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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte" was, as most people know, intended as a
follow up (not a sequel) to the first and most influential "horror hag"
film of them all, "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?". Producer/director
Robert Aldrich who had helmed "Jane" wanted to repeat that film's box
office success. He re-teamed Bette Davis (as Charlotte) and Joan
Crawford (as her cousin Miriam) but, in events that have become the
stuff of Hollywood Legend, Crawford became "ill" and checked into the
hospital and wouldn't come out. She was eventually replaced by Bette's
long-standing friend, Olivia de Havilland, fresh from "Lady in a Cage"
Although many find the plot somewhat convoluted, it is basically rather simple. Aging southern belle Charlotte Hollis lives in decayed splendor in the Louisiana mansion where, thirty seven years earlier, a horrible murder took place. The victim was none other than her married lover John Mayhew (Bruce Dern, in an early screen appearance) whom Charlotte fears was killed by her overbearing father (Victor Buono) who was against their affair. Over the years, however, the local townspeople have concluded that Charlotte herself was responsible, but escaped punishment due to her father's political connections. As it happens, the highway commission is planning on building a bridge where Charlotte's house stands, and are tirelessly trying to remove her from the property. She is just as doggedly determined to remain, because she fears demolition of the house will reveal proof of her father's guilt. Charlotte's only companions are her old, white trash housekeeper, Velma Crother (Agnes Moorehead) and the family doctor, Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten). Charlotte's attempts to hold off the sheriff are finally beginning to weaken, so, in a last attempt to hold onto the old plantation, she sends for her Cousin Miriam Deering, hoping she can help. Miriam does, eventually arrive, but it's soon obvious that she is there for reasons other than to comfort and aid her cousin.
The film is well photographed in eminently suitable black and white, and the haunting musical score by an Oscar-nominated Frank DeVol (as well as the beautiful nominated title song) aid it immeasurably. The performances are what makes the movie so much fun. Bette Davis, as usual, goes all out as the tormented cousin, moaning, whining simpering and,especially shrieking her way through her part. In contrast, the still very attractive de Havilland is, at first, a model of restraint. Matching Davis in the histrionics department is Moorehead (who was also Oscar-nominated for her performance) as she carries on, sometimes so hilariously, it's difficult to understand what she is saying. (Oh well, that's what DVD subtitles are for!) At the same time, she can be moving as well. Cotten gets to do his own (relatively restrained) scenery-chewing , but the scenes in which Davis, de Havilland and Moorehead scream at each other in very thick southern accents could be right out of the old "Mama's Family" TV series. As Jewel Mayhew, widow of Bette's lover, Mary Astor gives her usual excellent performance, so subdued and realistic, that she seems to be in a different film. Ditto Cecil Kellaway as a curious insurance investigator. In the end, though, it's all the overplaying and gaudy scene stealing which makes "Charlotte" so much fun. A remake would be not only redundant, but a mistake. "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte" is truly one of a kind. The just-released Fox DVD includes a great widescreen transfer of the film, an audio commentary, and, best of all, a trailer, teaser trailer and three television spots, which emphasize the movie's lurid aspects--what else could you want? GET IT NOW!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Few films have the ability to show the decay of plantation life in the South better than Hush...Hush sweet Charlotte. The setting is a rural plantation home that in 1927 was the scene of a brutal murder where an unfaithful husband was beheaded and behanded. Next we fast forward to 1964 and see the effects of this crime on Charlotte Hollis..the young girl accused of the crime and bordering on mental instability. Bette Davis plays Charlotte and her performance is a tour-de-force as she plays a woman under stress with a zeal that would make any ham actor proud. Davis tops her baby Jane performance by not only creating a character with obvious problems, but also giving this character feeling, compassion, and an air of pity. The plot of the film involves Davis's descent into madness as she thinks she sees things..or really does. The rest of the cast is first-rate with Joseph Cotten playing the stereotypical Southern doctor with the over-pronounced inflection only Cotten could provide. Olivia De Havilland creates one of her better roles, and makes a superb wicked woman. The real treat to watch is Agnes Moorehead who plays a wise-cracking, crotchetey housekeeper. Rounding out the superb cast are a few nice performances from the ever affable Cecil Kellaway as one of the few humane people in the film, a nice cameo by Mary Astor, Bruce Dern and Victor Buono in flashback sequences. The movie tells a pretty inventive tale...but really is a showcase for great talent, good direction, wonderful atmosphere, and a rather perverse thematic underpinning. To use a well-worn cliche....they just don't make em like this anymore. Ain't it a shame!
