Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte a Delicious Gothic Treat by Kristin Battestella
Director and producer Richard Aldrich capitalized on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with the chilling but no less sophisticated Southern Gothic examination of murder, gossip, and madness in 1964’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
After Charlotte Hollis’ (Bette Davis) father Big Sam (Victor Buono) insists she break off her dalliance with the married John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), Charlotte enters the cotillion covered in blood. Decades later, Charlotte remains an infamous murderess and recluse, living alone save for housekeeper Velma Cruther (Agnes Moorehead). The state of Louisiana plans to tear down the crumbling Hollis House to build a bridge, and with Doctor Drew Bayliss’ (Joseph Cotten) help, cousin Miriam Deering (Olivia de Havilland) returns to convince Charlotte she must leave. Unfortunately, ghostly violence terrorizes the women, blurring past crimes, contemporary suspicions, and deadly delusions.
Happening jazz, dancing, and 1927 good times hide the illicit schemes, secret elopements, and vicious murder opening Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. We think we’ve seen a cold-hearted kill thanks to intercut chopping, gruesome slices, and screams, but is this crime all it seems? Wind chimes and silent shocks lead to 1964 cemeteries and youthful rhymes detailing the chop chop legend of headless lovers as boys sneak in the desolate ballroom ruined by passion, scandal, and insanity. Construction vehicles rumble nearby, yet there’s a certain gentility to the venomous shouts. Everyone says miss or sir, using full names and regional colloquialisms despite the ten day eviction notice, paranoid conspiracies, suspicious old enemies, and secrets coming back to haunt one and all.
Talk of an innocent teen girl having a dirty affair with a married man and calling each other bitches was shocking dialogue at the time, but there are also regrets, tears, and wishful thinking of an inheritance that should have been well spent instead of wasted on the lonely, dilapidated decades.
The dramatically paced conversations are layered with talk of the past, current states of mind, double entendres, and shade – creating zingers and storytelling comforts before wardrobes that open by themselves, slashed clothing, crank letters, and unforgiving threats quicken the pulse. Creaking doors, cleavers, and severed limbs scare the women – our eponymous character may be a little mad, but others are experiencing the frights, too. Crimes of Passion magazine reporters are excited that now in the sixties they can play up the murder’s sex angle, and there’s no one to trust amid phantom figures strolling the grounds and ghostly harpsichord playing. Storms, lightning, and winds blowing across the balcony lead to breaking windows and shattered mirrors. Today we have crazy versus ghost horrors, but they are often teen light rather than sophisticated dramas with performances free to carry the murderous motives behind the frights.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte provides superb scenes with heavyweight talent, and revelations in the final act place the viewer within the footsteps, physical bouts, and shocking violence. The southern gentility degrades into cruel intensity as the sense of dread escalates without any need for in your face jump scares. Deaths we’ve seen happen are said to have happened entirely differently, and the women do what has to be done thanks to the men’s messes – be he builder, destroyer, father, doctor, or lover. Beckoning echoes and tormenting serenades are twisted, sad, and delicious all at once thanks to eerie masks, gunshots, headless suitors, and nightmares. Delusions revisit the original crime while chilling visuals, bitch slaps, and dead bodies rolled up in the carpet contribute to the hysteria. These dames won’t suffer for the lies, blackmail, and cruelty anymore, but the can’t take it with you and what was it all for pain serves up a few more frights before the madness is all said and done.
Is Bette Davis’ (All About Eve) Charlotte a crazy killer, abused, or just misunderstood? She’s mad, one minute, pushing planters off the balcony at construction workers, but demure in white, crying, and heartbroken the next. Charlotte’s an unreliable old woman dealing with trespassers and losing her home. She doesn’t need sympathy or company, just help in saving Hollis House. At times she is very sharp, but she’s also caught in the moment of her lover’s murder, dressed up and waiting for a dead beau. She knows the townsfolk think she got away with murder, however the audience likes her moxie. We’re on her side when the sheriff insists she only acts loony because it’s what’s expected of her, and we pity Charlotte’s sobbing sing-alongs to their song.
She wakes up in the night, for her fantasies are only real in the dark. Charlotte used to be positive she wasn’t crazy, but now she isn’t so sure thanks to ghostly visions, medication, and nightly damaged she swears she didn’t do. Mad murderess or not, she is certainly scared, and the family pride, fatal disgrace, gossip, and the irony of letting go make for a sad vindication. Olivia de Havilland’s (The Heiress) cousin Miriam Deering tries to make it easier for Charlotte to leave, reminiscing and sharing fond memories of sliding down the banister. She makes Charlotte laugh, telling her not to pay any attention to trash rags, old rivals, or nasty letters but come back to reality. Unfortunately, Miriam can’t stop the state’s eviction, and she’s always looking out for herself first. Charlotte says her public relations job “sounds dirty,” and past tattle tales on who was the poor relation or favored daughter make Miriam wish she had never come back. Nonetheless, she increasingly takes over the household, packing and making Charlotte say goodbye to Hollis House whether she is ready or not.
