Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte
‘The guignol is about as grand as it gets.’ So said Judith Christ when Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte was released in 1964. Christ came up with a funny line but it showed American insularity. The Grand Guignol of the Paris theatre in the late 19th Century was amoral and unrestrained but it aspired toward naturalism. The violent plots were an attempt to show the authentic lives of ordinary people. Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte is melodrama created to nourish a thrill seeking audience. Its predecessor was the superior and successful Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. Like that film, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte utilises the curiosity we have for Hollywood and celebrity.
Art depends on sensitive protagonists but after the success of Hemingway in the thirties, and after something called the Second World War, tough guys were welcomed. Robert Aldrich directed Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. Aldrich was big and heavy and looked like an American Football coach. His best films had targets and were critical of authority. He had a reason. He had seen rulers and governments waste millions of lives in military conflict. When the cultural revolt began in the late 60s, Aldrich was on the side of the rebels. His films were popular with the young. He was never subtle but his best movies had serious themes and vitality. Kiss Me Deadly, his great private eye movie, subverts the genre. The film was based on a novel by Mickey Spillane. Aldrich had to dump the right wing politics of Spillane but the result was a match made in heaven between two irreverent truculent men.
Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte was designed as a project for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. They had both starred in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. Davis and Crawford had a Hollywood rivalry that inspired mutual contempt. Davis hated the popularity of Crawford. Joan Crawford detested Davis because she could act. The obvious antagonism between the two actors was exploited in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. Movie fans were curious to see what the two Hollywood divas would do to one another. Audiences had the privilege of seeing two famous movie stars reveal their mutual loathing.
Second time around was not so good. Crawford walked off the set of Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte after a couple of weeks of filming. She had been tempted to reunite with Davis because of the success of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. Presumably the insults between the two had escalated. Crawford was rich from previous movies and also married to a very wealthy husband. She had no need for the anguish. Only so much sacrifice can be made for art and box office success.
Crawford was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. She was chosen because she was able to tolerate the ego of Davis. Olivia de Havilland is a talented actor. Her natural acting style clashes with the theatrical approach of Davis but the relationship between the two women does work. In the first half of the film Olivia de Havilland is a refined and restrained presence. De Havilland has a sweet smile. Davis distorts her face with a snarl. In her early scenes Davis is intense, loud and overacts. A modern viewer will initially assume that Davis has miscalculated but later she is cowed and poignant and it becomes clear that Davis is showing her range. The difference in acting styles, though, is not just about personality. Aldrich uses the relationship of Bette Davis and de Havilland to their craft to illuminate the themes of the film and his attitude to the demands of authority.
Audiences sympathise with de Havilland. In Gone With The Wind as Melanie she is self-effacing, dutiful and admirable. In Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte de Havilland is called Miriam. Both names imply feminine purity. Today de Havilland is 99 years old. The actor remains graceful. Despite the wrinkles she is refined and serene. In 1964 a cinema audience had a specific idea about what constituted decency in a woman. Charlotte is loud and unkempt. Miriam is elegant and polite. Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte may be calculated melodrama but Aldrich is a provocateur. Other directors use sly tricks to deceive us. Aldrich accuses his audiences. In Kiss Me Deadly private eye fans have their expectations thrown back in their faces. The omnipotent tough Spillane hero is anything but at the end of the film. He wanders the waves of the beach. He is literally all at sea. The Miriam of Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte appears to be no different from the Melanie of Gone With The Wind except this polite southern lady, whose eye blinking is even restrained, is an evil cow. Aldrich makes his viewpoint clear. The smooth manners and reasoning of the popular and respected are not to be trusted. If Aldrich has to choose between the well behaved and the unruly, he will choose the latter.
Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte is a marvellous title for the film because it describes our attitude to the unruly. We find them troublesome and we are annoyed that they doubt the lies we use for consolation. In the final scene Charlotte is indeed hushed but her final trip in the limousine is ambiguous. It may lead to misery inside an institution for the mentally ill but it could be to where she will receive care and be left to ponder the revealed truth, something that is beyond the imagination of the nosy neighbours. The life of Charlotte may have been wasted but at least she will be able to live her final years knowing what happened and what she did. The tragedy will not disappear, she will be in a care home for the mentally ill, but she has hopes of prevailing.
In the scramble for a replacement for Crawford after she left the film, Vivien Leigh, amongst others, refused the part of Miriam. Leigh would have been interesting because Charlotte has more than a drop of Blanche Dubois in her character. It would have strengthened the connection between Charlotte and Miriam, and there is a connection because both women are wilful. Charlotte, like Hamlet and perhaps Blanche, is trapped in arrested adolescence and the claustrophobic repression of a violent family. The ignored black servants suspect that Charlotte could, like Hamlet again, be pretending to be crazy. Charlotte is also afraid of the modern mechanised world. Wounded by events she has lost trust and is wary of the future. She resembles young George in The Magnificent Ambersons. George, who does not want the world to change, damns the arrival of motorcars, and Charlotte shoots at the excavating machines on her lawn.
The Magnificent Ambersons was the second film by Orson Welles. The references in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte to the film by Welles are obvious. Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorhead are in both films and in roles that echo each other. Cotten is a threat to the families of George and Charlotte. Moorehead is loyal to George in Ambersons and to Charlotte in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. The rooms inside the house of Charlotte are lit so that they are half concealed by dark shadows. The characters are filmed through wide-angle lens and have conversations on an elaborate staircase that divides the house in two. All this evokes The Magnificent Ambersons. The wise investigative journalist from England is called Willis. The name is close enough to Welles to make us suspicious. It might acknowledge the intellectual wisdom of Orson Welles that was denied by Hollywood. ‘I am just an amateur,’ says the English Willis when in fact he is an accomplished journalist. In Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte the journalist has to wait until he is old to reveal the truth. The Magnificent Ambersons was ruined by studio cutting but is now acknowledged as a masterpiece.
It is because Aldrich likes to dwell on the nature of film in his movies that he indulges himself with a long pre-credit sequence. Before the credits there are three scenes. These are the party in the ante-bellum mansion, the confrontation between the father of Charlotte and John the married man that she loves, and the grisly murder of John when his head and hand are chopped off. The argument between the angry father and the flawed lover is the scene that Henry James never put in his novella Washington Square. The genius of James sometimes consists in what he does not know. Washington Square was filmed as The Heiress and had Olivia de Havilland in the main role and doing her best to pretend that she was plain. Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte begins where Washington Square ends. In both films a woman is denied what she wants by her father. Powerless the two women use defiance and anger to decide the rest of their lives. Henry James left his mark on the imagination of Orson Welles, and the influence of the novelist is evident in The Magnificent Ambersons. Aldrich understands this, and the pre-credit sequence alerts us to not just past lives but also past creators and their imaginations. The camera pan that reveals the mansion and ball is similar to the tracking shot that follows George at his reception party in The Magnificent Ambersons. The film of Welles resists melodrama. The director expected an audience to expect something other than thrills and diversion. Welles regretted the shock Rosebud ending in Citizen Kane. Most of us thought it was great. Aldrich wanted audiences to enjoy his films but he was also argumentative. He connected the low ambition of horror to the refined thoughts and ambition of serious men like Orson Welles and Henry James. Snotty critics like Judith Christ were offended but tough guy Aldrich was determined to not be hushed.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His next book Choke Bay will be available this summer. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.