed ladies on the arms of gentleman dancing the Charleston in the ballroom all lit up in contrast. People are remarking about Big Sam’s party and his bootleggers, impressed with his wealth and stature.
A young blond, cousin Miriam walks slowly into the room as if looking for someone. She sees a couple dancing, “Ginnie Mae Ginnie Mae, have you seen Charlotte, I have some thrilling news to tell her” Ginnie dishes “I haven’t seen her for a long time now, last time I seen her she was dancing with John Mayhew” Ginnie says with a little thrill to her voice. The boy dancing with Ginnie adds “Yeah, and it looks like it’s gonna be quite a spell til you see her again.”
Miriam starts to talk to herself “I just gotta find” she is cut short by the presence of Big Sam dressed in a tuxedo looking deadly serious at her. He leers at her but says nothing. She passes by him. A waiter with an ice bucket chilling champagne passes a portrait and the camera holds onto the image. The portrait is of three people sitting, Big Sam patriarch in between two you women. One to our right has a bright smile and lovely gown, the girl on our left is holding her hands in a more modest pose, wearing a unassuming dress and looking less polished. She gives the appearance of being more shaded in the painting as if she is less significant than the brightly painted blond in white. We assume this is Charlotte and in sharp contrast, her cousin Miriam.
Big Sam lurks heavily around his house looking, for Charlotte and Johnny on a silent prowl then Jump cut to Charlotte sitting at a table crying while Johnny is standing by the open french doors that lead out to the garden.”I made a mistake Charlotte that’s all…don’t cry” he moves to comfort her “look I know it’s no consolation to you, but I really loved you at one time.”
The scene is obscured by love birds in a cage singing to each other. The bars cover up Johnny and Charlotte, for a brief second. Is that symbolic of love or Johnny’s marriage being a cage. Love traps you, binds you together, yet there is no freedom for these two lovers. The room is dark, but we can see the billowy white dress Charlotte is wearing. Now the couple is lit a bit more, but we can only see Charlotte’s hair, obscuring her profile. We barely see Johnny’s face. She is still sobbing.
He tells her “try and understand that, I really loved you” She gets up and starts to run out of the room, throwing her corsage at him, he remains sitting at the table. Charlotte breaks her tears to scream at him.
“I could kill you” the voice of a young Charlotte is being filtered through the much older, voice/ over of actress Bette Davis. It sounds unnatural, but brings her into the past with us, rather than have another young woman’s voice express her pain and betrayal.It is essential that we begin a symbiotic relationship with the older Charlotte. She leaves the room. Johnny rises from the table, we still hear the love birds singing to each other.
LOVE IS A CAGE
Jump cut to the figure of Charlotte in her white dress, walking through the garden. Then again another Parrish style frame of the grounds with lanterns, the jazz music is still permeating the party. Now we see Big Sam standing outside on the grass, he’s been hunting for Charlotte. He looks left then right. Then jump cut to a servant with a meat cleaver trying to pry open a case of Champagne.
Another senior servant comes in and says “you oughta know that you can’t open one of them cases with a thing like that , look here why do you think I brought this special” The younger servant moves aside and the head man uses a crowbar to lift open the crate lid. The camera zooms in on the meat cleaver. We are supposed to see it as a device, a foreshadowing of events to come. Much like the frame in Baby Jane of the hammer on the hall table, right before Jane bashes Elvira in the head with it.
Again we cut away to Big Sam walking outside on the prowl looking for his daughter. Now we see the young servant boy walk away from his post, so he can espy the goings on at the party. Of course this is an opportunity to escalate the tension, the scenario being that when he returns to his crates of champagne, the meat cleaver is now missing.
This we see as the jazz music turns into trumpets and french horns blasting in drastic contrast that almost breaks the ear drums and enhances the visual. We see the empty table where the sharp instrument was placed. This is our cue that something bad is about to happen. Cut away to John siting in the dark holding the corsage that Charlotte has flung back at him. He is looking down. He smells the flower. We hear the love birds chirping. The camera sets it’s gaze on the nude statue of a cherub framed in by the surrounding darkness.
