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Monday, February 16, 2015

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

In a rather naked attempt to duplicate his success with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Robert Aldrich made another film with much of the same cast and feel, a Southern Gothic called Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. It was originally to re-team Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as two older spinsters locked in a death struggle, but Crawford dropped out, and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland.

Set in Louisiana, the film opens with a prologue. A Big Daddy type, Victor Buono, tells young Bruce Dern that he will not elope with his daughter, Charlotte. Dern gets the idea and tells Charlotte at a party (her face not-so-subtly obscured, as this will be Davis for the rest of the movie) that the marriage is off. Dern ends up getting murdered with a cleaver, his hands and head cut off. Everyone thinks Charlotte did it, but she is never convicted, and lives alone in the antebellum mansion, except for her devoted maid (Agnes Moorhead).

The state has decided to tear down the house to make way for a new road, but Davis will have none of it. Her cousin, de Havilland, comes to visit, ostensibly to help her. She was the old girlfriend of Davis' doctor, Joseph Cotten. Just who is in Davis' best interest becomes a guessing game.

Hush...Hush,Sweet Charlotte has a lot of Grand Guignol fun. I was taken aback at how explicit the de-handing of Dern was handled, and of course there's lots of juicy arguments and bitter recriminations. Mary Astor, in her last screen role, plays Dern's wife, who is harboring a secret or two, and Cecil Kellaway, as a British insurance investigator, ingratiates himself into the mess to try to get a handle on what happened.

At this point Davis was well into her "pscyho-biddy" phase, and would from then on play demeaning roles in bad horror films. De Havilland is icy cool in her role, often stealing from Davis just by underplaying. Moorehead, who somehow got an Oscar nomination, really doesn't do more than a Mammy Yoakum routine.

The film, like Baby Jane, was a success, which goes to show that you can steal from yourself and get away with it.

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