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20th Century Fox presents
Miriam: Yes, I told Jewel. And I told your father, too. Why wouldn't I? After all, I wasn't much more than a child then, and all I ever got in this house was people telling me how lucky I was. And your father always favoring you and holding you up as an example. Why wouldn't I tell him that his pure, darling little girl was having a dirty little affair with a married man!
DVD ReviewEver since Warner released What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? on DVD a few years ago, fans of over-the-hill-Golden-Age-diva-thrillers have been clamoring for its sister film, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, to get the same digital treatment. Well, at last, 20th Century-Fox has obliged, and while this Robert Aldrich exercise in grand guignol may not merit inclusion in its Studio Classics series ("Camp Classics," perhaps?), it remains a stylish, highly effective, and deliriously over-the-top chiller. Of course, most Bette Davis devotees prefer the ringlets, rats, and dead birds of Baby Jane, but I find the rolling heads, hacked off hands, and decaying Southern "charm" of Sweet Charlotte more appealing.
Make no mistake, I love watching a grotesque Davis warble I've Written a Letter to Daddy in Baby Jane and beat up on poor, paraplegic Joan Crawford (man, that rotten ol' Bette can kick!), but Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte possesses a more finely textured plot (with terrific twists and turns), ritzier production values, and a stellar cast of Hollywood legends hamming it up to the hilt. Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, and Mary Astor (in her final film role) chew up the dialogue as if it were choice beef jerky, savoring every malicious put-down and thinly veiled insult. Yet beneath all the shameless histrionics lies the sad—dare I say touching?—story of delusional spinster Charlotte Hollis (Davis), who pitifully pines for her murdered lover while greedy, vindictive parasites prey upon her. Oh, she gets her revenge in the end, all right, but her ironic reward is most likely a well-padded cell in the local asylum.
After the success of Baby Jane in 1962, director Aldrich sought a follow-up project to re-team dueling divas Davis and Crawford, and approached Baby Jane author Henry Farrell to concoct another sadistic brew. Both stars jumped at the opportunity despite their mutual disregard, but Crawford quickly realized she couldn't compete with or temper Davis' megalomania. As location shooting commenced in Louisiana, the rivalry spiraled out of control—Bette excised large chunks of Joan's dialogue, denigrated Crawford's acting in front of the crew, and excluded the star from after-hours social gatherings. In retaliation, Crawford became "ill," retreated to a hospital, and shut down production for weeks. She finally returned, but after numerous relapses, Aldrich became fed up with Joan's manipulations and, much to Bette's glee, began seeking a replacement. He approached Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, and Vivien Leigh (who, according to author Shaun Considine, declined the part by saying, "I can just about stand looking at Joan Crawford's face at six o'clock in the morning, but not Bette Davis."), then finally convinced Davis' old pal Olivia de Havilland to take the role. When told she'd been sacked, Crawford supposedly cried for nine hours in her hospital bed, then told a reporter: "I'm glad for Olivia; she needs a good picture."
With Crawford gone, Charlotte proceeded on schedule. Like Baby Jane, a lengthy opening sequence, set in 1927, lays the groundwork for the horror and mayhem to come. (And only an egomaniac like the 56-year-old Davis would consider playing the young Charlotte herself. Thankfully, she's well concealed by shadows, and though a double is used in some scenes, the raspy voice is unmistakably Bette's.) Domineering patriarch Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono) orders John Mayhew (Bruce Dern) to end his affair with Charlotte and return to his wife, Jewel. John reluctantly complies, dumping the distraught Charlotte in the secluded Hollis summer house during a wild plantation party. Her last words to him resonate: "I could kiiiiill you!" Minutes later, a cleaver-wielding maniac brutally butchers John, and when Charlotte returns to the soirée in a blood-stained white dress, everyone assumes she did the deed.
Flash forward to 1964. Charlotte, who escaped prosecution for the crime (thanks to her father's political connections), lives a reclusive life in the decaying family mansion, with only her devoted housekeeper, Velma Cruthers (Moorehead), as a companion. She clings to John's memory (some even suspect she carries around his severed hand in an antique music box), and, at times, wanders her home calling his name. The townsfolk believe Charlotte is "crazy as a loon," and she often acts the part to spite them, especially when the state of Louisiana plans to evict her from Hollis House to make room for a new highway. Panic-stricken over losing her land, Charlotte musters some Scarlett O'Hara resolve and summons her worldly cousin, Miriam Deering (de Havilland), back to the homestead to help her fight the state bureaucracy. Dr. Drew Bayliss (Cotten), an old family friend and Miriam's former flame, lends his support as well.
Of course, with friends like these... No sooner does Miriam settle in than Charlotte takes a turn for the worse. She becomes unbalanced and deranged, and her repressed paranoia springs to the surface. Velma suspects Miriam (and Drew) might not have Charlotte's best interests at heart, but can't come up with any incriminating evidence. Meanwhile, a kindly British investigator (Cecil Kellaway) arrives in town and befriends the fragile Charlotte. He also interviews the fading Jewel Mayhew (Astor) in his attempt to solve the decades-old mystery of who killed John, and why his life insurance policy remains unclaimed.
Although some story elements may suggest otherwise, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte is light years away from the schlocky William Castle shockers of the same period. A good bit of spirited hacking does transpire in the film's prologue (punctuated by laughable special "effects"), but Strait-Jacket this most certainly ain't. Director Aldrich takes a more Hitchcockian approach, smoothly balancing suspense, soap opera, and poignancy, while injecting plenty of black comedy into the proceedings. The creepy atmosphere of the dilapidated Hollis mansion makes Charlotte's drug-induced hallucinations plausible, and the lively dialogue, intricate plotting, and magnetic performances keep our eyes glued to the screen.
