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Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) Blu Ray (Eureka!)

What Ever Happened to Charlotte?

This spiritual sequel to Robert Aldrich’s classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) begins in the American Deep South in the 1920s. A wealthy patriarch named Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono) has learnt that the boyfriend of her daughter Charlotte, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), is already married to another woman. He cajoles him into revealing this fact to her at a party in his mansion. When he does so that night, the revelation leaves Charlotte devastated. Shortly after this, John is gruesomely murdered with a cleaver. Charlotte then suddenly emerges in front of the party guests with blood over her dress.

We then move forward to the 1960s, when Charlotte (played by Bette Davis) has inherited her long-deceased father’s grand home. When the property is put through a bent land sale with the intention of being knocked down and replaced with a highway, she decides to contact her cousin Miriam Deering (Olivia de Havilland) in order for her to move in with her and help her to persuade the authorities to leave her be.

Olivia de Havilland in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Unfortunately, things are complicated by the fact that Charlotte’s memories of all of those years ago have caused her to become psychologically unhinged, being prone to ghostly visions and violent tantrums alike. She is now in the care of both a doctor named Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten) and her long-suffering but steadfast maid Velma (Agnes Moorehead). Will Miriam’s sudden arrival prove to be a stabilising influence - or does she have her own ulterior motives for reconnecting with her mentally damaged relative?

Watch a trailer:

Even more stylishly amped up than the original

After the major success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, director Robert Aldrich was under pressure to reunite Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for another psychological horror-thriller along the same lines. After a considerable amount of persuasion, he managed to get the two famous bitter rivals on board once more for Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. However, the long-running and well-publicised feud between the two actresses reached the point where they could no longer conceivably work together. Crawford was replaced by Olivia de Havilland, another ageing Hollywood actress whose glory days were behind her by this point.

The resulting film was well-received critically and snagged eight Oscar nominations but wasn’t anywhere near as big a box office hit as its predecessor was. As a result, it has lived in its shadow over the years, remaining comparatively little-seen and little-recognised by lovers of classic cinema. It’s a shame really; while the storyline doesn’t have the same freshness and originality, it effectively offsets this shortfall due to its even more stylishly amped-up sense of grand guignol fun.

It positively bathes itself in gothic atmosphere via an exuberant old mansion set, elaborate chiaroscuro lighting and lots of telling “cage” symbolism - be it a birdcage or bannister silhouettes. Hoary old cliches are deployed with a gleeful wink, a classic example being the kids at the start daring a younger boy to wander into the mansion and meet the supposed “ghost” of John Mayhew. There are plenty of little teases and twists throughout to keep the viewer guessing. Unlike in Baby Jane, there is actually a bit of gore here involving a severed hand and head. It was one of the earliest Hollywood films to feature such graphic effects. Most of all, Bette Davis and Agnes Moorehead have been given free rein to run rampant with the scenery-chewing right off the bat.

Olivia de Havilland, on the other hand, adopts a more restrained butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth approach which provides a delightful contrast to the hamming of her two co-stars. Indeed, one could argue that the counterpoint she brings to the excesses surrounding her allows her to walk away with the whole movie by stealth. Keep an eye out for the casually nonchalant manner in which she discards a malicious letter emblazoned with the word “MURDERER” on the floor for the maid to pick up.

While Davis plays a character with a similarly spiralling insanity to Baby Jane Hudson from the previous film, the perpetrator-victim dynamic has been turned on its head with her ultimately falling into the latter role here. Going back to the aforementioned cage symbolism, her character is, to all intents and purposes, imprisoned by her mental disability - in contrast to Blanche (Joan Crawford) from the previous film who was effectively imprisoned by her physical disability. As the film goes on, one begins to notice subtle changes in Davis’s performance as her overblown air of aristocratic dignity slips away and pathos seeps in.

There are other notable cast members here. Joseph Cotten is at his slimy best as Charlotte’s doctor who also happens to have his own history with Miriam. Cecil Kellaway brings a restrained warmth to his role as an insurance investigator who becomes an unlikely hero of the day. While Victor Buono only appears during the early “origin story” scenes, he is genuinely intimidating as the overbearing patriarch. Bruce Dern made one of his earliest big screen appearances as the weaselly and ill-fated John Mayhew. At the other end of the scale, Mary Astor gave us her last screen appearance as his on-screen mother.

