If you happened to watch Ryan Murphy’s recent series Feud, you will have a good insight into the legend that forged Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Devised as a starring reunion vehicle for screen titans Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, after the success of the recent Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which pitted the two deadly Hollywood rivals against each other on the same billing, this film also has the handprint of director Robert Aldrich behind it but, arguably, the same alchemy struggles to strike twice.
In the end, Hush Hush failed to materialise as the blockbuster sequel for Bette & Joan, primarily down to their continued antipathy and Crawford’s continued absence holding up production, at which point Aldrich courted and hired another screen legend—Olivia de Havilland—to replace her as Miriam, the well-to-do cousin of the titular Charlotte, played by Davis; a Louisiana estate heiress and recluse, long suspected of murdering the man she loved decades earlier at a party in the house, who is facing eviction from a town council eager to bulldoze her family home.
Aldrich, essayed well by Alfred Molina in the Feud series which depicted the making of Baby Jane, is one of those key directors in the late stage of Hollywood’s studio system who has ended up a little forgotten by cinematic history. Hush Hush is a strange film, wildly overlong and more than a little indulgent, but to suggest Aldrich didn’t influence future generations of suspense and horror filmmakers on the evidence of pictures such as this would be unfair. Feud paints Aldrich, perhaps unfairly, as an average talent overreaching in his use of Davis & Crawford, but Hush Hush shows the man had raw potential.
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The problem is that Hush Hush never quite matches up to the ambition Henry Farrell & Lukas Heller’s script (Farrell having written the short story, ‘What Ever Happened to Sweet Charlotte?’ that formed the basis of the film). Hush Hush is a strained, tempestuous, often overwrought neo-Gothic indulgence, sometimes intentionally overwrought, you suspect often unintentionally. Aldrich really gives Bette Davis free reign to have one, long two hour temper tantrum as Charlotte, the girl who never really grew up, and you sympathise with the exasperation of de Havilland’s Miriam at times for her behaviour.
Aldrich’s film was made just a few years before the emergence of the Hollywood New Wave with pictures such as Bonnie & Clyde or The Graduate, but it could honestly have been put together decades before for all Hush Hush has in relation to films which pushed the envelope of cinema. It feels almost deliberately a throwback to the days Davis would have been in her raucous, egocentric prime; a vehicle built around a star turn in a cinematic landscape which had almost left such days behind. Hush Hush consequently feels out of step, out of time, and old-fashioned even in the days it was made.
Yet there is, perversely, something there. Aldrich can’t always get at it but there *is* an edge, a sense that Charlotte really is teetering on an abyss of pure, broiling madness, and a creeping fear that perhaps she may not be mad after all and sinister, shadowy forces plot around her. The script is a mess, Aldrich’s direction is at times languorous, but the film gets under your skin in an unnerving way. It’s reach never matches the ambition but it is easy to forgive it that.
Eureka of course, as always, provide a fine slate of extras to accompany the BluRay transition. A new commentary track by film critic Kat Ellinger, plus a second commentary by historian Glenn Erickson; Hush… Hush, Sweet Joan, which goes into more depth on the making of the film; spots featuring co-star Bruce Dern (in an early turn) and Joseph Cotten in archival footage, and more.
Their release illuminates in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte what is now a forgotten slice of psychological strangeness, and one worth re-discovering.
Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte is now available from Eureka Entertainment.