Quick cut to the love birds in the cage. Cut back to Johnny smelling the flowers. He puts his right hand out on the table to set the corsage down, the hand on his forehead, he is suffering from the whole ordeal. We hear someone stirring in the shadows, Johnny looks up and calls out “Charlotte?” He looks toward the door, there is no one there. He looks away and sighs. We see the door move very slowly.
The shadow of palm leaves cut across the door, leaving slices of dark lines on the door cutting it in half. Cut back to Johnny, dejected, slouching in his chair. Quick cut to the floor, and the light that is being allowed in from the door slowly opening. We know someone is coming into the room, the injection of the obscuring shadows, fit the Noir canon with it’s use of darkness makes our view impure. The angel statue as fetish symbol as well as the portraits. and the framing of a door. A flute blows a tentative trill as a dark shadow moves into the room, and the light on the floor is devoured by it’s blackness. Back to Johnny, his profile, we see that he now senses someone’s there.
There is a shock edit, as he looks up his eyes display abject fear as his last moments, once more time calling out tentatively “Charlotte?” until he realizes that there’s a menacing intruder in the room with him now.
We are allowed one second of pause, then Johnny cries out in agony and the music uses strings to strike as the blade strikes. First we see Johnny’s hand being cut off at the wrist, the bloody stump still remaining on the table, as the chopped off hand falls to the floor. He screams out in mortal terror and physical pain. The camera jumps between rapid shots of the metal meat cleaver hacking away at the shadows, and Johnny screaming in pain, from the attack. He falls backwards a little and screams “no!!!!!” then a quick shot of the severed hand on the floor symmetrically placed next to Charlotte’s corsage. A tiny pool of gray/black blood, since the film is in B&W it’s even more macabre than Technicolor blood.
There are shock edits after shock edit, first of the meat cleaver hacking away, John screaming “Oh my god” as he is being struck by an unseen assailant, then the curious frame of the marble cherub sitting as a silent witness to the savagery. There is a frenetic energy, an abject moment of horror that grips you as it all seems to manifest into one single image, although we are watching scenes edited as jolting volleyed frames.
THE ANGEL STATUE AS FETISH
It creates more of a sense of the brutality, because we are not in control of the scene. We know that John is being tortured by this murderous onslaught, literally being hacked away at in the shadows. The idea of what you don’t see being more powerful, works extremely well in this instance. As a gruesome touch the voyeuristic cherub suddenly gets splattered with Johns blood. Noir will frequently utilize the visual motif of the fetish object.Then it the scene cuts against a stark black frame we see the shiny metal cleaver reflecting as it swoops down for another slice at John. The music is blaring more like a siren than a melodic pattern. The strings sync with the blade strokes, not unlike Bernard Herrmann’s use of it with his score in Psycho
Now a quick shot of the love birds in the cage. Is this a hint that love cannot remain free without it’s consequences. Or should I say primal lust will be destroyed. John is evidently being punished by someone. But who? Now we here what sounds like the reverberations of a piano lid being slammed down so that the inner chords vibrate against the chirping birds, the slashing has ceased and now we are dropped into a scene with the guests at the party applauding. It looks like an old fashioned greeting line. There are 2 lines of people waiting for someone to enter. And we can hear an overlap of the love birds tweeting over the applause. It’s a very eerie effective use of sound that offsets the prior brutal moments.
The band leader shouts “One more time!” and the guests start dancing to “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Against the backdrop of people doing the Charleston, the figure of a girl comes into a framed chiaroscuro, camouflaged by the shadows except for one spot of light on her right eye. The dark figure is facing us. She seems to be floating backwards from the crowded dance floor.
Now we see young cousin Miriam who was looking for Charlotte earlier. It switches back from her point of view to the back of Charlotte who has her back to the guests.We hear someone say “Oh here’s Charlotte now!” but she is moving outward toward the garden, appearing more like an apparition than a real person. Miriam stares at Charlotte curiously. The music dies out like the last gasp of a wounded bag pipe. We see the entire band stop playing.
