Directed By: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten
Tag line: "Don't Tell Anyone What Happened In The Summer House!"
Trivia: Features the final film performance of Mary Astor
Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte reunites the director (Robert Aldrich) and star (Bette Davis) of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Joan Crawford, who also appeared in Baby Jane, was cast in Sweet Charlotte as well, but she became ill during the shoot, so Olivia De Havilland took over her role). It’s been years since I’ve seen this film, and for the longest time, I was of the opinion this was the lesser of the two works. Now, I see I was wrong. Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte is an edgy, often downright creepy Southern Gothic, with Davis hamming it up to perfection as the elderly belle with a dark, sinister past.
Decades after the brutal murder of her lover, Charlotte Hollis (Davis), believed by many the perpetrator of this heinous crime, is living alone in her desolate mansion, with only long-time housekeeper, Velma (Agnes Moorehead), to keep her company. When the city threatens to take the estate away from her, Charlotte turns to her cousin, Miriam (Olivia De Havilland), for guidance. With the help of a local doctor (Joseph Cotton), Miriam tries to convince Charlotte that it would be best if she finally left the old place, yet Miriam might just have an ulterior motive for wanting Charlotte out of the picture.
Whereas What Ever Happened to Baby Jane relied almost exclusively on the relationship between Davis and Crawford to send chills up its audience’s collective spines, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte establishes, in a well-designed pre-title sequence, that the horror of this particular tale will be a bit more diverse. As the movie opens, we’re transported back to 1927, and watch as Charlotte’s father, Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono), confronts her married lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), telling him, in no uncertain terms, to leave Charlotte alone. The next night, at a society ball being held at the Hollis estate, John does exactly what the old man told him to do, taking Charlotte into a back room and promptly ending their relationship. Heartbroken, Charlotte runs off crying, shouting at John that she could kill him. From there, things don’t go well for poor John, who, moments later, is hacked to death with a cleaver, losing his right hand and, presumably, his head in the attack. All the evidence suggests Charlotte is the killer, especially when she shows up at the dance with blood on her dress. We then leap ahead some 30-odd years to modern day, where a group of kids are approaching the dilapidated Hollis mansion, daring one of their number (John Megna, who played Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird) to go inside. “What is she catches me?”, he asks nervously. But the other boys are persistent, so in he goes, tip-toeing slowly through the once-great estate. Suddenly, a clock chimes, momentarily breaking the tension. That is, until an elderly Charlotte rises from her chair, somewhat bewildered, calling out for her dead lover and sending the frightened boy scrambling for the exit. Shifting from direct horror (the murder) to suspense, and doing so in the opening scenes of the film, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte grabs our attention right out of the gate, pulling us in and never letting us go.
Davis continues her fine work from Baby Jane, bringing to Charlotte a believable intensity, peppered with the perfect amount of over-the-top bravado to make her tragic character appear unpredictable. And while the movie's ending gets a tad convoluted, even going so far as to borrow a key scene from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 classic, Diabolique, Davis’ performance, combined with Aldrich’s always-interesting camera placement and De Havilland’s controlled turn as the cousin who’s up to something, transform Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte into a very different film than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and, in some ways, a superior one.