Don’t Tell Anyone What Happened In The Summer House!
Ryan Murphy has had an odd career. He starts out almost simultaneously creating the homoerotic high-concept Nip/Tuck and the feuding adolescents dramedy Popular. After that he continued his penchant for camp and horror with Glee and American Horror Story (not to mention Scream Queens). But all of his obsessions – feuding women, high camp, and horror – promise to be reunited in his upcoming show Feud. It’s another anthology series in the mold of American Horror Story and American Crime Story, and each season will document a famous feud. Unsurprisingly, given Murphy’s interests, the first season will focus on the feud between studio-era heavyweights Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and the apotheosis of their feud, the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Oddly, though, despite the decades-long feud and its culmination in the Oscar shenanigans post-Baby Jane, the pair were slated to work together one final time with Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a kind of sequel to Baby Jane. Olivia de Havilland instead took Crawford’s role, and the result is a decent example of the genre but can’t top its predecessor.
With a gruesome death in her past, aging spinster Charlotte (Bette Davis) is trying to keep her Louisiana home from being demolished. The local townspeople are afraid of her, but when her cousin (Olivia de Havilland, Gone with the Wind) comes to help Charlotte keep the house, the scandal that rocked Charlotte’s past won’t stay buried.
Hollywood has always thrived on youth. Bette Davis started working in Hollywood at the dawn of the sound era. She was 22. But the problem with the Hollywood system is that the stars controlled the hearts and minds of viewers, but stars didn’t control the purse strings. That put them in competition with the studios. Eventually stars like Davis could command more money than the studios were willing to pay because the studios could invest in younger, cheaper stars. That meant that as early as the 1950s, Hollywood had a bunch of actors and actresses who were effectively priced out of working regularly in big studio fare. Bette Davis responded by slowing down her production schedule drastically. She was still in prestige movies – All About Eve in 1950, The Virgin Queen in 1955 – but after that it was mostly guest spots on televisions, and her star had waned significantly by the 1960s. And she wasn’t the only one.
Davis and her contemporaries (like Crawford) were a commodity, but one that had to be exploited in a particular way. Robert Aldrich figured it out. He optioned the 1960 novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and cast the aging Davis opposite her long-time rival Joan Crawford. By capitalizing on the luridness of the novel and the tabloid-style focus of the feud between Davis and Crawford, Baby Jane was a surprise hit, grossing millions of dollars on a modest budget.
Aldrich was anxious to repeat the hit, and so he optioned another novel by the same writer, rounded up the old cast (though Crawford dropped out) and even stacked the deck with a few more familiar faces, like Agnes Moorhead, Bruce Dern, and Joseph Cotton.
As a follow-up to Baby Jane, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a touch disappointing. The first film was near-perfect in its matching of material to execution, and because no one was assured of its success, there’s a kind of experimental quality to that stands the test of time. Charlotte, in contrast, is trying to catch lightening in a bottle again. Many of the same elements are there – the crazy make-up, the over-the-top performances, the dubious understanding of human psychology – but since we’ve been here before it can feel more calculated and less convincing than the best moments of Baby Jane.
Taken on its own terms, however, Charlotte is a fine little paranoid thriller in a decent setting with enough momentum to keep the wheels from coming off. All the complications in the film’s opening – Charlotte’s exile from polite society when her lover is found murdered and people think she did it – make a fine backdrop for her later isolation. That isolation leads perfectly into the film’s thriller plot and Charlotte’s paranoia.
Though not at their all-time best, you couldn’t ask for a better cast of Golden-era Hollywood studio talents. Agnes Moorhead and Joseph Cotton have been great together for literally decades, while Olivia de Havilland doesn’t betray her real-life friendship with Bette Davis. Meanwhile, Davis is at her most grand standing. The plot justifies her ill-will, and she plays the isolated madness to the hilt.
The blessing or the curse of Charlotte is that it doesn’t feel as campy-funny as Baby Jane. Baby Jane was weird enough to laugh at, and one suspects that at least part of its popularity was due to young people showing up to laugh at the mortality of their elders (fueled, no doubt, by the proliferation of weed in the 1960s). It’s a bit harder to laugh at Charlotte because it’s a little more sadistic and calculating. That makes it a better thriller, but perhaps a less effective film overall for those looking for Baby Jane, Part II.
Even if Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte isn’t perfect, Twilight Time have treated the film’s Blu-ray like it is. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded image is impressive. The black-and-white image is sharp throughout, with tight and well-rendered grain. Contrast is steady, and black levels stay deep throughout. There’s no significant damage to speak of, and overall the film looks great. DTS-HD 2.0 mono and stereo options are available. Dialogue on both is clean and well-prioritized. The film’s score sounds appropriately rich, and there’s a bit of dynamic range.
Extras start with a commentary ported over from the previous DVD release by film critic Glen Erickson, who talks knowledgably about the film’s history. Another new commentary with a pair of film historians (David Del Valle and Steven Peros) is included. Both are great and informative, really putting the film into its context in Hollywood, the lives of its stars, and the director’s body of work. And isolated score track is a nice feature as well. Also ported over are a couple of featurettes, one on the making of the film and the other a piece interviewing Bruce Dern about the film. A short narrated by Jospeh Cotton is a nice addition, as are the film’s trailers. We also get a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Twilight Time have done an amazing job presenting this classic psychological thriller. Though it will always be the little sibling to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte stands on its own as a cinematic curio. Fans of the film will want to snap up this limited-edition Blu-ray for the improved audiovisual presentation.