It was the year 1964, a time when most stars of their caliber were facing a career decline, but for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who were back on the radar after enduring triumphant success for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, future work prospects were imminent, and their territories were not yet uncharted.
To capitalize on the success of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, director Robert Aldrich was eagerly intending a follow up sequal that would reunite both stars whose verbal sparring and alleged feud had garnered packed audiences and critical acclaim on the release of the predecessor.
Agnes Moorehead with Joan Crawford, before Crawford was replaced by Olivia de Havilland.
The thought of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford starring together for the second time in a horror film with a ghostly ambiance kept Robert Aldrich stimulated. Determined to surpass his previous record, Aldrich added a stellar array of seasoned acting veterans which include, Agnes Moorehead, in an Academy Award nominated performance, Joseph Cotten, Cecil Kellaway, and Mary Astor in her final film role.
Agnes and Joan on the set of “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
With a cast that boasted prominence, Robert Aldrich was expecting another masterpiece, but unfortunately only part of this was achieved. After ten days of filming on location at Houmas House in Louisiana, Joan Crawford was beginning to succumb to the troubles that were fueled by Bette Davis, who made it clear several times that she did not want Crawford in the picture. Problems mounted on the final day of location shooting when Crawford fell asleep in her trailer and awoke hours later to discover that the cast and crew had packed up and left Louisiana, and were headed back to Hollywood, where they were to continue on filming. The lack of communication which was coupled by Davis’ harsh treatment infuriated Crawford, who was left alone in the dark colossal fields of the Houmas plantation with little knowledge to where everyone was. Alone for the night in Baton Rouge, Crawford made her own travel arrangements, and departed for Los Angeles later that evening.
On her arrival in Los Angeles, Joan Crawford reportedly fell ill, and admitted herself into Cedars of Lebanon Hospital for much needed recuperation. Whether or not Crawford was sick is not truly known. Many people believe that Crawford feigned illness because she wanted out of that picture, while others state that Crawford was inflicted with a respiratory infection, but whatever the truth, Joan Crawford’s time on the set was a complete nightmare. She was sick of playing second fiddle to Davis, who she felt was always overacting and chewing up the scenery, trying to take all scenes away from Crawford.
Following her stint in the hospital, Joan Crawford left the production completely. With Joan gone, Robert Aldrich was faced with an even bigger problem. If Crawford couldn’t be replaced, shooting of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte would have to be suspended indefinitely. Aldrich however was determined to make this film work. He began canvassing around Hollywood for an actress to take Joan’s place. After approaching notable Hollywood stars like, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, and Vivien Leigh, who all declined, Aldrich took Davis’ advice, and asked Olivia de Havilland, who reluctantly accepted due to her close friendship with Bette Davis.
Olivia de Havilland, who had been friends with Bette Davis since making It’s Love I’m After, their first film together, felt she owed the favor to Davis, and to Robert Aldrich, who desperately traveled to her summer home in the Swiss Alps to persuade her to accept the part of Miriam Deering. Thankfully she did because if it weren’t for Olivia de Havilland, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte would never have eventuated.
After enduring weeks of physical and emotional burden due to the extreme animosity and tension on the set that was caused by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Robert Aldrich was relieved when Olivia de Havilland entered the picture. At last he was able to fully concentrate on his responsibilities as a director without the interference of the two bickering stars. With Olivia, the atmosphere on the set was more congenial, and the amicable nature that was displayed by the cast made for a much happier union.
As filming progressed, Agnes Moorehead was starting to maintain a hectic work schedule. By August, Moorehead was heavily involved in the shooting of Bewitched, which first debuted on September 17th of that year, and with the air date of the series about to commence, Agnes was often absent on the set of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. This caused slight altercations for Robert Aldrich and his crew, who were considering having Moorehead replaced, or her part wiped out completely.
The filming of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte was completed in October 1964, and opened to critical acclaim the following year. The film garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Agnes Moorehead, who lost to Lila Kedrova for her role in Zorba The Creek, while Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland both went unnoticed at that years Oscars ceremony.