Everyone’s eyes are upon Charlotte. Framed in the doorway, her face still obscured in the blackest of shadow yet her white flowing gown is as white as an angel, with the exception of a large splatter of blood on the front as if a bucket of paint splashed the front of it. She is facing everyone now. Simultaneously the entire group gasps in horror as they set their eyes on Charlotte and her blood stained dress.
We hear random stirring and asides from the guests until Big Sam enters the room. We switch back to Charlotte still a silhouette of a blood stained angel framed by the doorway then we quickly go back to Sam. He pushes his way through the gathering of people, toward his daughter. The room is silent as Sam in a very long drawn out scene walks closer toward his Charlotte.We still do not see her face. He is now within reach of her, the wind chimes oddly, delicate hanging above her head still masked in black shadow, as if the camera has decapitated Charlotte with use of the lighting. Sam gazes at her, then the camera pans down, a close up of the blood drenched gown, we follow the stain until we reach the hem of her dress. Then a close up of Sam’s face, still no expression of emotion quite yet.
This is the gown Charlotte is wearing in the portrait that is hanging in Big Sam’s study.
Now he utters “Charlotte….honey….” he says in a soft sandy voice. The wind chimes still tinkling above her like delicate demons dancing at her side. Big Sam continues slowly…”You come with me now” he reaches out to her gently.
We hear Bette Davis’s voice hesitantly saying “No papa.” She moves backwards and whispers it again “No papa.” Sam moves towards her slowly, as if not to startle a frightened animal caught in a trap. ” I, I don’t wanna Papa.”
The crowd is still silently watching this interaction. We see the back of Charlotte’s hair in a beautifully old fashioned up do. Sam is looking upon her, half his face is shaded. He’s moving in closer, with more intention, “I don’t want to papa” Charlotte keeps uttering this phrase. He says “Come with me baby.” She answers “No papa” as he moves inward into her space, the screen goes absolute black, yet we hear the last dying tinkles of the chimes fade out.
Again the 1st prologue to Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte takes almost 12 minutes to bring us into the film’s official opening.
2nd Prologue it’s 1964 we hear a church bell and see a grave and a large oak tree. The sister plantation to Oak Alley, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Houmas House was used in the filming of Charlotte.
The church bells are chiming we see a grave with a cross as it’s headstone and the crucified image on Jesus hanging from the cross. It is the blanket of night time.
We see a marker that says Samuel Eugene Hollis, and we hear the voice of a young boy saying “It sure is spooky around here.”
This is typical Aldrich style/fashion to pace his films with slow ventures into the narrative with 2 separate time periods as prologues before the credits even start to roll. To only hear the voices of incidental characters, rather than see the action. He focuses more on an object of significance. This being Big Sam’s grave, letting us know that he has passed on 1883-1928.
The child continues, “especially the graveyard, is spookier, you’ll see” Now we see 2 little boys walking. The church bells are chiming, and yet another boy a 3rd boy is there. “Hurry up it’s getting late” “do you think there really is a ghost?” we now see a whole gang of little guys walking cautiously through the graveyard. “Sure there’s a ghost” “there’s the house” we see the columns of the Hollis Mansion now. The music articulates a deep and ominous foundation. Perhaps a tuba at it’s lowest note. Somewhat as a symbol of hell, or a nightmare. The low tone burns like fire.
There is an entire pack of boys mulling around the front of the dilapidated old mansion. Ogling the place with boyish fear and wonder.”Here’s the house now” Another little boy says ” gives me the creeps every time I see it” The entire scene is metered by the hauntingly constant tolling of the church bell. We see the boys more intimately now. The camera focuses in on one worried looking little face as he holds his fingers to his lips “Ssh” the boy he is facing asks, “what if she catches me?”
The boy now more brazen, slowly, methodically says “then you tell her that you’re Jewel Mayhew from down the road, and you come lookin’ for your poor little ole husband’s head” He giggles as he finishes his response. Pleased with himself.
