Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees is a Southern woman in the Bette Davis tradition: heart of gold, will of iron, cleaver of tempered steel.
Chop chop, sweet Charlotte,
Scents carry a long way in the summer heat. As you approach the crumbling old Hollis mansion, pause for a moment by the gatepost, close your eyes, try to ignore the mosquitoes that are whining in your ear, and breathe in. The first thing you notice is the overpowering fragrance of the wisteria, almost sickeningly sweet. The acrid odor of rotting wood rises from the front porch. You catch the dry talcum smell of old ladies, which can't quite disguise the reek of stale sweat. And then there's the dark moldering scent of earth from the burial ground behind the house…the metallic pungency of blood…a musky whiff of sex. All of it mingles to form the unmistakable essence of the Southern Gothic.
The mixture is definitely rich; if you're looking for subtlety, you won't find it here. In Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte the accents drip with honey, the dialogue drips with venom, and the blood drips all over. Madness and murder, schemes and screams, and a heck of a lot of dismemberment for an A-list film—this campy yet captivating classic has them all.
Facts of the Case
In 1920s Louisiana, well-brought-up young ladies don't run off with married men. But that's just what Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis, Dark Victory) plans to do, until her stern father, Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono, Batman), interferes. He intimidates callow John Mayhew (Bruce Dern, Smile) into breaking off his elopement with Charlotte, which leaves the young girl heartbroken—and furious. Then, on the very night they were to run away together, someone murders John with a butcher knife in the Hollis summerhouse.
Decades later, Charlotte is still living in the family mansion, with only the eccentric housekeeper, Velma (Agnes Moorehead, The Magnificent Ambersons), to keep her company since the death of her father. Although she was never charged with the crime, Charlotte is shunned by the townspeople, many of whom believe she's crazy. She certainly looks that way when she chases some developers off her land with a shotgun. Even though her home is slated to be destroyed to make way for a new highway, she refuses to leave it. Instead she summons her cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland, Captain Blood), expecting her to set the developers straight so that everything can return to what passes for normal at the old Hollis place.
Miriam is helpless to stop the march of progress, however, just as Charlotte's courtly doctor, Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten, Gaslight), seems helpless to stop Charlotte's delusions. When a London reporter named Harry Willis (Cecil Kellaway, I Married A Witch) arrives on the scene, he takes pity on Charlotte and seeks out bitter Jewel Mayhew (Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon), John's widow, to see if she can shed light on the decades-old scandal. But time is running out for Charlotte, who finds the past coming to life around her every night…
There was plenty of drama and tension in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte even before the cameras rolled. Originally intended as a follow-up to the lurid 1962 horror hit Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, it was to reunite Bette Davis with her Baby Jane costar, Joan Crawford. But the long-standing feud between the two grande dames erupted, sending Crawford to the hospital with a purported illness, and sending the filmmakers scrambling for a substitute. Olivia de Havilland, who had costarred with Davis in three Warner Bros. films (It's Love I'm After, In This Our Life, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex), was ultimately tapped as a congenial castmate.
The choice was perfect. De Havilland's poised, elegant Miriam is the perfect foil for haggard, wild-eyed Charlotte. Indeed, it's impossible to imagine the film working with Crawford in the role of Miriam. At this point in her career, Crawford had lost all subtlety, but de Havilland still had the ability to play her cards close to the chest. She manipulates our expectations, giving a layered performance that has considerable power to surprise. At first her character is soft-spoken and gracious, reminiscent of her most famous role as a Southern lady: gentle Melanie in Gone with the Wind. Yet there's more to Miriam, as we quickly discover in a dinner-table slanging match in which she demonstrates that she can deliver a verbal bitch-slap just as well as Charlotte. The interactions between the two women are crucial to the film, and director Robert Aldritch (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen) toys with our sympathies, making us lean first toward one, then the other. Without de Havilland's dexterous performance, the film wouldn't have been able to pull off this balancing act.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is often cited as an example of Grand Guignol, a style of horror named for a French theater that specialized in gruesome entertainment. (I like the term used by Glenn Erickson in his audio commentary, "grande dame Guignol," which acknowledges the insurgence of older actresses into the horror genre.) The bloody prologue proves right away that the film is going to push the envelope when it comes to horror: In mainstream films of the era we're used to the camera cutting away from dismemberments, not putting the severed pieces on display. The black-and-white image mutes the gore, and the fake body parts are definitely cheesy by modern standards, but it's still a shock to see them. Aldritch and cinematographer Joseph Biroc, his frequent collaborator, also make copious use of shadows, extreme camera angles, and forced compositions to enhance the feeling of unease and grotesquerie. As I said, it's not subtle, but the baroque quality of the visual landscape adds to the fun.