Leading the charge is Davis, of course. (Would she have it any other way?) Though on the surface, Bette seems to play Charlotte as a raging harpy, a closer look yields a multitude of subtle shadings in her portrayal. Sure, it's fun to watch Davis shove two-ton cement flower pots off her balcony, strut through her living room with a loaded rifle, and scurry down a staircase on all fours yelping like a wounded animal, but beneath all the show-offy theatrics, she engenders genuine sympathy for Charlotte, and her quiet, pensive moments beautifully resonate.
De Havilland is excellent, too, in a tough, duplicitous role. Cousin Miriam harbors more secrets than Pandora's Box, but Olivia keeps the lid on tight throughout the film's first half. Like a middle-aged Melanie Wilkes, she laces all her dialogue with a sickly sweet sincerity (at times, when she says "Charlotte," it sounds exactly like "Scarlett"), but when Miriam at last brandishes her claws, the syrup turns to venom, and Olivia—who seldom played a bitch throughout her long career—seems to relish every nasty line. Yet de Havilland rarely overplays, and her restraint nicely complements Davis' more brazen portrayal.
Although Charlotte boasts a gallery of oddballs, the most bizarre in the bunch (and everybody's favorite character) is the lovably slovenly, sharp-tongued Velma. To carry the Gone with the Wind analogy a bit further, she's a cross between Mammy and Prissy, fiercely loyal to Charlotte, but disgusted by Miriam's pretension, and not afraid to say so. In a rollicking, riveting performance, Moorehead pulls out all the stops and shamelessly steals every scene in which she appears. Her muttering, mimicking, and mouthing off would earn her a well-deserved Academy Award nomination, one of seven (!) the film would receive.
Not bad for a campy little chiller.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: The beautifully clean transfer benefits from excellent contrast, rich shadow detail, and marvelous gray level variance, all of which draw welcome attention to Joseph F. Biroc's Oscar-nominated cinematography. Although close-ups of the aging legends are far from flattering, the level of detail is amazing, and helps draw us into Charlotte's unbalanced world. Inky blacks lend a sense of foreboding to almost every nocturnal scene, while light grain enhances the eerie mood.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Fox includes both stereo and mono tracks, and though the former lacks any noticeable separation, it renders subtle details exceptionally well. Atmosphere is such a key element in thrillers, and the stereo track meets every creepy challenge, from bombastic thunderstorms to ominously tinkling wind chimes. Dialogue comes through loud and clear, and Frank DeVol's Oscar-nominated music enjoys terrific range and fine presence, as it underscores a multitude of conflicting emotions.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Good Son, The Omen, The Snake Pit, The Vanishing
4 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Glenn Erickson
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: In addition to a host of theatrical trailers and TV spots (all of which spotlight the film's most lurid moments), the only extra offered is an audio commentary from film historian Glenn Erickson. Sadly, this is a highly disappointing track both in content and delivery, as Erickson fails to capture the campy spirit of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte or fully relate the fascinating machiavellian mood that pervaded the production. Instead, Erickson treats Charlotte with professorial solemnity, and sounds as if he's reading a carefully written lecture instead of speaking off-the-cuff. The result is a droning oration padded with endless biographies of actors and crew members. Rudy Behlmer can make such minutia lively and engaging, but Erickson's monotone keeps the listener woefully detached.
Erickson also errs by neglecting to address Charlotte's colorful production history right off the bat; rather, he makes us wait until the 1h:48m mark before embarking on a truncated, just-the-facts-ma'am summary of the film's backstage turmoil. Now, maybe in his attempt to treat this as a serious film instead of a way-over-the-top thriller, Erickson felt inclined to skirt the gossipy details of the Crawford-Davis rivalry and the mystery "illness" that "forced" Joan out of the picture. But such tabloid dirt is part of Charlotte's lore, and helps make the movie engrossing and fun. To gloss over it in a mere 10 minutes is to cheat fans of the film—and younger generations just discovering it—out of a major portion of its history. Biographies of Davis and Crawford, Mary Astor's memoirs, and countless other film books fairly brim with behind-the-scenes insights and bitchy anecdotes—author Shaun Considine spends an entire 30 pages (!) recounting the history of Charlotte in his highly entertaining tome, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud—but Erickson ignores those sources, relying instead on newspaper articles and a biography of director Robert Aldrich. Erickson's choice to steer clear of innuendo and hearsay (which, to be fair, permeates Considine's book) is admirable, but this is an audio commentary on a DVD, not a college thesis, and chronicling the infantile antics of two aging divas on the set of a horror film would have punched up this far too stiff discussion.
On the plus side, Erickson does make some cogent points (his discussion of grand guignol is especially interesting), and clearly seems to appreciate the film despite its faults. But he never properly conveys his enthusiasm or treats Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte with the acid wit and irreverence the material demands.
Extras Grade: C
Final CommentsForty years later, Charlotte remains awfully sweet. An engrossing story (with a sustaining emotional thread), great performances from a powerhouse cast, and elegant trimmings raise this ghoulish thriller high above others in the faded diva genre. Fox supplies a topnotch transfer, but a lackluster set of extras disappoints. (Where's the AMC Backstory episode, photo gallery, and other supplements?) Still, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte is grisly good fun, and earns a solid recommendation. Eat your heart out, Baby Jane.
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