Sunday, April 13, 2008
HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (2oth Century-Fox 1964) Fox Home Video
After the unexpected success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) – a grand guignol costarring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, director Robert Aldrich decided that a reunion of sorts was in order. Ironically, prior to that film’s release, Davis and Crawford were considered has-beens in Hollywood – a perception echoed to Aldrich by Jack Warner. “I won’t give you a dime for those two washed up old broads!”
Eventually, Warner begrudgingly green lit Aldrich’s film, though he steadfastly refused the director rights to shoot it anywhere on the Warner Bros. backlot. When ‘Baby Jane’ proved a runaway smash, Warner was suddenly chummy with Aldrich, Crawford and Davis all over again.
‘Chummy’, however, was not the way anyone associated with the project would have described the daily climate on the set. Davis despised Crawford and as the shooting began her animosity blossomed into full blown hatred. Hence, ‘Baby Jane’ became a war zone for Bette to vent all of the hostility she had harbored toward Crawford.
Although neither actress relished the experience, the movie’s success necessitated a follow-up project. By now, Aldrich was working at 20th Century-Fox on another dark story by Henry Farrell about two women locked in dire conflict; one a deranged aged socialite, the other her scheming cousin. Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), with its brooding noir melodrama and scenes of shocking murder would be the project to reunited Davis and Crawford. It was not to be. After shooting most of her exterior scenes on location, Crawford astutely assessed that Davis’ disposition towards her had hardly softened and faked a bought of pneumonia to get out of her contract.
To quell nervous tensions on the set, Aldrich approached long time Davis friend and co-star, Olivia de Havilland to substitute. Davis approved and so did de Havilland. With little to no preparation, de Havilland seized the reigns of the part, turning in a masterful performance while smoothing over all of the personal animosities that Davis had harbored toward Crawford.
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte opens with an extended prologue set on a massive southern plantation in 1927. Boorish owner, Samuel Eugene Hollis (Victor Buono) is confronting married man, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern) in his parlor. Seems John and Hollis’ teenage daughter, Charlotte (Davis) have been carrying on a romantic liaison that has blossomed into a proposal of marriage. Disgusted that his virginal daughter should want to run off with a married man, Hollis threatens Mayhew with certain death should he pursue Charlotte any further.
That night, at a debutante party on the plantation, John breaks Charlotte’s heart by telling her that they can never be married. Shortly thereafter, he is brutally murdered in the conservatory. An emotionally scarred Charlotte stumbles into the ballroom, her virginal white gown soaked in John’s blood. But did Charlotte kill her lover?
From here, the narrative takes a quantum leap into the present. Charlotte is a mentally unstable middle-age frump, trapped in the decay of her late father’s plantation, slated by city developers for demolition. Her one true friend is Velma Cruther (Agnes Moorehead); a dotty, and very crotchety housemaid. To ease Charlotte’s conscience and help save the family home, Velma reluctantly sends for Charlotte’s snooty cousin, Miriam Deering (de Havilland).
Miriam’s arrival is met with considerable interest by Charlotte’s physician and Miriam’s former flame, Dr. Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten). In fact, it does not take very long for Miriam and Drew to concoct a diabolical plot that will rid them both of Charlotte’s instability while making each of them very rich. Using Charlotte’s haunted/unchanged love for John, Miriam and Drew resurrect his ghost about the plantation – spooking Charlotte at every turn with memories that appear to come to life and threaten her very sanity. The frame up works – particularly after Miriam does away with Velma, who had begun to have her own suspicions.
Miriam decides that Charlotte must be driven completely mad to be certifiable. In a twist so manipulatively evil that it is best left unmentioned herein for first time viewers to discover on their own, Charlotte believes that she has accidentally murdered Dr. Bayliss and implores Miriam to help her conceal her ‘crime.’
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte is diabolically entertaining. The screenplay by Henry Farrell and Lukas Heller is top notch and terrifying. Casting is superb. Though Davis clearly distinguishes herself among the crowd, she does not dominate the film. De Havilland holds her own, brilliantly playing against type as evil incarnate, as does Cotten, whose oily Lothario is as utterly repugnant as he is entirely compelling. In the final analysis, the film gets its shocks and thrills the old fashioned way – through exemplary writing, staging and acting.
Fox has reissued Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte as part of its tribute to Bette Davis 100th birthday. It had previously been available as part of their Studio Classic Series (SCS). Unfortunately, there are discrepancies between these two competing versions. The new disc’s aspect ratio has been reformatted from its original 1:66:1 to 1:85:1 with noticeably more visual information to the left and right of the frame that is not in keeping with the director’s original vision.
Furthermore, contrast levels on this new edition have been considerably bumped up – the result being a loss of fine detail in the middle register of the grayscale’s tonality. Considerable reduction of age related artifacts in the original SCS edition are the only plus that this reviewer can deduce in image refinements on this newer minting.
The audio is presented in both original mono and re-channeled stereo with minor differences. However, perhaps the biggest disappointment on this reissue is Fox’s inexplicable and obtuse choice to remove Glenn Erickson’s thorough audio commentary from its extra features – replacing it instead with an isolated score and three featurettes: two newly produced and one vintage promotional short subject. There is also a stills gallery and theatrical trailer included on the new version.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Cinema Classic reissue 3
Studio Classics 3.5
Cinema Classic reissue 3.5
Studio Classics 2