Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Written by Henry Farrell & Lukas Heller
Directed by Robert Aldrich
The box office success of 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was a complete surprise to producer-director Robert Aldrich. Upon seeing those returns, he decided a follow up needed to be made, another picture pairing Bette Davis & Joan Crawford. This time around, Aldrich switched the roles with Davis playing the invalid and planning on Crawford being the conniving villain. However, the rivalry between these two women kept going into the filming. Crawford filmed her on-location scenes, but when production returned to Hollywood, she claimed she was sick and dropped out of the film. This led to Olivia de Havilland being cast as Crawford’s replacement and many scenes being reshot.
The film starts in 1927, where Southern belle Charlotte Hollis plans to run off with her married lover John Mayhew (Bruce Dern). Charlotte’s father, Sam (Victor Buono), a powerful man, convinces John to break things off or face his wrath. John does so during a party at the Hollis plantation, and Charlotte becomes distraught. Later, John is found decapitated and missing a hand while Charlotte’s dress is stained with his blood.
Jump to 1964, where the Hollis property has been taken by the state, and a road is being built through it. Charlotte (Bette Davis) is a recluse living alone in the house helped only by her faithful housekeeper, Velma (Agnes Moorehead). Charlotte’s doctor Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten), fails to convince the woman she has to vacate her house in ten days before they bulldoze it and sends word to her cousin, Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) to come visit and help her process all of this. But Charlotte sees strange things around the house at night, hearing voices, haunted by the sins of the past.
I love Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? but found myself quite disappointed with this film. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, but I think not having Crawford to play off of Davis made for an experience that was colder & duller than the first picture. There are some high camp moments, though, the opening sequence teases the audience with some wonderfully unexpected blood & gore. However, the rest of the film is a relatively slow burn in comparison. Instead, we’re treated to more of a psychological character study with hints of a murder mystery.
This time around, Aldrich pads out his cast with more veteran Hollywood actors beyond Davis & de Havilland. Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane, The Third Man), Agnes Moorehead (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons), and Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon). I was reminded of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard while watching this and thinking back to Baby Jane. That picture seems to be the first to plant the seed in the mind of other filmmakers to explore and some times exploit a stable of aging, older actors from a past Hollywood era. I think it is a brilliant idea and they seem to be having fun with the over the top material they are given here.
The second act twist that reveals what’s really been going on in the Hollis mansion was shocking, and further revelations about the murder of John Mayhew also surprised me. I think the movie is way too long though, clocking in at over two hours. I often felt like certain moments were padding time rather than building an atmosphere, and it was to the detriment of the picture. I just wish the script had been pared down some more, tightening up the story so that we had a movie that didn’t seem to be running in circles at times.
We end up with a Southern Gothic drenched in Lousiana atmosphere, but that’s a little bloated and cumbersome. It’s not as a high camp as Baby Jane, but you still get wild performances with Agnes Moorehead’s Velma being a brilliant stand out. Moorehead chews up the scenery and gives Davis a run for her money. The twists and revelations don’t feel outlandish, and the mystery of the picture is very well written. While not quite a horror as some critics have labeled it, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte is a decent psychological thriller that puts many modern entries in the genre to shame.
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