Today marks the 100th birthday of one of the last true Golden Age greats, Olivia de Havilland. Film fans across the globe are celebrating the life and career of this fine actress, who fought the Hollywood system and won. Olivia is the last surviving cast member of GONE WITH THE WIND (Melanie Wilkes), won two Academy Awards (TO EACH HIS OWN, THE HEIRESS), headlined classics like THE SNAKE PIT and THE DARK MIRROR, and costarred with dashing Errol Flynn in eight exciting films, including CAPTAIN BLOOD , THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, SANTA FE TRAIL, and THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON.
Olivia moved to Paris with her husband in the 1950’s and was semi-retired, acting in a handful of films. In 1962 director Robert Aldrich scored a huge hit, a psychological horror thriller called WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, starring screen veterans Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. A new genre was born, featuring older actresses in suspenseful psychodramas. Olivia starred in one of them, 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE, about a woman trapped in her home as deranged youths ransack her house. Aldrich sought to capitalize on his success with another film to star Davis and Crawford titled HUSH… HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE. But Crawford bowed out, citing illness (gossip of the day suggested she didn’t want to work with Davis again). Bette placed a call to her old Warner Brothers friend Olivia, who read the script and accepted the role of scheming cousin Marion. The two Grand Dames, along with director Aldrich, had another hit on their hands, a Southern Gothic tale set in a decaying Louisiana mansion.
The film opens in 1927, as Charlotte’s father Big Sam Hollis confronts John Mayhew. Mayhew has been having a clandestine affair with the big man’s little girl behind the back of his wife Jewel. Big Sam forces John to break it off at that evening’s big dance, and Charlotte doesn’t take it well, screaming “I could kill you!” Later, we see someone offscreen grab a meat cleaver and, sneaking into the music room where John sits alone, chop off his hand and head, violently hacking him to death. Charlotte enters the ballroom in a blood-stained dress as the partygoers are shocked, and Big Sam sadly walks her to her room.
Fast forward to 1964. The Hollis home is scheduled to be demolished to make room for a new highway, but Charlotte brandishes a shotgun to ward off the bulldozers. Charlotte’s fiercely loyal maid Velma tries to talk some sense into her, but the emotionally wounded Charlotte refuses to leave. Enter Charlotte’s “last kin”, cousin Marion, who arrives back home to take care of things. Sweet natured Marion and family doctor Drew (who once were lovers) also try to convince Charlotte to leave the estate, but she’s having none of it, angrily still holding a grudge against Marion for telling Jewel Mayhew about her and John. Meanwhile, an insurance investigator named Harry Wills has come to town, seeking answers to why Jewel has never cashed in on John’s policy.
The movie then becomes a nightmare of terror for Charlotte, as she sees John’s disembodied head show up in the music room, hears harpsichord music playing, and strange voices calling her. Dr. Drew gives her sedatives to calm her down, and Velma begins to get suspicious of him and Marion. When she finds an hallucinatory drug in Charlotte’s room, she puts two and two together. Velma tries to help Charlotte escape, but is stopped by Marion, who smashes a chair over her head and sends her crashing down the staircase to her death.
Marion and Drew have been plotting all along to drive Charlotte over the edge in order to take control of her money. They concoct an elaborate ruse that ends with Charlotte pumping Drew full of lead (actually blanks). Charlotte pleads for Marion to help her get rid of the body, telling her she can have all the money. They dump him in a pond, but Charlotte’s in for a shock when Drew pops up at the top of the staircase, a shambling mess, causing her fragile sanity to crumble. The two lovers celebrate outside, drinking champagne and congratulating themselves on their wicked scheme. Charlotte comes out ton the porch and overhears them and, realizing she’s been duped, pushes a heavy planter on top of them, killing them both.
Olivia de Havilland was 48 when HUSH.. HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE was made, still a very attractive woman. She plays Marion perfectly, all sweetness and sympathy at first, then showing her true rotten nature. Miss de Havilland shows a mean streak here, a far cry from Maid Marion and Melanie Wilkes. I think it’s the film’s best performance, and that’s saying a lot considering the all-star cast.
Bette Davis goes full-throttle as Charlotte like only Bette Davis can. Agnes Moorehead was Oscar nominated for Velma (the film was also nominated in six other categories). Moorehead’s CITIZEN KANE costar Joseph Cotten plays the co-conspirator Dr. Drew. Mary Astor makes her final screen appearance as the widowed Jewel Mayhew, showing much restraint among all the Grand Guignol theatrics. Cecil Kellaway has the small but pivotal part of Wills; his scenes with Davis and Astor are standouts. Others in the cast are Bette’s BABY JANE costar Victor Buono (as Big Sam), George Kennedy , Bruce Dern (as John), William Campbell, Wesley Addy, and Ellen Corby.
HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE is a fine entry in the “older actresses doing horror” sweepstakes. Not quite as good as WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, it still manages to deliver plenty of chills, and it’s got a classic movie lover’s dream cast. Olivia de Havilland went on to make appearances in five more features (including THE SWARM ) and some television projects (winning an Emmy for ANASTASIA: THE MYSTERY OF ANNA) before retiring completely in 1986. Still alive and well and living in Paris, we salute you on your special occasion, Olivia. Here’s to a hundred more!