The success of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte sure made up for the catastrophic disasters that occurred during the early phrases of the filming process. On its release the film attained many positive reviews. Variety wrote that “Davis’ portrayal is reminiscent of Jane in its emotional overtones, in her style of characterization of the near-crazed former Southern belle, aided by haggard makeup and outlandish attire. It is an outgoing performance, and she plays it to the limit. De Havilland, on the other hand, is far more restrained but none the less effective dramatically in her offbeat role.”. Time Out London also made an effort to observe the solid performances delivered by the stars when they stated, “Over the top, of course, and not a lot to it, but it’s efficiently directed, beautifully shot, and contains enough scary sequences amid the brooding, tense atmosphere. Splendid performances from Davis and Moorehead, too.”.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte was directed and produced by Robert Aldrich, and was based on an unpublished short story titled, Whatever Happened To Cousin Charlotte? by Henry Farrell, who along with Lucas Heller wrote the screenplay. The films musical score was provided by Frank De Vol, the eminent arranger and composer whose illustrious achievements can be heard in an array of cinemas best remembered productions. Joseph Biroc, the renowned cinematographer attained an Academy Award nomination for his masterful contribution to the film, but was overshadowed by Walter Lassally. However, Joseph Biroc would go on to receive the Academy Award ten years later for The Towering Inferno.
Set in the deep south, this atmospheric production tells the story of Charlotte Hollis ( Bette Davis ), an aging recluse who has lived a prisoned life with her disorderly but loyal housekeeper, Velma Cruther ( Agnes Moorehead ) in her Louisiana ancestral mansion since the brutal death of her married lover that took place in 1927. Many years later, Charlotte Hollis is the prime suspect in the gruesome murder case, and is considered to be psychotic by the rest of the towns folk. When the government threatens to destroy her unhinged lifestyle by tearing down her dilapidated residence for a road construction project, Charlotte refuses to elude her premises, which ultimately leads to many obstacles for the construction team and authorities.
Problems arise when her cousin Miriam ( Olivia de Havilland ) and the local doctor, Drew Bayliss ( Joseph Cotten ) accepts Charlotte’s invitation, and arrive at the mansion to supposedly offer their help, but when Charlotte takes a sudden descent into madness, all hidden secrets are slowly unearthed after a series of unsettling episodes occur that take Charlotte back to that formidable night of the murder.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a masterfully crafted Southern Gothic and psychological thriller that features many elements of horror and revulsion. While the film runs in parallel directions as its predecessor, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, it also makes a point of hearkening back to previous productions that had Bette Davis portraying similar characters. For instance, Davis’ character of Julie Marsden in Jezebel ( 1938 ) is largely represented in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Julie who also hails from Louisiana embodies many of the same characteristics as Charlotte. Even though Julie is a lot younger than Charlotte, both women are tenacious, difficult, and at war with the world. It is also interesting to note that the large portrait that adorns the walls of the Hollis mansion is a photo of Bette Davis as Julie Marsden in Jezebel.
The cast of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte are impressive. Agnes Moorehead made up for losing the Academy Award by receiving a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Velma, the slovenly housemaid who is Charlotte’s only companion. Despite her dowdy appearance, Velma is intellectually smart, and possesses enough knowledge to realize that Charlotte’s deterioration is caused by the scheming and calculating Miriam and Drew Bayliss who have only arrived on the scene to torment Charlotte by playing tricks on her mind.
“So you’re finally showin’ the right side of your face. Well, I seen it all along. That’s some kinda drug you been givin’ her. Isn’t it? It’s what’s been making her act like she’s been. Well, Ah’m goin’ into town and Ah’m tellin them what you been up to.”
( Agnes as Velma Cruther in “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” 1964. )
Olivia de Havilland always serves as a great counterpart to the indomitable Bette Davis who was fierce competition, though it would have been interesting to see Joan Crawford play the duplicitous Miriam whose facade of charm and convincing act of compassion and tenderness makes for a good whodunit mystery where audiences are to determine who the antagonist of destruction really is.
The rest of the ensemble cast are worthy of applause. In many cases its the character actors in their supporting roles that help hold the film together. In Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, this is truly evident. In addition to Agnes Moorehead, who manages to steal the spotlight away from top stars like Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, and Joseph Cotten whose unparalleled performances continue to immerse audiences worldwide, the other players are also competent enough to have their own shining moments. The renowned character actor, Cecil Kellaway, who spent many considerable years under contract to Australia’s foremost theatrical manager, J.C. Williamson in Australia, delivers a laudable performance as Harry Willis, an amiable insurance investigator who shows profound interest in the Mayhew case, and has met and corresponded with John Mayhew’s ailing widow, Jewel Mayhew, played by the legendary Mary Astor, who retired from motion pictures after filming was complete.
