HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) was the second in a string of “hag horror” films starring Bette Davis. After the success of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? in 1962, director Robert Aldrich wanted to re-team Davis and co-star Joan Crawford. But the tension between the two actresses took its toll and Crawford withdrew, citing “illness”.
Davis stars as Charlotte Hollis, a secluded, Southern spinster shunned by her community for the grizzly murder forty years earlier of her lover (Bruce Dern), a married man. Enter Olivia de Havilland as cousin Miriam to stop the bulldozers from destroying the Hollis plantation. But Miriam, sole heir to the Hollis fortune if Charlotte is committed, has other plans up her sleeve.
Without the serious undertones of BABY JANE’s cruelty, CHARLOTTE is simply an outrageous, at times riotously funny, Gothic romp complete with shadows, things that go bump in the night, and some great comic moments provided by Davis’s heavy Southern drawl and Agnes Moorehead as Charlotte’s freaky housekeeper. The whole film is played enjoyably over the top and FRANK DeVOL‘s score hits just the right notes of horror, humor, camp, and even sweetness.
Much of the score revolves around the Oscar-nominated title song (lyrics by Mack David). Children taunt Charlotte with cruel lyrics before the main titles and Davis even gets a rendition later in the film. The song is sung over the end credits by Al Martino.
The theme is used as a remembrance of Charlotte’s lover, who had written the song for her. Often accompanied by harpsichord, snatches of the melody, especially when played on the music box, bring a glaze to Charlotte’s eyes as she remembers her butchered love. A memorable cue swirls around the masked ball, as the wordless female chorus ooh‘s and aah‘s Charlotte’s demented memory over a waltz version of the theme.
In the midst of the horrific actions onscreen and in the music, DeVol composed two additional lovely melodies. The first is for full-blown orchestra (with a lovely French horn countermelody) representing Charlotte’s love for the plantation.
Thanks to the use of piano, Miriam’s theme has a hint of sophistication that the character attempts to portray. As Miriam’s true nature asserts itself, the theme takes on a menacing quality, played in minor keys lower and lower in the orchestra, especially the lowest notes of the piano. In her final scene, Miriam descends the stairs in a stunning evening gown and her theme recalls its original elegance, one last time.
Known mainly for his comedic scoring abilities, DeVol’s score adds immeasurably to the tension and drama. It goes over the top when necessary and stays out of the way when it must, leaving the actresses to chew the scenery to their hearts’ content.