The other boys are laughing now, except for the boy who’s been dared to go into the house. They all chime in with laughter now. We see the face of the little boy (John Megna), he played Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). He says “well what if she catches me?” the boy who seems to be the leader of the gang says “now look you wanna join the spotters don’t ya?” he shakes his head yes. “well then get on in there” another boy says “don’t forget to get something she touched with her own hands” a 3rd boy says while making a chopping gesture with his hand,” you watch out for that cleaver now…she’s just liable to chop off your little head” they collectively giggle and then the leader says “come on we’ haven’t got all night”
The boys are now egging on the frightened boy to enter the old house. “Go on, go on” He turns around to face them, they wave at him to go on in. The music sounds like a sparser version of Grieg’s Norwegian Woods. This does have a nightmarish fairytale quality to it, reflected in the eyes of children who are seeking the unknown, taboo, and mysterious nature of a rumor that has festered for years in Hollisport.
The old haunted mansion. The notorious and gruesome murder that happened there. The crazy murderess who is now a recluse, wielding the same meat cleaver that lopped off Jewel Mayhew’s husband’s “little ole head”and hand years ago. The head and hand still hidden in the house, never to have been found.
The group of boys look willfully at the scared boy, who is now peaking inside the open door. He walks into the main hall. We can see it from a camera angle above the great winding staircase, that makes it look like a spiraling maze of shadows. It gives the scene the form of a Pythagorean landscape. The boy being swallowed up by the geometry of an inner sanctum.
This skinny little runt who weighs an ounce and three pounds standing in the middle of the great hall. Aldrich gives us a shock edit, we see a clock, the boy is startled, it rings out 8:30. He sighs a little puff of relief. Again from a vantage point pulled way back as to make the boy look like a fly swallowed up inside a giant web, then back to his close up, he begins to walk further into the house. He sets his eyes upon a music box, seeming to accept this as the object he will declare his trophy, he slowly walks over to it. The room is drenched in shadow.
As he walks around the great arm chair to get closer to the box, he is again startled as is a now much older Charlotte who had been napping in the chair. The boy causes her to break a tea cup that we hear shattering on the floor. He stares at her. She seems dazed at first. He tries frantically to open up the french doors, grabbing at the door handle, clutching at the lock. Charlotte doesn’t react much at first. We see her still, quite confused as if half awake. Then back to the little runt who is desperately trying to get out! Finally he gets the doors open and runs as if the devil himself is on his tail chasing him across the lawn.
Aldrich’s use of shadow, cuts off Charlotte’s head, reminiscent of John’s horrific death.
Back to Charlotte who is looking down at the music box. She picks it up and holds it to herself. She approaches the outside calling “John, John” The other boys start to scramble and run away. “Run, run, she aint catching me” As the boys scatter, we see a far off image of Charlotte standing out on the front porch. She seems so frail, almost like an archaic eternal goddess figure holding a magical box that bares a secret power. Or perhaps, it represents Pandora. The music box is playing a tune that has meaning for Charlotte. A song that John wrote especially for Charlotte and put in on the music box.Once she was in love with John Mayhew and yet still is which has brought about catastrophic results.
Finally Aldrich gives us the opening credits. The film has started 14:43 minutes ago. We also start out with yet another common noir theme, that of the wrong man or as it were “the wrong woman” theme. Although Charlotte would be considered a thriller/melodrama, I would definitely feel comfortable calling this MeloNoir.
Obviously there is a legend surrounding Charlotte that it was she who brutally murdered her lover after he spurned her. Like Baby Jane, we are to assume that she is the murderess or the antagonist. We do know that she is living in the past, once again a regressive female character for Aldrich to play with.
There is a mix of the quickly jutting shapes of the boys scattering, “I’m runnin’ I’m runnin.’, merging with the hauntingly tragic motif that will be Charlotte’s song for the rest of the film.
Incidentally, on my album The Last Drive In, which is an homage to the feeling that these vintage films gave me, impressions that were imprinted on me as a kid growing up watching them intently. I have a track that I call “Sweet Charlotte” where I play harpsichord. This film inspired me to write a tragic Gothic song of lost love and madness. Click here to download the mp3.
