Bette Davis, eyed

HUSH, HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE is a lot of nonsense, and a lot of LES DIABOLIQUES repackaged as southern gothic, but it does keep throwing out stunning images.

Agnes Moorehead was nominated for “Most Performance in a supporting Role.”

Bette Davis goes full Bette Davis.

Aldrich’s decision not to show the young Charlotte’s face was a very smart one. It others and monsters her from the start, and saves him having to find a young Bette lookalike. And he didn’t repeat the mistake of casting her daughter in hopes that heredity would see him through.

It’s a film full of LOOKING.

Starring Margot Channing, Melanie Hamilton, Jed Leland, Fanny Minafer, Horace (a leprechaun), Edwin Flagg, Princess Centimillia, Freeman Lowell, Major Max Armbruster, Sweetface and Grandma Walton.

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18 Responses to “Bette Davis, eyed”

  1. Bette’s bloodstained dress (shown in the still above) is an exact copy of her famous “Jezebel” dress.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    I would not say that it is a “lot of nonsense” but a film utilizing Gothic conventions with all their inconsistencies and incoherences to depict a really tragic situation, namely the destructive effects of the family on a vulnerable and young human personality as well as the deceitful nature of the romantic myth. The film is much more complex than you suggest also utlilizing three key players from Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre Company as well as echoing his visual style.

    Hopefully, Kat Ellinger’s forthcoming book on the Hollywood Gothic Melodrama will pursue these avenues further.

  3. Just checking pics — it’s not the REALLY famous Jezebel dress, which is the red one, but you’re right, David E, it’s pretty much a clone of the white one. Excellent! Just as Baby Jane harkened back to Bette’s youthful movie stardom, this one harkens back to her southern belle roles.

    I certainly don’t address all the film’s complexities, Tony. If I regard the film as part tosh, it’s largely due to the Diaboliques borrowings, which are blatant and extensive.

    Aldrich’s style is suitably florid, but I find he overdoes many of his effects: a neat touch where a medicine bottle, removed earlier, fades back into existence momentarily to remind us of its absence, is brilliant — and then Aldrich crash-zooms into the tabletop like a clumsy amateur. He’s a fascinating mixture of deft sensitivity and lurid vulgarity — which admittedly is probably exactly what this movie calls for.

    It’s also arguably a less obnoxious variant on the “hagspoitation” genre than its predecessor, offering a variety of roles for older women, though it does limit the options to Mad, Manipulative, Murderous or Moorehead.

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    You may also want to look up my article “Welles, Toland, Aldrich, and Baroque Expressionism” in one of the Silver-Ursini anthologies in which the editors have selected some very relevant stills for my article. Of course, there are borrowings from Clouzot. Hitchcock wanted to do DIABOLIQUES before Clouzot beat him to it but Hitchcock won with VERTIGO. I believe both are based on sources from two novelists who collaborated – names escape me at the moment.

    However, I regard both the Gothic and DIABOLIQUES aspects as Aldrich’s version of Hitchcock’s McGuffin. The touching climactic scene where she finally closes the music box given to her in the past by her cheating beau (played by Bruce Dern) and the recognition of her victim status by the crowd outside is one of the most neglected moments in this film. She may be spending the rest of her days in a mental institution (probably something appropriate to her financial situation) but she is now free of the hideous past and the dark Tara Gothic mansion that it represented. Finally, I know deHavilland too over the role at the last moment when Crawford bowed out but isn’t it also significant that “Melanie” is now the villain and Scarlett’s failed contender Davis, the victimized heroine within the Gothic castle..

  5. Very true — it’s a delicious coup of casting, and ODH is terrific.

    I have a hard time being really moved by the film or finding the depth you perceive in its treatment of family dysfunction, perhaps because so much of it is rooted in plot mechanics. To say the film dramatizes the suffering of a woman tormented by her oppressive family background is true, but it’s also the suffering of one framed for murder and victim of an elaborate gaslighting conspiracy involving two people close to her. Most of what we see isn’t about her troubled youth, but about twists and reversals.

    Boileau & Narcejac are the creators of Les Diaboliques, D’Entre des Morts (Vertigo) — and Eyes Without a Face.

  6. Mary Astor is marvelous too.

  7. So is Cecil Kellaway, Back to David’s point. There you’ve hit upon it “gaslighting”, a particular trope in the Gothic melodrama. Alsi we do learn about her troubled youth if you look closely – the possessive paternalism of Big Sam, her cheating beau, the jealousy of her cousin illustrated in that portrait, and the viciousness of Jewell in making her rival suffer from the very beginning. I’m hoping Kat Ellinger may raise other elements too. The “twists and reversals” are very much rooted in the past.

