Following the success of his impressively creepy 1962 film, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, director Robert Aldrich attempted to make a sequel of sorts in the form of “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” Originally planned as a follow up starring Baby Jane stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the film fell back when Crawford, who notoriously feuded with co-star Davis, backed out, leaving Aldrich to replace her with Olivia de Havilland (“Gone with the Wind”).
Rounding out the cast with the always amazing Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorehead, Aldrich, whether consciously or not, immediately compensates a weak script with a superlative cast.
Set on an old southern estate in Louisiana during the 1960’s, “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” tells the tale Charlotte Hollis, a miserly old woman who’s been shunned by her community for decades, since the brutal murder of her boyfriend. Vilified as an axe-wielding maniac, Charlotte has locked herself inside her home while her name and story has been turned into an urban legend and a song meant to frighten children.
Trouble brews on the horizon in the form of a state bill that allows the city to raze Charlotte’s decades old home and land and construct a massive highway and bridge where her house once stood, so she enlists her cousin Merriam to come on down to the homestead to fight the bureaucrats. But Merriam’s presence in the house causes Charlotte’s long dormant demons to wake and haunt her once again. Slowly going mad, she’s forced to come to terms with her boyfriend’s murder. Did she kill him so long ago, or has she been a scapegoat all along?
At every turn “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” trips over its own premise. Masterfully directed, the mood and suspense are guided by a filmmaker too confident with his own abilities to create moody and tense scenes. Simultaneously, however, the script is less certain of itself, and as a result we get long, sometimes painfully drawn-out scenes in which nothing happens—though the music would have us believe otherwise—and everything is explained. So unsure of itself is the script that we’re forced to endure the same explanations and exposition several times, as though the filmmakers are too confident in the subtleties of their script, and too under-appreciative of the audiences’ ability to absorb information.
This film does have a saving grace, though, and it is its acting. Bette Davis manages to create a sympathetic and maniacal character; through all of Charlotte’s ups and downs, particularly her downs in which she can be absolutely insane, we genuinely feel for her. Olivia de Havilland’s Merriam is a seemingly honest and good-natured woman whose sincerity and integrity, until the last act, is completely believable. But the true scene-stealer here is Agnes Moorehead, as Velma, Charlotte’s old school southern maid. Moorehead, so lost in the bitchiness of her role, chews scenes, often hilariously, around the other actors.
Going back to the script, it should be noted that it does work on a base level. It does present an engaging story and isn’t too condescending to render the mystery not intriguing. Its problem simply is that it’s too eager to hit home its points that everything else gets lost along the way, thus rendering “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” unlike its brilliant predecessor “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” a movie worth watching once—and only once.