Now like a twisted nursery march, we hear children’s voices start to chant a ditty “Chop Chop Sweet Charlotte” against a black background the words Bette Davis appears central as the actress is skewed to the right of screen clinging to the music box. She looks so solemn. “Chop Chop til he’s dead” it’s like the old Lizzy Borden rhyme. Now the credits say Olivia de Havilland who will play the adult cousin Miriam. “Chop Chop Sweet Charlotte… chop off his head” Co-starring Joseph Cotton.
Now the title of the film HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE
The children are still singing this macabre rhyme. Charlotte looks down on screen she is much more sullen now as if she can hear the children serenading her with this macabre lullaby. Co-Starring Agnes Moorehead as Velma Charlotte’s trusted long time companion and caretaker. Cecil Kellaway’s name appears on the screen, the children are still singing. Off somewhere, but not too far. Bette is still staring outward, holding the music box. the memories are haunting her. The children’s song starts to fade out’ Chop Chop the rest of the cast also starring while Bette is still right of screen. reflecting upon the past, as the children’s voices grow further away.
Now there is a close up of Charlotte’s face. and a sad harmonica and strings break the mood of that sadistic little taunting rhyme. Charlotte looks as if she will start to cry. The tears stream down her face. Davis’s expression is brutally poignant. She looks beautiful. The music is now like a music box gentle and sad playing her theme. As she cries along to the music. We are held there watching her for a long period of time while the rest of the titles roll. She is breaking apart before our eyes from the heart ache of loss and emptiness. It is a very powerful entrance into Charlotte’s psyche, although the prologue has delayed our meeting grown up Charlotte, we already understand that she is a woman torn apart by her memories.
The song “hush hush…Sweet Charlotte” has a profoundly beautiful score by Frank DeVol. The lyrics for the song are by Mack David. Also Aldrich once again uses Norma Koch for the Costume Designs.
As the titles roll, the close up on Davis’ facial expressions of heart ache and tears pulls at you from the very beginning. For me there is no ambiguity as to who the protagonist is in this film right from the top. At least from here on in, we’ll empathize/sympathize and root for Charlotte no matter how emotionally troubled she appears.
A drastic switch from the poignant harmonica playing Charlotte’s theme serenading a zoom of Davis reflecting and tenderly crying, we’re now thrown into the din and bang of construction machinery and vehicles invading the title’s repose. Massive rubber conveyor belts churning away at the dirt beneath, pushing the ground upward, tearing into the silent soil.
The truck says Allis-Chalmers The massive steam shovel is heading toward the Hollis Mansion. quick cut to Charlotte sleeping. Cut back to the truck it is now senselessly plowing through a beautiful gazebo, smashing straight through now only the kindling of someone’s past memories, a historical structure razed. The striking strings wake Charlotte up as much as the sound of the falling gazebo, she rises abruptly with a look of shock on her face. Now she storms out of her bed and runs to the window, gripping the pane with both hands. Her body starts to writhe ” Damn You!!!” she yells outward, and runs from the window.
Now a hurried version of the theme song Sweet Charlotte accompanies her when she goes to grab her shot gun dressed in a flowing white nightgown,running to the front of the house on the upper balcony. She confronts the construction team tearing away shreds of her history. She stands by the outside railing “Damn You!!!” Her hair in long braids, like a pioneer woman, standing there to fend off invaders on her land. She shouts “Get off my property or I”ll shoot!!!!” she starts to cock the shot gun. We now see the foreman played by George Kennedy looking at some kind of papers. He hears her shouting and gazes back at her startled and again we can here Charlotte starting to speak, we see a view of her from the balcony.
“I told you to get off my property!” He sneers at his workers, baring his teeth, he shouts, “Stan, Stan, look out up there, Stan!” he starts moving and we now see the truck again. He has not ceased moving his demolition shovel. As the last bit of Gazebo is shredded up into toothpick size shards of wood, Charlotte fires the gun and it wings the truck.
