Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Limited Edition)
Released by: Twilight Time
Released on: October 18, 2016
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
Cast: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, Cecil Kellaway, Victor Buono, Mary Astor, Bruce Dern, William Campbell, George Kennedy, Wesley Addy
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In late 1920s Louisiana, Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono) confronts John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), who plans to elope with Hollis’s daughter, Charlotte (Bette Davis), despite being married to Jewel (Mary Astor). Afraid of Big Sam, John agrees to break things off with virginal Charlotte during a party at the Hollis mansion, but after he does so, he is promptly murdered with a meat cleaver. When Charlotte returns to the party covered in blood, suspicion naturally falls on her. Forty years later, Big Sam is long dead and Charlotte now lives in the mansion alone, though she’s assisted by a loyal maid, Velma (Agnes Moorehead). A highway is soon to be built on the property, and the plantation house is to be torn down. Charlotte refuses to leave, however, and invites her cousin, Miriam Deering (Olivia De Havilland), to come and stay with her, hoping that Miriam can prevent the home from being razed. When it becomes clear that Miriam doesn’t have that kind of power, their relationship becomes strained. Complicating matters is a variety of eccentric characters, from Dr. Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotton) to insurance investigator Harry Willis (Cecil Kellaway) and tabloid reporter Paul Merchand (William Campbell).
In 1962, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was released to great commercial and critical acclaim, reviving the waning careers of leading ladies Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The film was directed by Robert Aldrich and also starred Anna Lee and Victor Buono in important supporting roles. Based on a novel by Henry Farrell, it dealt with a former actress who is wheelchair bound after the accident that ended her career. A shut-in, she is taken care of by her increasingly neurotic and dangerous sister. The film garnered an Oscar nomination for Davis, but an upset Crawford was left out in the cold and a once-celluloid competition burst into the real world.
Quick to recognize a good thing, Aldrich immediately began preparing another tour de force for the actresses. Davis and Crawford were this time cast as Charlotte and Miriam in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, an adaptation of an obscure short story by Harry Farrell, but after several weeks of shooting and with key scenes already in the can, Crawford bowed out, claiming sickness. A number of other actresses were offered the part, but it was Davis’s friend Olivia de Havilland who finally took on Miriam’s role, bringing with her a breezy charm and laid-back aura that defied the true nature of her character and turned the audiences’ expectations on their heads. The film benefited greatly from the change, with Davis and de Havilland the perfect foils.
Davis’s scenery-chewing remains as entertaining as ever, and with Mary Astor and Joseph Cotton on hand, she gets plenty of top-notch support. What’s surprising, then, is that it’s Agnes Moorehead as Velma who somehow manages to swoop the film up in her arms. She steals every scene she’s in, so when she finally departs the picture about two-thirds of the way through, she deals it a blow. Thankfully, Aldrich has plenty of twists and turns up his sleeve, and the film never devolves into dullness. It also helps that the Grand Guignol is braced with some particularly nasty grue of the H.G. Lewis variety, only a year after the godfather of gore’s Blood Feast made it cool.
Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time, who has leased the film from Fox via a gorgeous new 4k transfer. With an MPEG-4 AVC encode, the film is presented in 1080p high definition at its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It is region free. Joseph Biroc’s moody black and white cinematography has never looked more crisp than it does here. Shadow detail is surprisingly well resolved, with little detail loss anywhere in the frame. Detail in well-lit, daytime, or exterior shots is ultra-fine; to get a sense of this, just look at the cloth covering the dining room table in the Hollis mansion or at the age lines in Davis or Kellaway’s faces. The BD offers a fine palette of lights, blacks, and varying shades of gray, increasing the atmosphere in every carefully planned frame of film. There are absolutely no problems to speak of; print damage is nonexistent, and there’s no dirt, debris, or speckling. Yet, despite the restoration, the film has not been scrubbed with DNR tools. The image never appears waxy or artificially soft (what occasional softness there is has everything to do with Biroc’s camera filters and nothing to do with Fox’s transfer). Grain is present but not intrusive or overly heavy. Rather, it offers a solid foundation on which to lay the imagery. It also helps that the lengthy film and its many extras are housed on a BD50, allowing for greater ‘breathing’ space. In other words, Twilight Time’s visual presentation of the film is perfect.