Well, I loved Bette Davis' performances, as a rule. But I'm willing to bet that even NON fans of Davis would appreciate her tour in this particular movie. Following two years after "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?", "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte" is nevertheless four times the film of its more noted predecessor. The reasons for this are four=fold. The script, though occasionally unintentionally funny, is still crisper, more believable and contains a more satisfying ending. Next, Davis' is more balanced by the performances of DeHavilland, Cotton, a more mature Victor Buono, and the great Agnes Morehead. Thirdly, we have a better set and setting, more attuned to the genre. Finally, the cinematography is several notches better, in my opinion. Adding it all up, you have an exceptionally fine example of that unique genre, the gothic melodrama. In this movie, the genre is virtually defined! If asked to name an example to a "top twenty" or "top fifty" movie list, "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte" would definitely make the cut.
John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), a married man, is having an affair with
Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis). When Charlotte's father, Sam (Victor
Buono), a local bigwig (the town is even named after the family) finds
out that John was planning on eloping with Charlotte, he demands that
John tells Charlotte during a big party that he's breaking off their
relationship. John ends up dead, and Charlotte is the likely suspect.
Thirty-seven years later, Charlotte is still living as a recluse on her
family's plantation, but now she is being forced to move, as a highway
is going to be built across her property. Gradually, people come back
into her life to ostensibly help her.
For at least the first 45 minutes to an hour or so into the film, Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a 10 out of 10. Unfortunately, given a 133-minute running time, director Robert Aldrich can't sustain the intensity for the length of the film, but Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte finishes as an 8 out of 10 for me.
Although there are some thriller and horror elements, both take up relatively little screen time. At that though, these elements are extremely effective. Some parts are surprisingly graphic for 1964--just enough to be a surprise and evoke the appropriate sense of shock. The best horror/thriller material in the film is in the haunted house vein, and for a time, we wonder if Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte is going to end up being a ghost story.
But the focus here is primarily on Charlotte and Miriam Deering (Olivia de Havilland) and their relationship to one another. Davis and de Havilland are both incredible in the film, and both go through a very wide range of emotions. Oddly, Agnes Moorehead (as Velma Cruther) was more recognized for her performance than the rest of the cast in terms of awards and nominations, with de Havilland receiving neither. Not that Moorehead wasn't good, but in my view, she wasn't the standout performance. However, that's just further fuel for my belief that the Academy Awards have little to do with rewarding the best films, actors and filmmakers.
There are also broader themes explored as a subtext, including the changing way of life in the southern United States between the early and mid-20th Century.
I subtracted two points because the film lost a bit of its momentum and direction in the middle, but the last half-hour is as exciting as the beginning.
