At some point immediately before production began on Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the follow-up to the campy surprise hit Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (it not only utilized the majority of the same cast and crew, but it also used another gothic frump-o-rama from author Henry Farrell as its source, a story originally titled Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?), co-star Joan Crawford bowed out, feigning illness. Whether Crawford punked Bette Davis and director Robert Aldrich because she realized that, once again, Davis had snagged the plum role, or because she was still sore over not getting an Oscar nomination for Baby Jane, or because Aldrich was a vehement Coca-Cola drinker is unclear, there’s a perverse appropriateness to casting Gone with the Wind’s Olivia de Havilland as an understudy.
Because Charlotte is kissing cousin to Suddenly, Last Summer in that it’s a rutty little bayou potboiler in tradition-of-quality drag, where backwoods glamour translates as both the size of the family property and the ghastly dimensions of said family’s “eccentricity.” Davis plays Charlotte, who long ago in 1929 was accused of quartering her lover with a meat cleaver after the married suitor miraculously found his conscience at the end of Charlotte’s father’s pistol barrel. Though nearly everyone in the area is convinced of Charlotte’s guilt (the actual murder is shown in fairly graphic fashion, though the identity of the killer is left oblique), they leave her alone presumably just because she gives their swampy digs a sense of character.
Did I say they leave her alone? Flash forward to 1964, when the county developers serve Charlotte (and her estate’s butch housemaid Velma, played by Agnes Moorhead, who matches Davis’s total lack of restraint and then some) with a notice to vacate her property immediately for a proposed highway project. Charlotte calls on her cosmopolitan cousin Miriam (de Havilland) to conjure up some magic city-wise solution to her dilemma, but is distressed when Miriam’s arrival apparently triggers vivid delusions of her murdered lover haunting the sharply angular mansion. Director Aldrich’s work on Baby Jane was already a study in hysteria, and his style for Charlotte is, if anything, even more ornate, with Charlotte’s disintegrating psyche coalescing in a series of increasingly heady trick shots and vertiginous perspectives, like a proto-Rosemary’s Baby, though you could hardly confuse Mia Farrow’s cold sweats with Davis’s cold cream.