Now Stan hops off the truck and they all duck behind it’s great metal mass as a barrier to Charlotte’s target practice. She cocks the shot gun again, Stan says “man oh man” then George Kennedy says “That crazy woman”
Why is Charlotte assumed crazy when they are on her land, whether or not she’s being evicted or the law has assumed eminent domain, they could be more sympathetic instead of crashing down upon her like conquerors. There is no reverence to the fact that this house has historical and familial value. They just came and starting chewing up the scenery. And she’s crazy?Again, it begs the question if the patriarch Sam Hollis were still alive, would they be able to take away Charlotte’s property so easily?Because she is a woman she is assumed to have no right of claims to the land.
The foreman continues walking toward the Hollis house “I’m telling you” Stan shouts “I wouldn’t go out there if I was you” He’s running up toward Charlotte still on the balcony. We see him through her gaze. “Now what do ya think you’re doing firing”…he seems like a small bug in between two massive oaks, shouting up toward her “on my men like that” he gets closer. She starts shouting back with the conviction of a dethroned queen guarding her lost kingdom “That’s my land he’s plowing up down there!” Kennedy screams “Dammit…you could have killed him” she asserts “If I’d been aiming to kill him, I would have.”
“Now see here Miss Hollis, we done everything we could to commidate you, but this time you gone too far…now we got a bridge to build…and roads to lay” he’s now close enough below the balcony that ironically it appears more like a modernized contrary version of Romeo courting Juliet,”And we ain’t got more time to fool with you” She leans over the balcony close up, she says demonstratively “where you are…I could spit in your eye…with no strain at all.” He softens his tone “now Miss Hollis, I’m in no mood for jokes I’m going straight into town and see the sheriff.”
He points towards town with his floppy hat. She answers him sharply “I don’t care where you go straight to…just as long as you go” she points to the truck and finishes “and take that and them with you” he gets more steam in his voice again “now Miss Hollis you know as well as I do the state of Lewseanna (Louisiana), requisitioned this whole area including your house more than 6 months ago.”
Charlotte argues “Just because some old fool in Baton Rouge signs some itty bitty piece of paper doesn’t make it so…nobody ever asked me to sign anything”….using her head to accentuate her fury “and ain’t nobody gonna tear down MY HOUSE…to build a bridge or anything else…so you just clear off my property once and for all.”
He starts out saying “I don’t know some folks seem they got a natural born right to get away with murder!”
He shakes his head at her nastily and starts to walk away. The strings don’t like his attitude, Charlotte goes over to a large stone planter and starts pushing her weight against it. One of the construction crew shouts “hey look out!” it misses him by several feet and smashes to the ground. He turns to look at it. Charlotte is smiling victorious at her floral projectile, now Velma comes running out onto the balcony. He looks back up at her starts to say something and just decides to walk away. The construction men stare up with disgusted expressions, shaking their heads, they start to gather up and go.
Velma joins Charlotte on the balcony and says “you sure had yourself a good time today didn’t ya Missy?” she adds a chuckle. We see little heads from a shot below the balcony framed between two columns. Like an Empress and handmaiden holding sway upon their castle fortress. Velma tells Charlotte, “you just cool down now”
Jump cut to the very frenzied foreman heading towards his men and the pick up truck, he slaps his hat in his hands and Stan asks “what are you gonna do, boss?” The foreman uses his finger to stress “I’m going into town, and you keep those boys out of sight til I get back” “okay boss” “bring the good sheriff back here in a half hour if I got ta drag him out” the words get swallowed up by the horns, a theremin and his slamming the door to his truck.
Back to Velma and Charlotte standing on the balcony, hands casually slung over the railing as if, they could care less about that hot headed foreman. Velma says “Boy you fixed things awful fast, come’on, come’on.” She takes Charlotte’s arm dearly. Then Charlotte gets agitated again, “but they’re gonna plow up the graves…Papa’s grave.”
