The circumstances under which I first saw Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Robert Aldrich’s torrid follow-up to his gonzo camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, will forever blur and shadow the way I see the film itself. I was eleven – twelve, maybe – and home sick from school. I was camped between my humidifier, snot rags, and spittoon, gazing at the endless scroll of the Prevue Channel, when my mom got excited: Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte was playing, either on AMC or Bravo.* “Ooh!” she exclaimed, “That movie’s weird! You’ll like it!”
I think I did. But I also had a very hard time figuring out exactly what I was seeing. The camp histrionics of Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, the creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere, and the delirious visuals of Aldrich are a potent concoction for anyone, let alone a cough syrup-addled eleven-year-old. In my limited cinematic education up to that point, nothing quite prepared me for Charlotte’s mix of soapy melodrama, gallows humor, and graphic violence. By the end, I was hooked, although I wasn’t sure how much of my confusion was attributable to the film, and how much to my enfeebled condition.
As it happens, Sweet Charlotte is simply a feverish movie, regardless of the viewer’s physical state. While it doesn’t quite reach the same peaks of manic hysteria as Baby Jane (there’s no “dead rat” moment), it manages to pack in just as much weirdness – the southern gothic melodrama will likely leave contemporary viewers scratching their heads, and the baffling dream sequences and maddeningly catchy title song will stick with you for years to come. And, of course, Bette Davis could bring the crazy like no one else; even without the aid of frenemy Joan Crawford, she dominates the proceedings by sheer force of will. If you’ve only ever seen Baby Jane, Charlotte is well worth seeking out as a companion piece. And even if you’ve seen it before, it’s worth another visit, if only to prove that you did, in fact, see it the first time.
* – For those too young to be media junkies in the ‘90s, AMC used to show classic films instead of just Nicolas Cage movies and Tremors sequels, Bravo used to show arthouse films instead of cougar-based reality programming, and the Prevue Channel was like watching your grandfather scroll through the channel guide.
Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte
dir. Robert Aldrich
Screens Sunday, 8/14 @ Harvard Film Archive, 7:00 PM
Part of the ongoing series: …All the Marbles (The Complete Robert Aldrich)