According to Joseph Cotten’s (Duel in the Sun) Dr. Drew Bayliss, Charlotte has nothing more than a persecution complex. He insists the state’s condemned order is solely about the bridge construction and not Charlotte’s infamy – although he has looked into committing her but doesn’t have enough evidence. Drew calls himself an old man who missed out, regretting choosing his career and breaking off his past romance with Miriam. She, however, insists he’s too quick with his compliments and intentions. He flirts with her as he did in their youth, preying upon her even as he wants to protect her – giving her a handgun in case there are any more trespassers. Unfortunately, only more memories of the past come back and Drew wonders if Charlotte isn’t creating her own company and reliving her debutante days with newly fixed delusions. Surprisingly, only Agnes Moorehead (The Bat) as loyal housekeeper and sassy defender Velma Cruther received hardware for her performance in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte – a shiny Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe contrasting her crusty, cranky self. Velma dislikes Miriam, mocking her before sulking behind a column and muttering comebacks between her chores. Although initially humorous, Velma isn’t stupid. She tries phoning for help and confronts Miriam outright when told she’s being dismissed with the month’s wages. Velma only takes her orders from Charlotte, and the imminent tearing down of Hollis House does not mean she won’t be needed when the manor’s gone. Velma sees through Miriam’s high and mighty behavior in several taut confrontations that become scrumptiously physical.
Certainly there are a few superfluous characters – utility players dispensing exposition yet detracting from the taught hysteria, but Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) makes the most of her brief time as Jewel Mayhew, the widow of Charlotte’s mutilated lover. Although Charlotte suspects Jewel is out to get her, she’s not afraid to tell Miriam and her vicious tongue off in public. Jewel is gravely ill and ready for the truth to be heard. Victor Buono (King Tut in Batman, people!) mostly appears in the prologue as Charlotte’s stern father Big Sam, but his threatening presence lingers throughout the film. He disapproves of some lothario like the married Bruce Dern (The ‘burbs) intending to elope with Charlotte and ruin the family legacy he has rebuilt – and his orchestrations ironically cause exactly what he was trying to prevent in memorializing the Hollis name. Unfortunately, George Kennedy (Earthquake) appears too briefly as the foreman ready to bulldoze the manor standing in the way of his bridge project. He’s tried being kind to Charlotte and objects to her shooting at his crew. It might have been interesting to have seen him appear more as a physical reminder of the ten day requisitions countdown, for at times the need to vacate for the tear down is almost forgotten in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte’s crazy horrors.
Art Direction, Cinematography, and Editing nominations abound for Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte thanks to excellent gray scale schemes, symbolic shadows, scary silhouettes, and askew camera angles that remain sharp on 4K screens. Overhead visuals peer into the scene with our point of view in tight for the harsh, angry faces or panning wide to capture the empty, stage-like mansion interiors. Choice zooms, distorted up shots, and foreboding down angles accent the spinning ceiling fans – we feel the congested southern heat despite breezy lace curtains, open windows, wispy willows, and dangling moss. Trees and balconies are high, but Hollis House is dimly lit with few candles at the dinner table and dark strolls on the veranda leaving room for those disturbing severed heads, phantom hands, and great horror effects. The expansive locales mean every scene takes its time, laid back with people made small in the Louisiana inside out lifestyle. There’s no rush to walk down the long corridors as mishaps belie the grand staircase and grandfather clocks tick tock. Barking dogs and silent pauses add to the atmosphere alongside the nominated Score with its angry crescendos, sad melodies, and bittersweet lyrics. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte has ye olde big newspapers with thick headlines, flashbulb cameras, and $2.50 for a cab drive after which he’s told to keep the change! There’s a firmly sixties mood thanks to the big cruising cars, hats, gloves, white suits, and cigarettes – however the grandeur is also trapped in time with tall columns, wallpaper, tea in the garden, chandeliers, telegrams, leather libraries, and looming large family portraits. And bench car seats mean we see some good old fashioned slide across!
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte has always seemed a little less beloved than it’s exceptional predecessor Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and video options remain slightly elusive thanks to unavailability on Netlix and a limited edition blu-ray. Some audiences may find the psycho biddy style too camp – at times there’s certainly over the top inducing laughter to the scary. At two hours and fifteen minutes, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte may also be too long and not all out horror enough for viewers accustomed to contemporary, formulaic slashers. For others there may not be full rewatch value once one knows how it ends, but Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is worth repeat viewings for all the graceful clues and nuances amid the Southern Gothic terror – remaining a gripping, can’t look away master class of chilling moments and staple performances.