At the same time that it delivers full-bore horror, though, the film generates suspense from strong writing. The plot is enjoyably complicated; there are lots of interlacing relationships, grudges, and long-buried secrets, all of which have a part to play in the resolution of the mystery. The strength of the screenplay is especially crucial since Sweet Charlotte runs significantly longer than most horror films. There are also some fun inside references for movie lovers, like a stuffed bird that looms ominously into certain shots like a remnant of Psycho, and the portrait of young Charlotte wearing the pivotal white dress from Davis's 1938 Civil War film, Jezebel, in which she played a willful Louisiana belle. Overall this heated horror-mystery may smack of camp, but it definitely has elements that elevate it above the schlock level.
Besides the writing, probably the most significant of these elements is the excellent cast, which includes many prominent stars from Hollywood's golden age. It's true that some of these acting greats are hamming it up, but the effect is still enjoyable. Agnes Moorehead was nominated for an Oscar for her broad depiction of the smart-mouthed, slovenly Velma, who lurks around with suspiciously narrowed eyes and seems to know more than anyone else about what's really going on. Joseph Cotten is marvelous fun as the self-satisfied doctor, who oozes overripe Southern gallantry that stops just shy of sleaze. He rolls his lines around in his mouth as if relishing their taste, and you can almost smell the bourbon and cigars on his breath when he talks. Mary Astor and Cecil Kellaway turn in more restrained performances, and Astor in particular brings a weary gravity to her role that's quite effective. It's sad to see this once-dynamic actress looking genuinely old and ill here, but her presence, like the benign, gentle performance by Kellaway, helps to ground the film. Among the younger generation of actors, Victor Buono is effectively menacing as Big Sam Hollis, and Bruce Dern is persuasive in his brief but crucial appearance.
And then there are the two stars. De Havilland, as I've noted, is perfectly cast as Miriam, and by the end of the film you'll have learned to see this legendary actress in an entirely new light. As for Davis, she is really a marvel. Her Charlotte is bizarrely entertaining when she hoists her shotgun and screeches Southern-inflected invective at those who cross her (there's really no better accent than that of the American South for making the most of an insult like "you're a vile, sorry little bitch!"). Yet she's also strangely heart-tugging in her quieter moments, when we can see her as a lost little girl who's trapped in the past. Davis also excels at the straight-up horror scenes. One in particular is etched in my memory: A horrifying sight sends her scampering down the staircase on all fours like an animal, uttering hoarse, involuntary cries of shock. It's a hair-raising portrait of a woman disintegrating, and any trace of self-consciousness would have ruined it. Davis is unafraid to throw herself into moments like this, and I salute her for it.
Fox has given this guilty pleasure a presentation worthy of a more respectable classic. The black-and-white picture, presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, is quite clean and free of glaring age defects. The many shadows used for dramatic effect are deep and velvety, and there's no loss of detail in the many dimly lit night scenes (except when haze is used deliberately to signal hallucinations). There is recurring moiré, and occasionally slight speckling, but these are the only distracting points in the visual transfer. Audio is offered in a choice of stereo and mono, both of which are solid choices; as with many cases in which a mono track has been remixed in stereo, the stereo track has some hollowness that isn't evident in the original mono, but its breadth of field will please many listeners.
The primary extra is the audio commentary by Erickson, who is probably better known as DVD Savant. Erickson offers abundant background information on the cast and director and focuses a great deal on the film's antecedent, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, although not until nearly the two-hour mark does he give us the full lowdown on the connection between the two movies. Erickson sometimes describes to a tiresome extent what's happening on screen, and he also interprets some story elements too literally, even ignoring the carefully constructed ambiguity of one late plot development. My main problem with the commentary, though, is that it simply isn't fun. With such an off-the-wall film to work with, the commentary shouldn't be so dry. The disc also includes two theatrical trailers for the film and three TV promotional spots. Many of these promotional materials give away some of the film's most shocking moments, so, like the commentary, they should be saved until after you've seen the movie.
Even though it was planned as a counterpart to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, you don't need to have seen the earlier film to enjoy Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. In fact, I may as well admit that I've never been able to make myself watch Baby Jane all the way through. If, like me, you have found that movie just too lurid and sadistic for your taste, Sweet Charlotte will probably be more to your liking. And if you haven't yet explored the subgenre of "grande dame Guignol," there is probably no better place to start than with a visit to the old Hollis place. Just remember to take your mosquito repellent.
Not guilty by reason of insanity.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Historian Glenn Erickson
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