16 April 2014

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Contributed by Michael Karol

Michael Karol is an award-winning New York-based entertainment journalist and author. His books include The ABC Movie of the Week Companion, Lucy A to Z: The Lucille Ball Encyclopedia, Sitcom Queens: Divas of the Small Screen, and The TV Tidbits Classic Television Book of Lists. He has interviewed a long, eclectic list of performers, producers, and writers over the years, including blues legend Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson; songbird Phyllis Hyman; actors Gale Storm, Susan Lucci, Denise Nickerson, John Noble, Jane Connell, Kaye Ballard, Eva La Rue, Doris Singleton, Kathryn Joosten, Cameron Mathison, and David Hedison; and behind-the-scenes movers and shakers like Wonderfalls creator Bryan Fuller; House, M.D.’s creator and executive producer, David Shore; I Love Lucy’s film editor, Dann Cahn; and director William Asher, who helmed I Love Lucy and Bewitched, among other classics. Michael is currently marketing writer at the New York Botanical Garden. His website is sitcomboy.com

Why have I always loved horror flicks? Especially that genre known affectionately as Grand Guignol (or actually, a subgenre called Grand Dame Guignol, which specialized in putting female stars of, er, a certain age, into gory, violent and, to me, mesmerizingly scary horror/suspense films)?

Probably because my mom, at a very young age, shared her love of movies by taking me to see such classics of the genre as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Dead Ringer. (She took me to see PSYCHO, too, at a Jersey drive-in, when I was just 7, but that’s another story…to this day, corpses in the basement terrify me.)

As I was a young, impressionable (gay) kid at the time, I immediately fell in love with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Agnes Moorehead and Olivia de Havilland - especially the latter two in one of my all-time favorite shock (some will say schlock) fests, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Seeing this film in an actual movie house when I was eleven had a very visceral effect on me, not unlike seeing The Exorcist nine years later in a crowded, sub-zero Times Square theater, packed to the gills with people fainting and throwing up around me: I was scared shitless.

Well, okay, Charlotte didn’t have people upchucking in the aisles. But there was plenty of screaming.

The plot is as old as the hills: sweet cousin Miriam (de Havilland) and boyfriend Dr. Drew (Joseph Cotton) conspire to drive Miriam’s cousin Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) crazy. Miriam is the sole heir to the Hollis fortune after Charlotte. So one little committal (as in, to an institution) will leave Miriam and Drew happily ever after.

The reason their scheme is almost foolproof is that Charlotte has been slowly going mad for 40 years, ever since she discovered the decapitated and mutilated body (a severed hand) of her married lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern, in one of his first big-screen appearances) in the family summer house during a big party.

Walking into the main room, carrying the murder weapon, dress covered in John’s blood, Charlotte was assumed to be the murderess, though it was never proved.

For four decades, Miriam’s been gaslighting Charlotte through the mail, and has finally decided to finish the job in person. Several things stand in her way: Charlotte remains sane enough to resist leaving her childhood home, and maid Velma (Moorehead, in a nuanced performance that should have won her the Oscar for which she was nominated) knows something’s up the minute Miriam floats in with her soothing voice and calm, yet somehow chilling, demeanor.

The real feast of this movie is watching the four leads play off against each other, which they do astonishingly well…some of it due, perhaps, to their careers having intersected more than once during Golden Age Hollywood.

As a kid, I remember being scared out of my mind when Dern’s head rolled down the long staircase as Davis screamed her lungs out; when Charlotte hears the haunting title melody played on the mansion’s harpsichord and thinks her long-dead love has returned, only to discover his severed hand under a loose floorboard; and as a crazed Charlotte, thinking that that she’s killed Drew, is forced by Miriam to help dispose of the body.

In other actors’ hands, this might have, indeed, just been a throwaway D picture. But watch Davis show you the light behind Charlotte’s broken eyes, especially when the truth is revealed at the end; note the surprising strength Moorehead invests in poor, doomed white-trash Velma; and listen to the way de Havilland practically coos her lines…but with the subtext only a great actress can offer.

Charlotte and other films of its ilk started me on a path that led to a life of devouring classic (and not-so-classic) movies — especially horror, supernatural, and suspense flicks. And for that I will be forever grateful.  

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