Then there is Bette Davis, the main protagonist of the story. Without Bette in the role of Charlotte, there would be no plot. Charlotte is the central character that the film revolves around. She’s the alleged driving force behind the murder of John Mayhew, and she’s the victim of a fallacious human being whose only motives are to send her into a state of insanity.
Portraying a character with a complex nature was no foreign territory for Bette Davis who was never afraid to take on challenging roles that forced her to appear villainous, unglamorous or grotesque looking. As Charlotte, Davis displays a wide spectrum of emotions that range from her being incensed with anger, and suddenly becoming well established with a severe case of hysteria once the horror sets in.
When discussing Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the costume aspects of the film should be taken into consideration. After-all, Norma Koch received an Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Costume Design’, for her involvement in the production, but lost to Dorothy Jeakins for her efforts in The Night Of The Iguana.
For someone who had no initial experience as a costume designer, Norma Koch sure came a long way since her days as an aspiring hopeful who was looking for the chance to establish herself in the profession of her dreams. Born on April 23rd, 1921, in Kansas, Missouri to a working class family, Koch displayed profound interest in costume design from a young age, and started perusing the newspapers for dress designs to copy. In 1943, her work captured the attention of Edith Head, who offered her a position at Paramount. After a successful tenure with Edith Head, and after taking the advice from Bing Crosby, Koch branched out as a freelance designer, and secured her first design job in The Scandal In Paris ( 1946 ).
During her first few years as an independent designer, Koch preoccupied most of her time creating elaborate period costumes, but after a while, she started to explore western clothes, and ordinary, non formal wear for gritty dramas, the most famous being, Marty ( 1955 ).
Her work in the gritty dramas would ultimately lead to a collaboration with Robert Aldrich, where she would design costumes for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, among others. She attained her first Academy Award for her costume creations in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, and would go on to receive a nomination for her efforts in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
Attaining an Academy Award is no easy feat for anyone in the motion picture industry, but Norma Koch proved several times that her distinguished virtuosity was worthy of acclaim. In a career that spanned over thirty years, Koch designed costumes for almost every genre of film, and excelled at creating a wide array of garments from different decades in time. Whatever the occasion, Koch was able to conjure up a multitude of fashion aesthetics that would illustrate the character of the film in focus.
In Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the costumes were unlike anything that she had ever created before. Instead of conjuring up something elegant and refined, Koch had to design something very naivete, and that lacked sophistication. At the 1963, Academy Awards ceremony, Audrey Hepburn presented the award for ‘Best Costume Design’, and during her announcement speech she stated, “This award is not only of great interest to every actress, who depends on the artistry of the designer to help her create her roles, but it is also important to women throughout the world. Historical or modern, every film with beautiful clothes launches some new trend in fashion. It would be impossible to imagine that any woman would have left the theater after seeing, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, and run to a store to emulate what they had just seen on-screen.”
The above speech uttered by Audrey Hepburn clearly defines the importance of costume design, and gives us a brief example of how the garments worn in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? epitomize the spirit of uncultured life.
In Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Bette Davis plays a washed-up former child star whose fame was eclipsed in later years by her sister, Blanche Hudson. Plagued with resentment and sibling rivalry, Jane torments and abuses Blanche, and confines the paraplegic Blanche to the upstairs bedroom of their decaying Hollywood mansion.
As is the case with Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, costume design is not just about creating beautiful fabrics or historical accuracy. It is about conveying the essence of the character through clothing. It wouldn’t be right if Norma Koch was to design fancy and impeccable chiffon dresses or elegant robes for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford when their roles required them to be sporting unfitting attire that is not palatable to the outside world. To clearly define the character of Jane Hudson, Koch provided Bette with macabre style clothing, such as a hideous, old fashioned white dress that is adorned with a girlish pink ribbon around the waist. For her hair, Bette wore a white straggly wig, which was previously worn by Joan Crawford in an MGM production years earlier. Both stars were incognizant of this fact, and due to the chance that an altercation may evolve, the truth about the wig was never revealed.
