HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE
Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Bette Davis, Olivia
de Havilland, Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, Victor Buono, Mary Astor
Director: Robert Aldrich
Audio: English stereo or monaural
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Black & white, 1.66:1 widescreen
Studio: 20th-Century Fox
Features: Glenn Erickson commentary, trailers, TV spots
Length: 132 minutes
Release Date: August 9, 2005
Chop chop, sweet Charlotte,
Chop chop 'til he's dead,
Chop chop, sweet Charlotte,
Chop off his hand and head.
Film *** ½
The controversy behind Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte can best be summarized through one simple statement - Bette Davis despised Joan Crawford. Hers was no whimsical dislike, either; Davis thoroughly loathed Crawford for the greater part of three decades. Sweet Charlotte simply tapped into the intensely bitter longevity of this rivalry, an ironic fact considering that Joan Crawford is not even featured in the film!
Three decades before Sweet Charlotte was ever conceived, Bette Davis was queen of the Warner Bros. lot. In spite of the exasperating demands that Davis regularly placed upon her studio, there was one undeniable fact that made such diva-like activities tolerable - the gal could really act. Arrogant and prissy, Davis scoffed at anyone of inferior talent, and her feathers were particularly ruffled at the mere concept that someone as presumably talentless as Joan Crawford could achieve stardom equaling her own. Fortunately, during the 1930's the two actresses worked for different studios. Warner Bros. had their hands very full with Bette Davis while Joan Crawford was an MGM gal. Davis was a multi-Oscar winner, while Crawford, well, she was just an ex-flapper girl.
One can only contemplate what manner of venomous spittle passed by the lips of Bette Davis when Joan Crawford finally won her first Oscar for 1945's Mildred Pierce, her debut film with her new studio - Warner Bros.! No longer was Bette Davis even prima donna of her own studio!
Time heals all wounds, supposedly. By the 1960's, both actresses were nearing the twilight of their careers and faced the inevitable indifference with which Hollywood regards all middle-aged actresses. With job offers increasingly scarce, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford both agreed, reluctantly we must presume, to star as bickering sisters in Robert Aldrich's Psycho-influenced Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The persistent rumors about the production's infamous on-set tirades were scandalous, to say the least. Regardless, Baby Jane proved to be such a surprise box office smash that it virtually created overnight a new sub-genre of horror film - the "hag horror." Inevitably, plans were set into motion to re-unite director Aldrich with Davis and Crawford for a "sequel," the film that would eventually become Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).
But once a diva, always a diva. Davis and Crawford both scoffed at the idea of appearing opposite each other once again. Post-production tensions for Baby Jane certainly did not help to alleviate rising tension between both actresses. Crawford conveniently solved an imminent on-set meltdown during Sweet Charlotte's production by being hospitalized for presumptive pneumonia. Whether she feigned illness or not, who can honestly say? Eventually though, Sweet Charlotte's increasingly accursed production would resume with former MGM star Olivia de Havilland in the Crawford role; de Havilland would complete a killer cast of other veteran Hollywood stand-outs including Joseph Cotten, Mary Astor, and Agnes Moorehead. Despite Joan Crawford's absence from the film, the vitriolic tension of the Davis-Crawford rivalry remained, resonating throughout every frame of Sweet Charlotte.
Sweet Charlotte is in essence a psychological horror. Bette Davis portrays Charlotte Hollis, a lonely woman who in her youth was believed to have murdered her lover. Never formally charged and now no longer the southern belle, Charlotte resides as an eccentric recluse in a Louisiana manor, subsisting on old southern money and forever reliving the memories of her past. Accompanied by her acrid old maid (Agnes Moorehead in a stand-out performance), Charlotte is like a macabre, twisted aberration of the Scarlett O'Hara role so coveted by Bette Davis in her youth.
The Hollis House, a twisted Tara-like home to Charlotte for all these years, conceals its own horrific and tragic secrets. Local children, in juvenile games of dare, dart fleetingly through the estate at night, half-expecting a gruesome demise. Creepy old trees, their limbs over-laden with a weeping of leaves, adorn the grounds. Somewhere about is also the tombstone of Big Daddy Hollis, a powerful patriarch who even long buried exerts a death-grip over Charlotte's every thought.
Such a house is surely not one at rest. Yet in the name of progress, this same manor is scheduled in ten days hence to be razed for the construction of a new road. Will those who walk the manor's dark corridors suffer such an abominable thing to transpire? What of Charlotte's own mind on the matter?
Soon, Charlotte's cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) arrives to complete the final moving arrangements. But with her arrival, unnatural forces lingering within the house are awakened. Throughout the dark nights, angry winds deliver with them the baying of unseen hounds. Ghostly apparitions - dismembered hands, decapitated heads, even a corpse that walks through the halls - seemingly haunt the manor in the dead of night. On such evenings, Charlotte herself embraces a music box, a final memento from her former beau, while calling out his name, half-hoping to see his visage emerging from the dark once more. Has Charlotte descended finally into insanity, tormented by eerie hallucinations, or have angry spirits truly returned from the grave for vengeance?
Sweet Charlotte unfolds much like a morbid blend of Diabolique, Baby Jane, and Sunset Boulevard. Disturbing and audaciously unpredictable, this spiritual sequel to Baby Jane is certainly prescient, too, foreshadowing today's horror films with their numerous plot twists and gory slashing moments. One wonders if Joan Crawford, had she remained with the film, might not have relished the opportunity to torment Bette Davis. In Baby Jane, Crawford was an invalid. In Sweet Charlotte, Bette portrays the tormented character, a pathetic shell of a woman crumbling with each passing day under her cousin Miriam's manipulative hand. The Miriam role would certainly have been a delightful role reversal for Crawford, redemption for any lingering bitterness from Baby Jane. As it turned out, Sweet Charlotte, feeding off the energy of the Davis-Crawford rivalry even without Crawford's presence, re-invigorated the careers of many of its veteran cast members.
Then again, maybe Joan Crawford got the last laugh, after all. Watch the film very carefully and you just might glimpse Crawford's blink-and-you'll-miss-it uncredited appearance in Sweet Charlotte!
BONUS TRIVIA: Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte was Mary Astor's final film. And yes, that was a young Bruce Dern staring down the wrong end of a butcher's cleaver.
Video *** ½
Sweet Charlotte's exquisite interplay of shadows and light exemplifies the lost art today of monochromatic cinematography. The film's extreme lighting and deep shadows look superb in this transfer, which offers a rich depth of black and white hues. The images are crystal clear and sharp.
The English soundtrack can be heard in either a stereo or monaural dub. Either track sounds good, but purists may opt for the original monaural track.
The main feature is a Glenn Erickson commentary. It focuses on various themes in the film while also providing detailed career biographies for the main cast members and some supporting actors, too. Be sure to listen until the end, when Erickson digs up many juicy tidbits about the numerous production woes behind both Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte.
The remaining extras are all trailers - one teaser, one theatrical trailer, and three TV spots. Other trailers offer peeks at The Good Son, The Omen, The Snake Pit, and The Vanishing.
Murder begins anew at the Hollis House! Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte is among the best of the "hag horrors" of the 1960's-70's and delivers the goods in the chills and thrills department.