Velma tries to quiet her worries, “well they were a hundred feet from those graves, anyhow they fixin’ to tear down the whole house I don’t see what difference plowing up that ground is gonna make…come’on.” She urges Charlotte like a mother figure to a little girl. “Come’on now” Velma continues, while Charlotte tugs at her braids.Velma tells her “they offered to move your pappys remains, you shoulda let em…they can’t do him any harm now”
Charlotte looks at Velma seriously. We can see that Charlotte trusts this woman, this confidant, this friend. “Now go on in there an git yourself quieted down…you done enough for one day.” A church like Hammond organ plays a hymnal version of the theme song toning down the previous moments. Giving us a more intimate look at Velma and Charlotte’s precious relationship.
Agnes Moorehead has such an enigmatic presence. She seems a perfect fit to play Charlotte’s trusted companion. A seemingly stronger counterbalance to the more fragile and histrionic Charlotte. Again, Bette Davis plays off the regressive character who remains trapped by the past, living in isolation, cut off from any other reality than that of her connection to her youth and the tragedies that haunt her. There also might be an element of unspoken lesbian adoration on the part of Velma, that I might explore later on.
Charlotte stares out the window for several seconds, then turns around. Her melody is playing softy as a backdrop, a way to calm down the prior bracing moments from before. Velma starts to talk to her again “let me tell you somethin’… ain’t gonna be but a half an hour before that sheriff comes over here” Velma’s arms open wide to stress the severity of the situation. Charlotte is sitting at her dressing table looking up at her like a little girl who knows Velma’s right.
Velma continues gesturing with her hands crudely mimicking what she’s prescribing for her friend. “So you get yourself dressed up real perty” Charlotte’s back is to us but we see her sullen face in the reflected mirror, and we also see Velma heading towards Charlotte’s closet. “Come’on down stairs and get your breakfast.”
Charlotte’s (silence) is broken when she has a minor outburst “if Luke Standish ever comes out here he’ll be real sorry.” We can see Velma’s reflection in the mirror looking taken aback. She’s holding a dress of Charlotte’s and says to her, “oh hush” walking back toward Charlotte, “that ain’t no way to talk Miss Charlotte” The reprimand diminishes as Velma sets the dress out for Charlotte to change into. She says once again “Now you come’on…get yourself dressed” Charlotte goes back to gazing at her reflection in the mirror.
Velma tells Charlotte in a warm southern drawl “and Velma will go downstairs and fix you a “nice” breakfast.” Charlotte is looking down like a wounded child who’s feelings have been hurt. Velma puts her arm around Charlotte’s shoulders and their stares connect in the mirror. “And don’t you worry about that sheriff if he comes out here Velma’ll get rid of him” she pats Charlotte on the back, “yes sir….yes sir.”
Charlotte still looks like a wounded child. We get only a flash of Charlotte starting to get dressed like Velma requested and now there is a quick shot of a train, the distorted jutting movements of the windows passing through the frame. We hear the engine and the wheels making contact with the tracks.
As the exhaust from the train lingers on screen slightly, the train moves on as the vapors dissipate to reveal Cecil Kellaway Mr Harry Wills, checking his little note book standing in front of a sign that says he’s in Hollisport.We still hear the gears of the train clanking away off screen moving on to it’s next destination. The train blows it’s whistle as Wills picks up his bags and starts walking. One last blast of the whistle and the scene fades into the next.
The sheriff, Luke Standish (Addy) has his back to us, he’s saying “it’s not very often that we have a homicide and we’re not able to find the victim’s head and hand” Now he turns around “I’m not much concerned about examining your credentials Mr. Wills…I’m happy to go along with anything you say…I just have my doubts about what you might expect to find…now we’ve had newsmen of all sorts coming down here for 35 years and”…he sits now at his desk facing Wills who is taking it all in. “More often than not, they’re none the wiser”
Now Mr Wills speaks in a wonderfully lyrical tone, a gentle voice, eloquent and charming.”I don’t expect to unearth anything extraordinary…after all…there’s really nothing unusual about an unclaimed insurance policy. It’s just that I don’t want to upset anybody, so if you’ll just go along with my little masquerade that I’m a reporter from one of our more esoteric crime magazines…I’d be most awfully grateful to you.” Kellaway was perfect for the role of the kindly British gentleman. The only other actor that I could possibly envision as a gently enunciating guardian angel type would be the great Claude Raines.