While Monty Westmore served as one of the main makeup artists for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Bette Davis had full authority over her own makeup. She suggested that Jane Hudson should wear heavy makeup that consisted of strong white blush that resembles paint, thick black eyeliner and lashes, along with heavily rouged lips, covered in bright red lipstick. She also imagined that older Jane was a person who didn’t use makeup remover, and instead of cleaning away the old makeup, she demanded that Jane just add another layer of thick makeup on top of the old makeup. When Davis’ daughter, B.D Hyman, caught her first glimpse of Bette in full makeup, she said, “Oh, mother, this time you’ve gone too far”.
Joan Crawford, who always said, “I never go out unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star.”, would be a bit of a shock for first time viewers who are use to her being dazzling and glamorous. For her role as Blanche Hudson, Joan had to appear informal, wearing a long unkept dress for her reclusive lifestyle. However, Crawford tried her utmost hardest to have Norma Koch change her costume. She insisted that because Blanche Hudson is a former movie star that she should still be able to retain her charismatic charm, and be seen wearing alluring dresses that would emphasize her sophistication and elegance, but Koch along with Robert Aldrich and Bette Davis explained to Crawford that Blanche Hudson is the victim of an abusive sister who locks her away in the upstairs bedroom without worrying about her vanity and appearance, and just has her wearing old, and sometimes dirty clothes.
The only time in the film that we see Joan Crawford dressed in more stylish attire is during her first scene when she is seen wearing a sixties style vintage dress while watching the re-runs of her old movies on television. This is only a short scene however, and for the rest of the picture, Crawford is gaped out in her distinguishable Blanche Hudson outfit.
In Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Norma Koch was stepping into familiar territory once again, and designing costumes that were similar in appearance to the garments she created in the predecessor. This time however, Koch was displaying more artistry by designing a wide array of different clothing that made her deal with the aesthetic facets of fashion design. She also delved into contemporary fashion in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, since the character of Miriam Deering had more of a refined taste when it came to her wardrobe.
Though not as grotesque looking as she appears in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Bette Davis donned a long unconventional dress that demonstrated the fact that her character of Charlotte Hollis was still living in the past, and wearing archaic fabrics that were the latest trend of 1927, when the murder took place. When we are first introduced to Charlotte, it is on the night of the murder at the start of the picture where we get a glimpse of her wearing the blood stained white frock at the party. This dress was also designed by Norma Koch, and has often been exhibited at costume exhibits.
On the other hand, Agnes Moorehead required a different type of wardrobe altogether. Her character of Velma Cruther, the slovenly housemaid, didn’t care about her appearance, and what others thought of her. In every scene she’s in, Velma appears disheveled, and negligently dressed with baggy, unflattering clothes that looked like the used apparel you’ll find at the garbage tip.
Behind the scenes of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Moorehead was that ashamed of her look in the film that she refused to eat in the studio commissary. If it weren’t for her close friend, Debbie Reynolds, who was working on the production, Goodbye Charlie at a nearby soundstage, she probably would have starved, but thankfully Debbie knew how Agnes felt, and made sure that Agnes was always present in her dressing room at lunch time. Later Agnes described her dress sense in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte as, “A slob, a blob of sagging flesh in a shapeless house dress that had seen better days. I looked so awful that I refused to eat in the studio commissary, and I’d suppose I’d have starved if not for Debbie Reynolds who invited me to join her for lunch each day in the privacy of her dressing room.”
Agnes after accepting her Golden Globe Award for “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” ( 1965 )
In a way the dress styles depicted in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? really shape the evolution of costume design. Back in the days when motion pictures and stage productions first evolved, the cast members all appeared in similar outfits that made it difficult for audiences to distinguish their character, but through the years as the movies further developed, the costumes became a pivotal focus, and actors were required to wear garments that would clearly delineate the personality and the traits of each character. By the time that Norma Koch commenced work on Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, costuming in film was well established, but even then there was still room to explore the different aspects of costume design, and these two films symbolize how costume design has improved during the years.
The following was my entry for the Characters In Costume Blogfest, which is being hosted by Christina Wehner, and Into The Writer Lea. Click here to view the other entries being exhibited during this event.