There’s so much to enjoy here, ranging from a haunting, vaseline-tinged ghostly hallucination sequence to the memorable theme song written by Frank De Vol and Mack David. If you relished What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? then you shouldn’t pass this one up. No, strike that; you shouldn’t pass it up period.

Runtime: 133 mins

Dir: Robert Aldrich

Script: Henry Farrell, Lukas Heller

Starring: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Cecil Kellaway, Victor Buono, Mary Astor, Wesley Addy, William Campbell, Bruce Dern

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

The black-and-white imagery looks stunning here, with spot-on contrast and sharp details. The sound fares equally well; very sharp and clear.

Extras

Audio Commentaries

There are two commentary tracks with this release: one with Diabolique Magazine editor Kat Ellinger and the other with American film critic Glenn Erickson. For this review, I decided to go for the Ellinger track.

As per usual, she adopts more of a cine-literate essay style in lieu of commenting directly on the onscreen action. She delves extensively into the phenomenally brutal Bette Davis-Joan Crawford feud which ultimately led to the latter dropping out of the production during filming. While some footage of Crawford was filmed, it remains lost at the time of writing. In stark contrast to Crawford, Olivia de Havilland had long been a close friend of Davis’s and looked up to her as a role model.

Ellinger also examines the numerous genres and cycles (from so-called “hagsploitation” to Southern Gothic) which the film was a part of, as well as Robert Aldrich’s other “women’s pictures”. While Aldrich was more readily associated with macho male movies such as The Dirty Dozen, he made a number of films which gave genuinely meaty roles to actresses. Indeed, he was known to prefer working with women over men because he felt that they were more adaptable and less egocentric - even when they were such notoriously strong-willed and demanding ones as Crawford, Davis and Ida Lupino.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Joan: The Making of Charlotte

Adell Aldrich (daughter of Robert Aldrich), Mark A. Vieria (author of Hollywood Horror), actor Bruce Dern, Michael Merrill (son of Bette Davis) and others were interviewed for this solid documentary. They discuss the background of the toxic Bette Davis-Joan Crawford relationship which was successfully exploited for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? but ended up causing major problems during the filming of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

For the latter film, Davis demanded a hefty back-end percentage as part of her fee. However, Aldrich told her that only a producer could get the kind of deal which she demanded. As a result, she pulled some levers to become the film’s associate producer and thereby exploited the opportunity to make Crawford’s life hell. In the end, the latter dropped out due to an alleged and possibly fabricated illness. In this documentary, we get to see some brief behind-the-scenes footage and stills of Crawford working on the film.

When Olivia de Havilland was brought on board to replace her partway through the production, the wardrobe department had insufficient time to create new outfits for her. Hence, the clothes which you see her wearing during the film are her own.

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte was the first film to be given the credit “An Associates & Aldrich Film Production”. It was a literal family affair; most of Robert Aldrich’s children appear in brief roles during the early scenes. The exception was Adell, who took on script supervising duties. While Robert’s wife had nothing to do with the film, Bette Davis’s character is seen wearing her pin as part of her outfit.

Bruce Dern Remembers

Dern makes for enjoyable company in this interview. He was 28 years old and only 2 years into his Hollywood career when he got the part in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Surprisingly, Victor Buono (who plays a clearly far senior man in age than his character during the opening scene) was just one year older than him in real life. Although it isn’t entirely clear from viewing the film, Bette Davis plays the younger version of Charlotte during one of her scenes with Bruce Dern. She told him that she refused to have anyone doubling for her. However, some shots where the character’s face is clearly visible do obviously use a stand-in.

Dern also talks about a hair-raising experience when he had to wear a prosthetic hand which gets chopped with a hatchet during the scene when his character is murdered. If the blow missed, it might have taken off his hand for real!

Wizard Work

A short contemporary behind-the-scenes piece presented by Joseph Cotten, who calls Robert Aldrich a “wizard”. A nice bit of nostalgia.

A stills gallery, various trailers and a collector’s booklet round out the extras.

Overall:

I’m going to go out on a limb and admit that I actually slightly prefer Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. While not quite as original as its predecessor, it pushes the delirious gothic exuberance that bit further. The extras here, while not as copious as some other discs out there, are top-notch and practically guaranteed to bring a nostalgic tear to your eye.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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