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Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Blu-ray Review)

14 Nov, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not Rated
Stars Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead.

Taken as a kind of spiritual sequel to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane — and, for that matter, as Christmas-of-’64 counterprogramming to My Fair Lady and Father Goose — director Robert Aldrich’s pandemonium-packed melodrama (both on and behind the camera) holds up better than I expected. And this is true even though Aldrich has always been one of my favorite directors since I lucked into seeing Vera Cruz twice in theaters as a kid. A predominantly male-oriented filmmaker who relatively briefly veered into femme camp during the mid-to-late ’60s, Aldrich wasn’t intimidated by superstars. In Vera Cruz, he ticklishly showcased Gary Cooper with an incisor-jammed Burt Lancaster, and here (exactly 10 years later) it was Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. Though the fact that the latter wasn’t a part of the original Charlotte casting is one reason why there’s enough material to support two voice-over commentaries on this splendid Blu-ray release, as well as a making-of featurette titled “Hush … Hush, Sweet Joan.”

That would be Joan Crawford — who with Davis, Aldrich, cinematographer Joseph Biroc and eventual Charlotte scripter Lukas Heller (working a Henry Farrell story) had turned Baby Jane into the sleeper hit of 1962, reviving the careers of both lead actresses but also strapping them near-permanently on the typecasting jet to Grand Guignol-ville. Not yet reading trade magazine film reviews at age 15, I can remember sitting at the breakfast table with my morning paper before going to school and being surprised to see (from my sheltered Central Ohio vantage point) that this crazy unknown-to-me melodrama about a) sibling Hell in decayed Hollywood; and b) rodent entrees at mealtime had just had its first public showing in non-hub Cincinnati. And that it had gone really well.

But off-screen, the actresses hated each other, and when Davis got an Oscar nomination by an Academy that at the same time overlooked her co-star, Crawford offered to accept the award for any other nominee/potential winner who couldn’t make it to the ceremony/telecast. Anne Bancroft took up Crawford’s offer and then won the Oscar, which meant that Davis (already stewing over her loss) had to watch Crawford up on stage flashing that famous pasted-on Crawford smile thanking everyone for dear Anne. Oh, boy. This didn’t exactly portend the inevitability of a Baby Jane follow-up, but everyone wanted to get additional milk out of a gift cash cow, so Charlotte was hatched. At which point, Crawford showed up belatedly on its Louisiana set after Davis (an associate producer here) had already won over the crew … and following a few days of shooting amid what she regarded as overall shabby treatment, the more or less snookered Crawford took ill and was replaced. Some thought she was faking, but as Aldrich said, insurance companies don’t pay off unless someone is really sick. And they did.

After a few days of intense coaxing following turndowns by other actresses, Olivia de Havilland came in so late to the production that she even had to use some of her own wardrobe. But as it turned out, both the casting and duds worked out smashingly because de Havilland is great on both levels — her clothes hanging perfectly on a trim 48-year-old frame. Thus, De Havilland is a model of middle-aged sexiness in a movie that can really use some when the co-stars here are Davis, a spectacularly batty/frumpy Agnes Moorehead (Oscar-nominated as the Davis-mansion maid), Cecil Kellaway and Mary Astor (her last released film, though Youngblood Hawke was shot earlier). With this crew, even Joseph Cotten seems on the young side at 59 — he most welcomely cast as a small-town physician in over his head when de Havilland shows up to help cousin Charlotte/Davis move out of her about-to-be-razed digs as part of a local construction project.

A longtime Aldrich trademark was his love for lengthy pre-credits prologues, and there’s an almost 15-minute setup here before the name “Bette Davis” even appears on screen. Set in 1927 when the bulk of the movie is contemporary to its time, this opener deals with a courtship between the young Davis (playing herself in most shots) and a 20-something Bruce Dern — a conceit that no doubt complicated the workday of cinematographer Biroc. In a grisly scene notable for its day, philandering Dern meets his maker through dismemberment — and a lot of the story hangs on the fact that we’re not totally certain if Davis perpetrated a crime that was covered up due to the family’s statehouse pull. For one thing, rich Davis daddy Victor Buono (an actor who was actually younger than Dern at the time) has taken an “over my dead body” approach to the romance. Of course, it is Dern and not Buono who ends up deceased — but Buono dies soon enough and leaves his daughter with a sweet estate that she’s still sitting on 34 years later.

Outside of a kindly journalist played by Kellaway, the movie is packed with folks who aren’t very nice or those we suspect might not be. As film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros point out in a lively new commentary that complements a carried-over 2007 one from “DVD Savant” Glenn Erickson, there was nothing sentimental about Aldrich’s work — though off-screen, he did use the same colleagues again and again, including Biroc, composer Frank De Vol (who went by “DeVol”) and a lot of the same performers. To this end, it’s hard not to get a perverse tingle when good old Percy Helton shows up in a town scene. Who can ever forget the actor’s worminess in the scene from Aldrich’s all-timer Kiss Me Deadly when Ralph Meeker (playing Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer) smashes Helton’s fingers in a desk drawer?

Charlotte is too long, and there are plot holes/continuity mistakes that the commentators note. But it’s largely directed to the hilt as, as so many Aldrich films were when he was “on” (though at times, and especially in late-career, he could really go off the track before crashing down the mountain in flames). Even without the wall-to-wall bonus extras here, this disc would be worth it for fans because visually, it improves on the DVD beyond compare, and Biroc’s shadowy interiors jump off the screen. The following year, he’d get outdoors (with Aldrich) for The Flight of the Phoenix, a huge personal favorite also just out on Blu-ray (Region B) from Eureka!’s "Masters of Cinema" line. But not before he got to work again with Crawford after all — on William Castle’s I Saw What You Did. Leaving aside the relatively straight-arrow Phoenix, Biroc’s was quite the demented filmography in this mid-’60s period, and we’re not even mentioning the immortalizing Ann-Margret trash classic duo of Kitten With a Whip and The Swinger. The latter so buried in the nooks and crannies of dementia that it never even got a VHS release, though in 1964, Charlotte’s rolling head was pretty demented itself.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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