Friday, January 30, 2009

A group of aging thespians

TCM showed Grumpy Old Men on Wednesday night as part of the "Star of the Month" salute to Jack Lemmon. A large portion of the cast consisted of veterans in their 60s and 70s who had made a lot of movies. It's always nice to see the older actors get back together, and TCM are showing another movie with a similar cast at 8:00 PM ET on January 30: Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Bette Davis plays Charlotte, a southern spinster who used to be a belle, but became a recluse in her plantation after her lover, with whom she was planning to elope, winds up brutally murdered. It's four decades later now, and the authorities (in the form of George Kennedy) are going to force her to leave her house because they've taken the property over by eminent domain and plan to build a new highway through the property. She won't leave, though, because she thinks there's evidence on the property that her father murdered her lover, and she doesn't want Father's reputation sullied. The only person Charlotte trusts to come into the house is her doctor, Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten) -- and he can't get her to leave. So he gets in touch with Charlotte's cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) and gets her to come visit Charlotte, in the hopes that she can get Charlotte to leave. She and the good doctor meet again for the first time in years and....

In the meantime, an insurance investigator (Cecil Kellaway) shows up in town. He has his own reasons for looking into the murder. He knows that the dead man left behind a widow (Mary Astor), and perhaps she knows something about what happened. After all, she's been strangely silent these past four decades. Eventually, the two plot halves come together, but to explain how would be to give away too much of the story.

Bette Davis is fun here. Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte came two years after her Oscar-nominated performance in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, a movie which created a demand for her -- and other aging actresses -- to play older women in gothic movies. (The really need to re-release Tallulah Bankhead's Die! Die! My Darling! to DVD.) At least, the movies were supposed to be gothic; nowadays, the whole genre is generally looked at as pure camp. It only makes the movies that much more fun. Davis especially appears to be going over the top, which pushes most of the other cast members a bit over the top, too. Astor is an exception, but she doesn't have many scenes with Davis. That having been said, it's quite enjoyable to watch all of them one more time. The cinematography -- thankfully in black and white, as color would make it look too dated -- is lovely, too, adding the right amount of atmosphere.

There are some well-known bits of trivia regarding the making of Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. First is that the Olivia de Havilland role was supposed to be played by Joan Crawford, who had starred opposite Davis in the aforementioned What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. However, the two hated each other, so much so that Davis tried to extract revenge on Crawford, the widow of a Pepsi CEO, by having a Coca-Cola vending machine placed prominently at the studio. Crawford eventually claimed illness. A second interesting tidbit is the murdered lover at the beginning of the movie. That's a young Bruce Dern. In 1964, the year this movie was made, he also played a man who gets brutally murdered in Marnie.

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