Robert Aldrich directs this multi-Oscar-nominated psychological thriller about a Southern belle who, plagued by a horrifying family secret, descends into madness when a lost relative suddenly shows up.
Director Robert Aldrich had make the first successful ‘women’s picture’ for a hugely long time with the very enjoyable and unexpected success What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? two years earlier, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in their most memorable roles.
Aldrich had wanted to get the two actress, who were very bitter to each other, to get them to work on another film together using the very similar themes that he used for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but it wasn’t going to be an easy task, as Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte encountered a troubled pre-production and also encountered trouble during the filming of the picture. But the arguments between Davis and Crawford had started way before pre-production had got underway.
Bette Davis initially was not interested in signing on to this project and she even ordered the director to change the title of the film (it was originally called What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte). She was also absolutely furious at Crawford for her making a campaign to let Davis not win the Academy Award for Best Actress for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, which she was nominated for (Anne Bancroft ended up winning for her superb performance in The Miracle Worker). Bette Davis accepted the role of Charlotte when Aldrich let her be the producer of the movie, so he got that side of the story sorted out.
Crawford had signed on to play the role of Miriam, Charlotte’s cousin. However, she was furious that Davis had given role of the producer and she made her feelings very clear to the director. To make the situation worse for her, during the filming of this movie, Crawford faked an illness that forced Aldrich to fire her from the project and heard via radio that she had ended up being replaced by Olivia de Havilland. Crawford was absolutely upset about this and when she heard the news, her career was effectively ended.
The details of how these events happened are depicted in the very enjoyable television series Feud: Bette and Joan, with Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford.
Eventually, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte was released in 1964 and ended up being another hit film for Robert Aldrich – and it is a very good reason as well.
Adapted from the short story What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte, the story concerns Charlotte (Bette Davis), a southern belle who, in 1924, on the night that they were meant to get married, found her lover killed during a party and the blood on her outfit makes everyone think that she committed the awful act. Now, 40 years later, Charlotte is an old outsider and she has to fight to keep her home. She gets her cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) to help her, but soon after Miriam arrives, Charlotte’s mind begins to get unstable – and she descends into madness and violence – demanding that she just gets everything that she wants.
Bette Davis (in her final collaboration with Robert Aldrich) gives a very good performance in her role as the title character Charlotte and she suits the role very well, acting at her superb, nasty best and also allowing the audience to let her know that when she is angry, she properly means it (Aldrich’s excellent direction allows the facial expressions to be seen to a very strong effect throughout). Davis also gave a very good performance in a double role playing twins in Dead Ringer, so 1964 would be an excellent cinematic year for her.
Olivia de Havilland (who became good friends with Davis and described working with her as ‘highly professional’) is very good in her role as Miriam, a poor cousin who lived with the family as a girl, but since moved to New York City and became very rich herself. Although this isn’t the most memorable performance of de Havilland’s career, it is definitely not the worst, but I can describe it as the most dramatic and best performance that she gave where she was not nominated for any major awards.
Joseph Cotten is good in his role as Drew Bayliss, a doctor who rebuilds his relationship with Miriam following the murder, while there is very solid support to be had from Agnes Moorhead in her role as Velma, the housekeeper of Charlotte’s house and she suits the role very well, acting like she wants to help out as much as possible.
In her final role, Mary Astor (in her second collaboration with Davis following The Great Lie, which won Astor the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) is good in her role as Jewel, a not-very-well widow whose husband was murdered.
Cecil Kellaway is good as Mr. Willis, an insurance man who investigates the murder of Charlotte’s husband John, while Victor Buono (in his second collaboration with Aldrich and Davis) is good in his supporting role as Big Sam Hollis.
So, you can definitely say that Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte definitely appeals thanks to having a star-studded cast and they certainly do not disappoint in their respective roles.
The direction from Aldrich is excellent because not only does he allow the facial expressions to be seen to a strong effect throughout on all the cast, but also keeps a tense atmosphere happening throughout, particularly with the dramatic moments and scenes that involve Bette Davis, while the script is written to a very decent standard by Henry Farrell and Lukas Heller as they make the film easy to follow.
The technical elements of the film are very impressive, with the set, cinematography, music, costume and editing all standing out best in glorious black-and-white – the set is very decent to look at throughout at all times; the camera makes very good use of the locations the movie uses, captures the facial expressions very well and also captures the tense moments well, which definitely gets the edge-of-the-seat status; the music is very enjoyable to listen to and the dramatic score with the tense moments helps keeping you gripped; the costumes are excellently designed by Norma Koch; the film is edited to a very decent standard. The title song Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte is very enjoyable to listen to.
However, what is the single and most annoying thing about the film is the pace – it can only just be a little slow at times – it would have been better if there just a couple more moments of tension throughout.
In terms of the major awards, the movie managed to win 7 Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorhead), Best Art Direction (Black-and-White), Best Cinematography (Black-and-White), Best Costume Design (Black-and-White), Best Film Editing, Best Music, Substantially Original Score and Best Original Song (Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte). It didn’t win any of those awards, but the nominations were definitely deserved.
Agnes Moorhead did manage to win the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. At least the movie won something rather than absolutely nothing. It’s a shame that the Golden Globes don’t do technical categories anymore, because if they did, I am sure this film would have got nominations for its set, cinematography, costume and music from The Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Overall, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte is one very enjoyable adaptation of the short story What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte, thanks to the very good performances from the star-studded cast, along with Robert Aldrich’s excellent direction, the well written script, the tense atmosphere and superb technical elements. The only criticism is just the small but sometimes slow pace.
★ ★ ★ ★