Andy Ross believes Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte may not have the campy thrills of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? but it’s still one hell of a ride!
Viewers watching CBS on the night of December 16, 1962 were in for a surprise. Joan Crawford appearing as a guest on the nighttime edition of the popular game show Password. At the start of this particular episode, host Allen Ludden (Mr. Betty White) remarks to Crawford “I saw your movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and you gave me one of the best and worst nights of my life. I thought I’d never get over it!”
This is just one example of the seismic impact made by the pairing of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. “Baby Jane” was an unexpected smash hit at the box office, generating the kind of reviews–and money–that is difficult to ignore. A follow up was inevitable, but how exactly do you follow up What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Could Director Robert Aldrich make lightning strike twice buy getting Davis and Crawford in another movie together without driving each other crazy? (cue: “Odd Couple theme”)
In planning the follow up, Aldrich went back to the source of Baby Jane, the book’s author, Henry Farrell. Farrell had an unpublished short story What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? sitting around, which was adapted to the screen by Farrell with Lukas Heller–the screenwriter of “Baby Jane.” As the film moved into production, Crawford and Davis agreed to be in it, with Davis asking to be made an uncredited associate producer due to her salary demands.
Was Aldrich able to keep the two titans of film together again? No. After two weeks or so into photography, Crawford quit, claiming illness. If Crawford was really ill or just fed up with Davis is a question we may never know. Aldrich had no choice but to move on with production and replace Crawford. Several from Hollywood’s Golden Age Alumnae were considered and asked, including Katherine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Loretta Young, and Barbara Stanwyck, all of whom turned down the role. Davis then suggested her friend Olivia de Havilland. She accepted and production continued.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte uses “Baby Jane” as a template, but it stands on its own rather well. It has similar themes, shares “Baby Jane” co-star Victor Buono, has a long opening prologue and rich black and white photography (thank heaven it was shot before color was the norm). Whereas “Baby Jane” was about two showbiz sisters, “Hush…Hush” is a southern gothic guignol beauty: decaying plantations in the deep south, small town gossip, and scandal.
We open in 1927 at a party being thrown at the Hollis family mansion. Young Charlotte Hollis (Davis) plans to elope that evening with her lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern, in one of his early roles). Mayhew, however, calls it off after Charlotte’s father (Buono) rejects him. As the party goes on, John Mayhew is brutally murdered in the summerhouse.
Flash ahead to 1964. Charlotte is now living as a recluse in the house, aided only by a housekeeper (played with great aplomb by the wonderful Agnes Moorehead). For years the townsfolk have all believed that Charlotte is the one who murdered Mayhew, while Charlotte believes it was her father. With nearly 40 years of progress and Charlotte holed up in the mansion, it has fallen into disrepair and slated for demolition –something Charlotte rants and raves about.
Charlotte sends for her cousin Miriam (de Havilland) to come and help stop the demolition. However Miriam, hearing about Charlotte’s deteriorating condition from her doctor Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten), arrives not to stop the demolition, but to help Charlotte pack and move out. Strange things start to happen around the home, memories of the past start to appear here and there. Charlotte swears it’s Mayhew’s widow (played by Mary Astor in one of her last roles) trying to mess with her. So is Charlotte really the murderess, or was there someone else behind the beheading of her unfaithful lover? No spoilers!
From a casting standpoint alone, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is filled with an amazing roster of talent. Davis, de Havilland, Cotten, Moorehead, Astor, Buono and even Cecil Kellaway turns up as a reporter. It’s inevitable to compare “Hush…Hush” to “Baby Jane.” The biggest difference, outside the lack of Ms. Crawford, is that “Hush…Hush” is not as “campy.” Though the shock moments might not have the same impact today as they did in 1964, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a damned entertaining movie.
Newly released to Blu-ray by Twilight Time, the Oscar nominated cinematography looks absolutely wonderful in 1080p. Of the two previous DVD releases of the film, all the extras have been ported over. New extras include an essay by Julie Kirgo, and a commentary track by historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros. That commentary track is one of two on the disc, the other from the prior DVD releases by historian Glenn Erickson. Both commentaries are fine, but I found the Del Valle and Peros track to be the more enjoyable listen; the older commentary is a bit too lecturey for my tastes.
The other previously released features include trailers, TV spots, a period featurette called “Wizard’s Work,” a segment with Bruce Dern talking about working on the film, and a 2007 featurette Hush…Hush, Sweet Joan: The Making of Charlotte, plus an isolated score track. A very solid collection of goodies that makes for a very nice package.
This release is a must for fans of the film, and gets my highest recommendation for those who haven’t seen it. As with all Twilight Time releases this one is limited to 3,000 copies, so hurry and nab one before they sell out.