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 isn’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, the 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 its 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 its predecessor by placing it in a southern Gothic milieu, the Ascension Parish but he thinks it fails with its “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 therefore a reuniting of the two would have minimized the impact that the prior collaboration by both film stars made on 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 its 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 the screen or side by side. Leftward is the more pronounced association as the star. Bette Davis even agreed to this provision. Once the 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. Continue reading “Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part III Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte 1964 “He’ll Love You Til He Dies””
“Lunatics are similar to designated hitters. Often an entire family is crazy, but since an entire family can’t go into the hospital, one person is designated as crazy and goes inside” -Suzanna Kaysen from Girl Interrupted (1993)
“But you “are” Blanche, you “are” in that chair!”~ these are the words I often utter to myself or amongst friends, merely cause it tickles me.
I could question whether or not Aldrich made these films as a vehicle in which to translate the lives of the psychologically intricate, often tragic women which he viewed through a sympathetic lens, or perhaps some of his female-driven films are an exercise in misogyny.
So was he a misogynist? Perhaps some might find the portrayal of his female characters unattractive, or maybe he didn’t differentiate between his male and female roles. He was definitely more focused on both genders’ struggles. These outliers of society couldn’t simply fit in, so if the film’s driving character happened to be a woman then it would stand to reason she would also be an outcast or damaged in some way. If he did make a distinction as to gender, he was mostly preoccupied with the character’s system of dealing with the obstacles they faced in their lives. It does appear that his “women” usually are the solitary focus, while his “men” are framed as groups of men trapped by precarious situations.
Robert Aldrich is still one of my all-time favorite directors.
Aldrich always brings us a story that is cynical and gritty with very flawed characters who are at the core ambiguous as either the protagonist or the antagonist. Aldrich studied economics in college, then dropped out and landed a very low-paying job at first as a clerk with RKO Radio Pictures Studio in 1941.
He studied with such great directors as Jean Renoir and it was his training in the trenches that made him the auteur he is, delving inside the human psyche and questioning what is morality. Aldrich went on to become the assistant director, scriptwriter, and associate producer, to various filmmakers who were later on targeted by the blacklist.
Aldrich has a flare for the dramatic, he likes to break molds and cross over boundaries. He also has a streak of anti-authoritarianism running through the veins of his films. There aren’t just traces of his ambivalence toward the Hollywood machine in his film philosophy, he also conflates the ugly truths beneath the so-called American Dream and the “real” people who inhabit that world.
He died in 1983, And while he remained inside the Hollywood circle, he maintained an outsider persona. He memorialized the misfits and outcasts by making them the anti-heroes in his work, all of which ultimately were destined to fall because they refused to play the conformity game. Continue reading “Grande Dames/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part II: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?””