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. Continue reading “Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part III Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte “He’ll Love You Til He Dies””