Following soon after "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane", I originally thought that "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte" would be a letdown - far from it, in my opinion, much better due a great deal to the cast of great actors and actresses. Bette Davis was in her element in this role of Charlotte, while Olivia de Havilland in the role originally planned for Joan Crawford was superb, and was an inspired piece of accidental casting! Agnes Moorehead deserved her Academy nomination, while Mary Astor was a most welcome sight. Joseph Cotten normally seems very wooden in his parts, but does an excellent job here. The Black and White photography adds a great deal to the mood, and is far better than Colour would have been. The ending was very well planned and carried out, and you feel after the film ends there is something else that happened that the viewer never saw. Get it on Video - it is well worth the experience.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It all begins in 1927 during a society party in Louisiana when Jewel Mayhew's (Mary Astor) husband has been found decapitated...the head is never recovered. There are suspects galore. Could it have been his mistress Charlotte? Could it have been his loveless wife, Jewel? Could it have been Charlotte's domineering father (Victor Buono)? Or could it have been the over-protective servant (Agnes Moorehead, in an Academy Award-nominated performance)? Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte is an engrossing film about the ruthless machinations of Miriam Deering (Olivia de Havilland) and her doctor lover (Joseph Cotten) as they try to push her cousin, the disturbed Charlotte (Bette Davis) over the edge in order to get Charlotte's inheritance. Blackmail and deceit abound in this psychological suspense drama which exceeded my expectations; much better than the cheap blood and gore that I thought it would be. Bette's performance was at times heart-breaking, sometimes humorous and mostly macabre. One of the better performances she gave towards the end of her career. Olivia de Havilland gave a chilling performance as a scheming, vicious vindicator of envy...a long cry from her roles as the good woman in such films as To Each His Own and In This Our Life. The film made me sit up and watch, some scary bits, some humour, some malevolent emotions. All very exciting. Very well executed. Very much worth watching when you're in the mood for something highly entertaining.
What an entertaining movie! It's the Southern setting that gives the
film its potent flavor, with that overwrought plantation house, the
Southern accents, the small town gossip, antebellum attitudes, and the
music at the party in 1927. The script's dialogue also reflects this
Southern tint. Mournfully reflecting on the past, Sam Hollis (Victor
Buono) says near the beginning: "My daddy sat out there on that
veranda; let this whole place slide to dust; when he died there was
nothing but debts and dirt; I touched that dirt and made it blossom".
The story's theme is a preoccupation with the past, with ghosts not properly buried, and with family secrets, repression, and subterfuge. Charlotte (Bette Davis) is a pitiful woman because she is not rational. Like her daddy, she can't let go of the past. Living all alone in that big house with just her housekeeper Velma (Agnes Moorehead), Charlotte obsesses about bygone days. But if her own delusions contribute to her misery, she at least has the presence of mind to understand that those who come to visit her may not have her best interests in mind, hence the story's conflict as she attempts to fight back.
All of the major roles are ideally cast. I would not have made a single change in casting. Acting trends a tad melodramatic at times, but that's part of the fun. Agnes Moorehead gives one of the great supporting performances of all time. And Olivia de Havilland, with her vocal inflections, shrewd smile and stylish behavior, adds elegance that contrasts nicely with the shabby and humorously uncultured Velma.
B&W cinematography also contributes to the film's high quality. Dramatic lighting, interesting overhead camera angles, lots of interior shadows, and quick zoom-ins all add visual interest.
Plot structure is okay, but the runtime is a bit lengthy. I wish they had edited out some of the campy scenes in the second half.
"Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte" is a grand movie, with grand actors and grand moments. The story contains mystery, spine-tingling suspense, and it veritably drips with Southern angst. Though the film is a tad campy in a few spots and is a bit long, nevertheless it's wonderfully entertaining.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although some might say that the Joan/Bette backstory behind
'Charlotte' is a little more fascinating, I respectfully disagree.
'Charlotte' is one of my all time favorite movies. It's got a great
cast and gives Olivia de Havilland her first taste at playing a real
bitch (the car scene where Miriam (de Havilland) slaps Charlotte is
fantastic!) It's hard for me to think that Joan Crawford was cast in
the original role of Miriam, only because de Havilland brings such a
refinement to the character. She's well-mannered, classy and eloquent,
which makes it that much better when she finally snaps.
Agnes Moorehead is a hoot playing Velma, and while her whole character is a tad overexaggerated, the true caring she had for "Miss Charlotte" is nice to see. As always, Joseph Cotten is great as Dr. Drew Bayliss, and unlike his other roles, he doesn't underplay this one. I enjoy the chemistry between him and de Havilland in their scenes together, particularly in the one after Velma's death. The black and white cinematography is wonderful--giving the whole film a moody, creepy look.
