If there was one sub-genre of film that the 1960s gave birth to that never let up as the decade went on and remained for some time, it was in what was known as Grand Dame Guignol cinema. Beginning with the runaway success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hollywood (as it usually does), found that the practice of taking older female stars, whose careers were on the decline and casting them in low-budget schlockers much to the delight of audiences both young and old could actually turn a profit. While most of the films were laughable and only proceeded to become more and more ludicrous as the decade continued, one such title which escaped becoming a joke in the industry, yet still managed to be a crowd pleaser thanks to all the right ingredients and a pitch perfect, earnest approach was 1964’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
In Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Bette Davis stars as Charlotte Hollis, a woman who has lived in her secluded southern mansion with her trusty maid Velma (Agnes Moorehead) and the family doctor Drew (Joseph Cotten) as the only people in her life. When plans for a new highway to be built on her property have driven Charlotte to worry, she enlists the help of her New York cousin Miriam (Olivia De Havilland), who rushes to her side. However, Miriam’s return brings back memories of a defining incident in Charlotte’s past involving an affair with a married man (Bruce Dern), whose murder the young Charlotte was always suspected of and is now haunting her dreams and her reality.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte was originally conceived as a spiritual sequel of sorts to Baby Jane in that the project was intended to star Davis and Joan Crawford in the lead roles with hopes of the film becoming a success on the same level as their previous outing. Although Crawford began shooting most of her scenes, it became clear that the animosity between her and her co-star was making things difficult. As a result, the actress feigned illness until she was allowed to walk off the set a third of the way into shooting. The struggle to find an 11th hour replacement threw the entire film into turmoil, with many fearing the plug would have to be pulled. Many people in the industry, not to mention the press, were certainly expecting a disaster to say the least, and yet watching the film it is clear the exact opposite is true. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is neither the patchy turkey some would think nor the over-the-top camp fest others would expect.
Behind-the scenes drama aside, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte stands as a quintessential southern gothic thriller that rises above the standard of cheap ’60s horror. The film’s setting in the deep south provides an excellent backdrop for the characters and their many dark secrets to play out. Additionally, the film’s haunting score and memorable title track echo the story’s themes of lost dreams and sad regret. There’s an overall sadness throughout the film, especially in its main character, whose lone chance at true love and happiness was taken away and replaced with a life of anger, resentment, and paranoia. At the same time, the film’s thriller aspects are well felt with enough twists and turns, coupled with an impressive dream sequence or two, to give genre fans some genuine pleasure.
Featuring a collection of some of classic Hollywood’s finest, there’s not a bad performance in the bunch. Many consider this to be Davis’s last great role of the decade and one of the final shining moments of her career. She attacks the film with her trademark gusto, but also gives Charlotte some empathy as she mourns the life and the love she was never able to have. De Havilland works well with Davis and greatly adds some credibility to the overall film that simply wouldn’t have existed had she not replaced Crawford. Cotten hams it up devilishly, while Moorehead camps to no end (earning an Oscar nomination in the process). Other supporting work from Mary Astor as the wife of Charlotte’s dead lover, Cecil Kellaway as a sympathetic journalist, Victor Buono as Charlotte’s domineering father and a young Bruce Dern as the doomed lover each prove integral tools in making Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte the worthy endeavor that it is.
While many fans may not agree with me, perhaps it’s for the best that the re-teaming of Davis and Crawford didn’t happen. Watching the two of them together would have been too much of a gimmick for the film. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t have been interesting, especially given how the essence of their roles from their previous outing would have been reversed. However, it wouldn’t have allowed Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte to stand-up and and shine through its own merits, which the film certainly does with its thrills and southern tragedy of dreams and hopes being replaced with regret and despair.
Two commentaries accompany the release of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The first, featuring historian Glenn Erikson, was recorded back in 2005 for the film’s DVD release and proves to be a serious and honest study of the film, which delves into the psychology of the story, while also examining the various filmmaking aspects. Meanwhile, the second track featuring Twilight Time’s David Del Valle and Steven Peros plays up the more superficial and gossipy aspects for the film’s camp fans.
There’s a vintage featurette hosted by Cotten as well as two new ones. The first, Hush…Hush, Sweet Joan explores the film’s arduous journey to the screen, while the second, Bruce Dern Remembers, features the actor recalling his experiences while shooting the film. Additional trailers, marketing materials, and a photo gallery featuring shots of Crawford as Miriam, round out the special features.
Featuring lighter shades of Tennessee Williams and Alfred Hitchcock, along with a game cast, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte remains the quintessential example of the southern gothic thriller.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.