    I’ve taught both Davis films so often in the Aldrich summer classes when student numbers were good that I’ve come to appreciate them as being much more than “camp classics.”

  8. Fiona (Mrs Shadowplay) here. Tony, thank you for the heads up about Hollywood Gothic Melodrama. That sounds right up my shadowy, tree lined driveway. If you’re interested in the Hitchcock/Clouzot/Boileau & Narcejac triumvirate, may I call your attention to a piece I wrote for SOS about Clouzot. http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/great-directors/clouzot/
    It’s arguable that in adapting B and N’s work, both Hitchcock and Clouzot made their best movies. Vertigo has now become the number 1 Hitchcock film, and the reverberations from Les Diaboliques are still being felt today.

  9. Fee back again. For anyone out there who’s interested, Kat’s book is called Arsenic And Old Lace.

  10. Patrick Hamilton really seems to have invented gaslighting, in Gaslight. Also the source for Kellaway’s sympathetic investigator in Sweet Charlotte — a parallel narrative offering hope of the truth emerging. The brilliant touch in Les Diaboliques is to make this character appear as a threat to the heroine, so there’s no light relief or alleviation of tension whatever.

    What really disappointed me was the unresolved fate of Bruce Dern’s severed head and hand, set up as the most curious mystery of the whole case. When the true killer is revealed, surely the bones should turn up?

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    Dear “Mrs. Shadowplay”, Good to hear from you again. If you recall we have been in contact before and, I believe, cited your Clouzot piece in my “French Films of the Occupation: The Silence of the Noir” that appeared this year in NOIR PROTOTYPES, ed. Silver and Ursini. Kat is still working on this book but has a FB site to stimulate her ideas.

    “Mr. Shadowplay,” Need everything be explained in the Poe/Doyle detective manner, the latter in the mode of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and more rationally in the Hammer film version? Rememer, for every Dupon solution there is the mysterious white figure at the end of PYM. By the end of the film, Dern does not matter since he is redundant, the important aspect being the emotional and mental regeneration of Charlotte though it is bitter-sweet.

    Keep posting those images of your Siamese on FB. We believe that our black cat Carlos is really a (Noir) Siamese!

  12. Momo is Tonkinese! Definitely not Siamese, though a close relation.

    You don’t need to explain everything, true, but having the severed bits as an active mystery at the end would, I think, have required somebody to remind us of them. Merely dropping them and hoping the audience forgets is sloppy storytelling.

  13. No, it would be a distraction and redundant since by that time of the narrative nobody cares. The focus is on Charlotte – and rightly so.

  14. In which case, why mention the hand and head being missing? Not necessary to justify the fake ones being used…

    I suspect that the real reason they weren’t addressed is that the solution to the murder doesn’t explain why they vanished. No reason to think the culprit would have hung on to such grisly keepsakes. No motivation.

    When dismissing the importance of this point, remember how satisfying it is when a well-crafted plot pays off, with the feeling of a trap snapping shut. You argue it would be a distraction: the writer’s job is to answer such questions without making it distracting.

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, but the real world often never supplies 100% answers to enigmas. Since we are in the world of Gothic melodrama and not an Agatha Christie/Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey detective mystery we should not expect answers to everything and accept the fact that there are loose threads in these cinematic genres of excess.

  16. While HHSC clearly has some connection to the real world, I’m not certain it’s strong enough to allow verisimilitude to be used as an explanation of loose ends and unanswered questions. And if it’s a convention of the Gothic melodrama to leave such dangling threads, we should be able to think of some examples…

  17. Mrs Shadowplay back again. You cited my Clouzot piece in your book Tony? My life is complete!

  18. Tony Williams Says:

    Mrs. Shadowplay, It is in an article on French Occupation Noirs in NOIR PROTOTYPES. If security allowed for long term projects in this institution, it could be a book. If you know French have you read Christine Leteau ‘s (sic?) book on Continental Films? I must find a time slot to do this.

    Mr. Shadowplay, The fun of using any convention is diverging from itrs common tropes. Or, perhaps, like that famous incident of John Ford and the producer, Aldrich may have realized he was running out of time and tore the pages given the location of the body parts out. “Well, we’re back on schedule, now” said Ford, who often broke cardinal rules of classical Hollywood filmmaking that really did not matter in the end.

    Both of you are the “Nick and Nora” of the blogosphere with that Tonkinese cat substituting for Asta!

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