The whole movie leans towards the category of "campy bitchfests", but what a fantastic campy bitchfest it is! 'Charlotte' is always labeled under horror, but the scene where Bruce Dern is murdered always makes me laugh. Compared to today's gore standards this one is the equivalent of a paper cut!
10/10. And personally, I found 'Charlotte' much more interesting than Baby Jane, which just rubbed me the wrong way (I think I spent a good half of that movie just staring at Joan Crawfords eyebrows.) Come on Fox! Get going on a DVD!
It's tough to beat this for a good, deep cast: Bette Davsi, Olivia de
Havilland, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorhead, Cecil Kellaway, Victor Buono,
Mary Astor and Bruce Dern.
My favorite character in here was played by Moorhead. She was excellent as the eccentric (but very perceptive) housekeeper. I wish Kellaway's role had been bigger. It was interesting, too, to see such a young Dern. Davis looked really grotesque, but that was the idea. Kudos for her to not care about her looks.
Speaking of looks, the best feature in here might have been the cinematography. I have not seen this on DVD but I'd like to and wonder if it looks tremendous. It sure looked good on VHS. And that theme song! It is played throughout the movie and once you hear it, as I first did in the theater over 40 years ago, you never forget it.
My lone complaint is the length of the film. At 133 minutes, I think it would have been a lot tighter and better at about 110. However, even though there were definite lulls in the story, they were never that long in length.
There is an ominous feeling about this movie, even its title, which
seems to go out of its way to seem like it truly has soul and
communicates with us. Its story is very sad. Bette Davis nearly melts
down from the heat of her own presence as a wealthy spinster who lives
in a big mansion on a plantation that has interminably been in her
family. The Highway Commission plans to level her home and build a new
highway through the estate. Davis, playing the titular Charlotte,
disregards the eviction notice and refuses to leave, feeling that it is
all she has in the world. She demonstrates her feelings by keeping the
demolition crew and the bulldozer away by shooting at them. They
finally give up and leave temporarily.
The movie, rather than opening with cursive credit titles and interchangeable orchestral music, starts immediately, set many years earlier, when Charlotte is still barely an adult, and her married lover, played by a very young Bruce Dern, is murdered in a stunning scene for 1964. Although the killer was never discovered, the local townspeople, and director Robert Wise's camera, are persuaded of Charlotte's guilt. Charlotte has since become a recluse, a black sheep of the community, living with her housekeeper, Agnes Moorehead, in the fading mansion. Now she tries to find support in her struggle against the Highway Commission from Olivia de Havilland, playing her cousin who lived with the family as a girl. Upon her return, she refreshes her relationship with a local doctor who jilted her after the murder, played by Joseph Cotton, who flaunts a hugely persuasive Southern twang.
Olivia de Havilland's performance is inordinately remarkable. She is an actress entirely opposite of Bette Davis. She is of incredible self-control, not only as an actress, but as a woman. Her first instinct is to fight feelings, smother, restrain, and simply not accept her outsized emotional condition. But, in refusing to welcome innate unpredictability, grief is only complicated, but this is never overt. She masks this complexity in her irresistible feminine poise and beauty. She brings such incredible adjustments that slowly build upon one's comprehension of her character. Her looks, her reactions, her completely closeted feelings are knowingly real and natural. Robert Wise, a master of realism in the most haunting contexts, sees this as significant realistic gold and makes sure to steadily maintain its purity.
Wise maintains purity in many areas of Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The evil, for instance, that is unraveled is unadulterated, shocking cruelty, heartlessness and sadism. The film is definitely scary in spite of the shock value it bears for its time. As a "grand guignol" sort of story, it is a naturalistic horror tale, a graphic, amoral psychological drama. It is this kind of pure evil that really draws you in to a thriller. Wise's Gothic tale, shot in a telling black and white, has that draw, and would not be out of place being performed in one of the turn-of- the-century French theaters, perhaps a converted chapel, the theater's history shown in the confessionals, angels and stain glass above the stage.
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