Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Fifty-six years ago today, the film Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte premiered.

Originally the film was staring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but as they didn’t get along and fought about every single thing, it didn’t go well. Eventually, Joan Crawford feigned illness as a power-play to get the studio to agree to her script changes, going so far as to check herself into the hospital. They instead fired her and replaced her with Olivia de Havilland after Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, and Vivien Leigh all turned down the role.

Mary Astor and Bette Davis were friends ever since they were at Warner Bros. together. Mary Astor retired from acting after this film and recalled:

My agent called: ‘There’s this cameo in a movie with Bette Davis. It’s a hell of a part; it could put you right up there again.’ I read the script. The opening shot described a severed head rolling down the stairs, and each page contained more blood and gore and hysterics and cracked mirrors and everybody being awful to everybody else. I skipped to my few pages–a little old lady sitting on her veranda waiting to die. There was a small kicker to it inasmuch as it was she who was the murderess in her youth and had started all the trouble. And then in the story, she died. Good! Now, I’d really be dead! And it was with Bette–which seemed sentimentally fitting.

Title: Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
Produced by: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay by: Henry Farrell, Lukas Heller
Based on: What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? by Henry Farrell
Starring : Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Cecil Kellaway, Mary Astor
Music by: Frank De Vol
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Edited by: Michael Luciano
Production Company: The Associates and Aldrich
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Release date: December 16, 1964
Running time: 133 minutes
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $2.2 million
Box office: $4 million
Golden Globe Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture – Agnes Moorehead

In 1927, young Southern belle Charlotte Hollis and her married lover John Mayhew plan to elope during a party at the Hollis family’s antebellum mansion in Ascension Parish, Louisiana. Charlotte’s father, Sam, confronts John over the affair and intimidates him with the news that John’s wife Jewel visited the day before and revealed the affair. John pretends to Charlotte that he no longer loves her and that they must part. Shortly after, John is decapitated in the summerhouse by an assailant with a cleaver. Charlotte finds his body, and returns to the house, traumatized, in a blood-soaked dress.

Thirty-seven years later, Charlotte resides in the home as a wealthy spinster, having inherited her father’s estate following his death the year after John died. She is tended to by her loyal housekeeper, Velma. In the intervening years, John’s killing has remained an unsolved murder, though it is commonly held that Charlotte was responsible. Despite notice from the Louisiana Highway Commission that she has been evicted from the property to make way for the impending construction of a new interstate, Charlotte is defiant, and threatens the demolition crew with a rifle.

Seeking help in her fight against the Highway Commission, Charlotte calls upon Miriam, a poor cousin who lived with the family as a girl, but has since moved to New York City and become wealthy. Miriam returns and soon renews her relationship with Drew Bayliss, a local doctor who jilted her after John’s death. Charlotte’s sanity soon deteriorates following Miriam’s arrival, her nights haunted by a mysterious harpsichord playing the song that Mayhew wrote for her and by the appearance of Mayhew’s disembodied hand and head. Suspecting that Miriam and Drew are after Charlotte’s money, Velma seeks help from Mr. Willis, an insurance investigator from England who is still fascinated by the Mayhew case and who has visited Mayhew’s ailing widow, Jewel, who has given him an envelope only to be opened upon her death.

Miriam fires Velma, who later returns to discover that Charlotte is being drugged. Velma plans to expose Miriam’s exploitation of Charlotte, but Miriam kills her by bludgeoning her with a chair, causing her to fall down the stairs to her death. Drew covers up the murder by declaring Velma’s death an accident. One night, a drugged Charlotte runs downstairs in the grip of a hallucination, believing that John has returned to her. Miriam and Drew manipulate the intoxicated Charlotte into shooting Drew with a gun loaded with blanks, and then Miriam helps dispose of his “dead” body in a swamp. Charlotte returns to the house and witnesses the supposedly dead Drew at the top of the stairs, reducing her to insanity.

Believing she has finally shattered Charlotte’s mental state, Miriam celebrates with Drew in the garden, where the two discuss their plan to have Charlotte committed to a psychiatric hospital and usurp her fortune. Charlotte overhears the conversation from the balcony, including Miriam’s admission that she witnessed Jewel murder John that night in 1927, and has been using this knowledge to blackmail Jewel throughout the years. Enraged, Charlotte pushes a large stone flowerpot off the balcony, striking and killing both Miriam and Drew.

The next day, authorities escort Charlotte from the home, as neighbors, locals and journalists gather around to observe. As she enters the car, Willis hands her an envelope from Jewel Mayhew, who suffered a stroke and died after hearing of the incident the previous night, containing her written confession to John’s death. As the authorities drive Charlotte away, she looks back at her beloved plantation.

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