Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) **
I suppose it’s a bit out of character for me to review a movie like this, but I’m going to do it anyway, partly because I don’t think it’s much farther from my usual territory than Wait Until Dark, and partly because I simply love to stick pins in inflated reputations. Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte is one of those respectable movies, full of famous, important actors putting in much-lauded performances that are, by any honest assessment, no damn good at all. Originally, the intention here was to make a follow-up to the much better What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, with the principal roles again being played by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and production on the film was apparently begun under the absolutely shameful title What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?. But then Crawford got sick, and Davis, who hadn’t wanted to work with her again anyway, talked the producers into getting Olivia de Havilland to take her place. Throw in Agnes Moorehead, and the movie starts to sound like a veritable Who’s Who of famous middle-aged actresses of the 60’s, making it all the funnier that Divine, Edith Massie, and Jean Hill could have pulled this off every bit as well.
The year is 1927, the place Hollisport, Louisiana. As the film opens, Sam Hollis (Victor Buono, from The Mad Butcher and The Evil), for whose family the town is named, is having one of those time-honored Deep South conversations with a much younger man named John Mayhew (Bruce Dern, better known from movies like The Cycle Savages and The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant). I’m sure you’re familiar with the conversation to which I refer-- it’s the one in which the enraged father threatens the somehow substandard suitor of his daughter and breaks up thereby a socially unacceptable relationship. In this case, the suitor is substandard and the relationship socially unacceptable because John Mayhew happens already to be married. He and Hollis’s daughter, Charlotte (eventually to be played by Davis), had thus far managed to keep their affair a secret, but Hollis somehow got wind of the situation before the lovers could make good their plan to run off to Baton Rouge. Hollis instructs Mayhew that he is to break off the affair the next evening, at the very same party from which he and Charlotte had planned to elope, and the younger man grudgingly agrees. A fat lot of good this gambit to preserve the family honor does Hollis, though, because Mayhew gets himself chopped into pieces with a meat cleaver shortly after dumping Charlotte. The implications, I think, are fairly obvious, as are those of the pint or so of blood that is soaked into Charlotte’s dress when she makes her belated appearance in the ballroom.
37 years later, in 1964, Charlotte is the last of the main line of Hollises. She lives with her maid, Velma Cruther (Moorehead, from The Bat and The Woman in White), in the ancestral home, though this is scheduled to change very soon, as the state government has recently confiscated the property via eminent domain with the aim of building a big-ass highway right through the spot on which the old mansion currently stands. Charlotte, however, as if you need to be told this about a Bette Davis character, is not quite sane, and she refuses to vacate the condemned house, even going so far as to open fire with a rifle on the driver of the bulldozer that demolished her gazebo. (In one of the movie’s many outstanding pieces of ill-advised dialogue, she actually screeches, “git offa mah proppuhtay!” as she takes aim.) Clearly, this situation is unacceptable, and it is not surprising that Charlotte’s last remaining relative has come to sort things out. This last relative is Charlotte’s cousin Miriam (de Havilland, who, by the way, would be reduced only ten years later to appearing in The Swarm), who has come in response to a letter from Charlotte asking for help in dissuading the authorities from taking the house. Miriam, however, knows that that simply isn’t possible, and her view of her mission in Hollisport is to convince her cousin to move out. In this she will be aided by Charlotte’s doctor (and Miriam’s ex-lover) Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten, whose career would fall even farther into the toilet in the 70’s than de Havilland’s; he would ultimately be saddled with an appearance in the Italo-Spanish horror travesty Island of the Fish-Men, which Roger Corman transformed into the all-but-unwatchable Screamers), who has already been at work on the task for some time.
Or at any rate, Miriam and Bayliss would like everyone to think that’s what they’re up to. In point of fact, it will become increasingly clear that the couple (and, clandestinely, they are exactly that) actually mean to drive batty old Charlotte crazy enough for them to have her committed, with the ultimate aim of getting their hands on her considerable fortune. The only person who has any inkling of Miriam and Bayliss’s true motive is Velma, who faces the handicap that she is herself obviously a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Not only that, she’s poor, and the chances of a nutty old poor lady, who works as a live-in maid for a woman whom the whole town knows primarily as the unpunished murderess down the street, getting any kind of an audience are-- let’s face it-- in the range of slim-to-none. There is one person in Hollisport who might be willing to listen, though. This one person is an English journalist by the name of Harry Willis (Cecil Kellaway, from The Mummy’s Hand and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), who has come to town to do research for his new book on the still-officially-unsolved murder of John Mayhew. (Charlotte’s father, it is revealed in the course of Willis’s investigations, was able to pull some strings and prevent his daughter from ever being charged with anything.) The question is, will Willis’s curiosity be sufficiently aroused by the hints that Velma is able to give him before she is killed by Miriam for those hints to do Charlotte any good, or will the old nutcase be forced to fend for herself?
To put it simply, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a much better treatment of the crazy-middle-aged-ladies-torturing-each-other theme than Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Bette Davis doesn’t have the same kind of toxic chemistry with Olivia de Havilland that she had with Joan Crawford, and without that, it becomes much harder to forgive the ridiculous overacting, the terrible fake southern accents, and the stupefyingly bad dialogue that pervade the film. Kellaway is absolutely the only actor here who fails to make an ass or a cartoon of himself with every second of his screen time, and his character is the only one for whom the screenwriter bothered to write any credible dialogue. Furthermore, the surprisingly explicit gore effects attendant upon the murder of John Mayhew and Charlotte’s subsequent visions, recollections, and hallucinations of the event, seem to be somehow at odds with the rest of the film, as though they were imported from some other movie. The only thing elevating Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte above complete wretchedness is the presence of a handful of scattered scenes that succeed in creating a bit of genuine tension. But there simply aren’t enough of them to counteract the baleful effects of the remaining two hours or so of the movie. All told, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte seems to me to serve mainly as an illustration of my often-made contention that nearly any load of half-assed foolishness can become a classic, provided that it cost too much money, be at least 30 years old, and be shot in black and white.