Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is the film that reteamed Robert Aldrich and Bette Davis after the shock monster success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. It was originally set to also star Joan Crawford, who of course co-starred in Baby Jane, but she had a life-long rivalry with Davis that only intensified when she accepted a Oscar on behalf of Anna Bancroft, who won over Davis when she was nominated for Baby Jane. Crawford claimed sickness one day into filming and just went home—the studio even got a private detective to see if she was actually sick. Eventually, after two months the studio demanded that the role was given to Olivia de Havilland (who is still alive at 102!)
The film itself is similar to Baby Jane in some respects, but is very much its own film too. It’s a Southern Gothic tale of a crazed old lady, instead of the deeply California Gothic of Baby Jane. Bette is the Charlotte of the title, and she has been living in the old family plantation house. However, the modern world is creeping in, and she needs to vacate the premises because a highway needs to be built on the land. She is also suspected of murdering her married lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), back in 1927. Naturally she isn’t budging from her property, even though she only has Velma (Agnes Moorehead) to keep her company. There is a hint of lesbianism between Charlotte and Velma. Charlotte’s cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) is called in to help fight the Highway Commission, and Miriam gets involved again with an old flame, Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten), who is the local doctor. But do the two of them have ulterior motives?
Aldrich, who is finally getting the acclaim he deserves as a master of the medium, directs it in glorious high-contrast black and white. The cinematography from Joseph Biroc is spellbinding: there are shots where the contrast is so high it looks like it’s a Cadillac speeding away from Sin City. He got a well-deserved Oscar nomination, but lost it to the cinematographer of Zorba The Greek. The performances are wild—Bette Davis is having a ball, and probably enjoying it more because Crawford isn’t there to steal the spotlight. Olivia de Havilland’s performance is certainly is a bit more grounded then Davis’s, which somewhat replicates what Crawford did in Baby Jane. Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, Bruce Dern and Victor Buono, amongst many others, are great, but have they ever been bad?
The twists you see coming a mile off, but due to the cinematography and performances, who cares? It’s Aldrich and Bette Davis making a deliciously messed-up psycho-biddy film, andwhile it’s probably 20 minutes too long for its own good, they don’t make them like they used to, now do they? What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is the better film, but the cinematographer is better in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, probably due to the fact they had double the money. It’s required viewing for fans of Davis, Baby Jane and Aldrich.
The disc that Eureka came up with to include in its Masters of Cinema range is packed, with two commentaries from Kat Ellinger and Glenn Erickson, a 22-minute making-of, a 13-minute interview with Bruce Dern, a archival making-of that lasts five minutes, trailer and TV spots. It’s rounded off with a booklet by Lee Gambin.