While Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a very well known film, its follow up, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte is rather more obscure.
It was originally conceived as another vehicle for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, on similar lines to Baby Jane – a slightly crazy aged Southern Belle who has long been suspected of murdering her lover is fighting eviction from her home, and enlist her Cousin Miriam for help. The Role of Miriam was originally Crawford’s, and she was present and correct at rehearsals and the first days of shooting.
Unfortunately for her, Davis was a shareholder in the film, and chose to take it upon herself to pointedly criticise Crawford’s playing. Soon enough, Crawford was rushed to hospital with some unspecified illness, which she didn’t recover from until she was released from the contract.
Her place was taken by Olivia De Havilland, a lady who had been friends with Davies for years, and was more capable of dealing with Bette’s temperamental nature. She gives a fine performance, although you can’t help but wonder how Crawford would have played the role – particularly as the film progresses.
The film opens in 1927, with Charlotte’s father insisting to her married lover that he ditch her. He does, much to her distress, and she runs off. As he broods alone in a room, someone enters. “Charlotte?” he asks, only to be chopped to bits with a meat cleaver. In the next scene, Charlotte enters the ballroom, with blood splattered on her dress, symbolically over the crotch area.
Cut to 1964, and a bunch of kids dare each other to go into the dilapidated mansion. The kid that does accidentally sets off her musical box, and she springs up. But there is no malevolence there – she calls out for her long-dead lover, and the credits roll with her staring out into the distance, a tear running down her face.
As with Baby Jane, this film was directed by Joseph Aldrich, in moody black & white. the early part of the film is much lighter than its forebear, with the apparently sweet Cousin Miriam trying in vain to explain to Charlotte that there is very little she can do to prevent demolition of the family home.
Charlotte launches into a speech about how ungrateful Miriam was when her family took her in, while Miriam retaliates about Charlotte’s family bullying her over the hand-me-downs she has to wear. This is the first sign of tension between the women, with Miriam seeming exasperated and Charlotte downright stubborn.
Unknown to Charlotte, her cousin is plotting against her, with the help of the boozy family doctor, Drew Bayliss, played by Joseph Cotten. Her crotchety maid Velma, played by Agnes Moorehead (unrecognisable from Bewitched, susses out what is happening, especially once she finds Charlotte in a drugged stupor in bed, but before she can do anything about it, she is sacked, then shoved down the stairs to her death when she returns to help Charlotte escape.
Miriam and the doctor are plotting to send Charlotte even more loopy than she already is, and this climaxes when, with the aid of some sort of hallucinogenic, they manage to make Charlotte think that she is back in the 1920s, at the ball where her lover dies. With lots of shadows (to hide Davis’ less than youthful appearance), she enters a ballroom full of masked dancers, only to have the headless corpse of her lover show up. In terror, she shoots at the body, only to come back into reality and discover that the corpse was in fact her doctor. Miriam decides that they have to get rid of the body, and turns real nasty.
Olivia De Havilland is particularly good in her role, especially as she normally played a wholesome character in most of her films. In Charlotte, her character’s about face, from angel to monster, is carried off with great aplomb – it would have been even more shocking to a sixties moviegoer who had only ever seen De Havilland in nice-girl roles, to see her hiss “Damn you! Now will you SHUT your MOUTH!” to a boggle-eyed Bette, after a few good slaps.
Charlotte is in my humble opinion, a better film than its predecessor. The pace is snappier, and the horror more ludicrous. And unlike Baby Jane, the ending could almost be described as a happy one.