There’s a wonderful shadow of the ceiling fan spinning in constant, the rotations trace round ward as the two men exchange their dialogue. Again, this gives the film an almost Noir type sensibility at this moment.The presence of a swirling shadow, as back drop to a local historical mystery discussed by two well spoken gentlemen. It’s a nice subtle moment in the film. And it’s one of the rare moments outside of the claustrophobic web of the grand old house. It doesn’t emerge inside the Hollis Plantation as a visual landscape for the narrative. It’s a moment we can take a breath, and perhaps wonder who is this Mr Wills?
The sheriff Standish, looking down and smiling takes a pause ” Well now Mr Wills since you’ve come all the way from London England to see it, I guess we’ll just have to oblige you…esoteric magazines and all” He hands Mr Wills his credentials back. The camera pulls away from the two men, as if we are spying on them from the ceiling.
Just as the two are silent for a very brief moment, the mood is broken when the foreman busts into the sheriff’s station like a bull out of the gate ” I’m sorry Mr Standish”…he slams the door shut and points “You’re gonna have to come out to the Hollis place…we got real trouble this time” We are still viewing all 3 men from above on screen.
Mr Wills , in close up says “what a remarkable coincidence”… he queries to himself, then breaks his line of thought “by the way Sheriff…I wonder if you could arrange for me to meet Jewel Mayhew” he says this with a twinkle in his eyes. The sheriff says “I guess we’ll just have to oblige you” Wills says very politely yet deliberate “thank you very much.”
The scene cross fades –
Continues in Part IV of the series “Murder Starts In The Heart, and It’s First Weapon is a Vicious Tongue!”
Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte –Lyrics:
Hush hush, sweet Charlotte
Charlotte, don’t you cry
Hush hush, sweet Charlotte
He’ll love you till he dies
Oh, hold him darling
Please hold him tight
And brush the tear from your eye
You weep because you had a dream last night
You dreamed that he said goodbye
He held two roses within his hand
Two roses he gave to you
The red rose tells you of his passion
The white rose his love so true
And every night after he shall die
Yes every night when he’s gone
The wind will sing you this lullaby
Sweet Charlotte was loved by John
6 thoughts on “Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part III Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte “He’ll Love You Til He Dies””
Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte deserves to be better known. It’s an amazing film on many levels. Thanks for giving it so much space, Joey. One might think it would be a cult classic but it isn’t.
Some interesting connections (as I see it anyway):
There’s child actor John Megna from To Kill a Mockingbird, going to get a look-see at Charlotte, sort of the female Boo Radley from Hell in her neck of the woods.
Then there’s a Tennessee Williams vibe, as I see it anyway, what with the decaying mansion, a crazy older woman holding terrible secrets, the scheming, the air of rotting Southern aristocracy.
I can also see some resemblances between the movie and the TV series Thriller. There’s no one episode that I can think of as a direct precursor to the flm but Thriller “went South” a lot and the Hollis mansion isn’t a million miles from the Blassenvllle estate in Pigeons From Hell; in its forbidding aspects and the legends about it. Parasite Mansion? Not so much but for the the all pervading witchiness.
Then there’s TV The Outer Limits episode Don’t Open Till Doomsday in which Miriam Hopkins, long time rival of Bette Davis and two time co-star, playing a character not unlike Charlotte, a recluse in an old mansion, though with a different storyline. The Hopkins character also lost a lover early in life, lives in the past, has gone mad.
Hey! This is kind of off topic but I need some advice from an established blog.
Is it tough to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Many thanks
Hey Dwight, I would suggest trying out Blogger or WordPress which will make it really easy to set up a blog. Just jump in and write about what you love most. It’s as easy as that. It will develop a life of it’s own in a while. Drop me a note and let me know how you’re doing with it… Cheers and happy blogging Joey