This attention to quality moves into the sound presentation as well. The company has provided no less than four audio tracks for the film. The first, the film’s primary track, is recorded in English DTS-HD MA 2.0 and sounds terrific. It’s more dynamic than one would expect, with Frank de Vol’s score and the various permutations of de Vol and Mack David’s title song coming across loud (well, if you turn up the volume) and clear. There are no pops or cracks or whistles or hisses to be heard anywhere, and music and dialogue are well balanced, making for a pleasant aural experience that perfectly reflects the on-screen visuals. If you’re a purist, there’s also an English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track that also sounds quite good. The score is provided on an isolated track sans effects; this too is offered in English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Seeing the film without the dialogue and listening only to the music, one can appreciate just how powerful the score actually is. English subtitles for the deaf or hearing impaired are also included.
Rounding out the aural extras are two commentaries, one from film historians David Del Valle and Steve Peros, the other from film historian Glenn Erickson. Both of them get into the weeds of what was touched upon in the review above, but woe be it for us to spoil them for you by stealing their thunder. Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte is the perfect film for Del Valle’s particularly kitschy brand of commentary. It’s a movie where the behind-the-scenes temper tantrums and prima donna disagreements provide the delicious fodder that Del Valle dishes so well. He’s accompanied by Steven Peros, who comes fully prepared on the subject of the film. The two play off each other; rather than competing for voice time, they bounce off each other’s observations and anecdotes. Peros rightfully points out just how Castle-esque the film is, while Del Valle points out the film’s roots in the old dark house subgenre that began in the silent era. The two discuss the relationship between Davis and Crawford, the backgrounds and filmic histories of various performers, the history of the film itself, and so much more. It’s a gossipy commentary, but that’s exactly what you want accompanying a dame-centric Grand Guignol.
Glenn Erickson provides a second commentary, which is less conversational and more academic. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and the commentary is an informative one. He naturally covers some of the same material as Del Valle and Peros, but Erickson manages to put his own fresh twist on it. He often starts each train of thought by describing a scene and then launching into specifics about it, such as providing background for an actor. For example, in the opening scene, he describes the setup, then launches into a discussion of the backgrounds and film histories of both Buono and Dern. The commentary was originally recorded for Fox’s 2005 DVD release, but Twilight Time should be commended for carrying it over to the BD release. There’s simply no such thing as too much information, and each commentator brings his own interpretation of the material with him.
Continuing this avalanche of information are liner notes by esteemed film historian Julie Kirgo, Considering that the film presents aging spinsters as monstrosities, Kirgo rightfully points out that, among the performers, there was “not a Medicare-eligible individual in the bunch.” What Kirgo does so well is create a mini-dissertation of the film’s meaning, effectively pulling the behind-the-scenes drama into the discussion. Well-written and thought-provoking, it also has a playful sense of humor that makes it a joy to read.
Twilight Time have outdone themselves on the extras. First up is the 22-minute “Hush… Hush, Sweet Joan: The Making of Charlotte,” which covers the film’s many problems (alluded to above) through interviews with various observers or historians, including Robert Aldrich’s daughter Adell Aldrich; author Mark A. Vieria (Hollywood Horror); actor Bruce Dern; film producer Arnold Orgolini; Davis’s son Michael Merrill; and Village Voice columnist Michael Musto.
“Bruce Dern Remembers” runs approximately 13 minutes and features a longer cut of the interview from which excerpts were used for the featurette discussed above. The highlight is a humorous incident in which Dern suggested Davis not portray Charlotte’s younger self and Davis’s lengthy response. Dern also discusses the similarities in the relationship between sisters de Havilland and Joan Fontaine and that between Davis and Crawford. The short is filled with lively and entertaining anecdotes, and Dern proves himself a deft storyteller.
“Wizard Work” is a vintage four-minute program about the film’s production, narrated by Joseph Cotten. The “wizard” in question is director Robert Aldrich, who is the focus of the program.
Rounding out the list of extras are the original theatrical trailer (approximately 3 minutes), a teaser trailer (1:25), and a collection of TV spots (1:38).
The Final Word:
Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte isn’t quite the film that its predecessor is, but it’s still a gory, entertaining slice of Southern Gothic melodrama slathered in a veneer of suspense and horror. Twilight Time’s presentation is nothing short of perfect: a finely detailed image, nice sound, and loads of informative extras make this the best representation the film has ever seen on home video—and in this day and age of streaming, quite possibly the last. Given its cult status, it isn’t hard to imagine the film becoming one of TT’s sellouts. After all, the Blu-ray is limited to 3,000 units.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the 1930s is currently available, with Horror Films of the Silent Era due out later this year.
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