In 1927, young Southern belle Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) and her married lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), plan to elope during a party at the Hollis family's antebellum mansion in Ascension Parish, Louisiana. Charlotte's father confronts John over the affair and intimidates him with the news that John's wife visited the day before and revealed the affair. John pretends he no longer loves Charlotte and tells her they must part.
John is then brutally murdered and decapitated in the summerhouse with a cleaver, with one hand severed. Charlotte discovers his body. She returns traumatized to the party in a bloody dress, and most of the guests assume Charlotte is the murderer.
The story jumps to 1964. Charlotte is now a wealthy spinster, still living on the Ascension Parish plantation that has been in her family for generations. Charlotte's father died the year after Mayhew's murder, believing his daughter guilty. All these years, Charlotte has believed that her father killed John Mayhew. Everyone else assumes that Charlotte, the crazy recluse, decapitated her lover.
The Louisiana Highway Commission intends to demolish her house and build a new highway through the plantation. Charlotte is vehemently against this and ignores the eviction notice, refusing to leave. She keeps the foreman (George Kennedy), his demolition crew, and the bulldozer away by shooting at them with a rifle. They temporarily give up and leave.
Charlotte is living alone as a virtual recluse in the Hollis mansion, tended by Velma (Agnes Moorehead) her housekeeper. Seeking help in her fight against the Highway Commission, she calls upon Miriam (Olivia de Havilland), a poor cousin who lived with the family as a girl. Miriam renews her relationship with Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten), a local doctor who jilted her after the murder.
Charlotte's sanity deteriorates with Miriam's arrival, her nights haunted by a mysterious harpsichord playing the song Mayhew wrote for her and by the appearance of Mayhew's disembodied hand and head. Suspecting that Miriam and Drew are after Charlotte's money, Velma seeks help from Mr. Willis (Cecil Kellaway), an insurance investigator who is still interested in the Mayhew case and has visited Mayhew's ailing widow, Jewel (Mary Astor).
Miriam fires Velma, who later returns to discover that Charlotte is being drugged. Miriam sees the housekeeper trying to take Charlotte out of the house. The two argue at the top of the stairs. Velma tries to escape, but knowing that Velma has discovered the drugs, Miriam smashes a chair over her head. Velma falls down the stairs to her death.
One night, a drugged Charlotte runs downstairs in the grip of a hallucination, believing John has returned to her. Miriam and Drew decide to trick Charlotte into shooting Drew with a gun loaded with blanks, after which Miriam helps dispose of the "body" in a swamp. Charlotte returns to the house and sees the supposedly dead Drew at the top of the stairs, reducing her to whimpering insanity.
Now believing Charlotte completely mad and secure in her room, Miriam and Drew go into the garden to discuss their plan: to drive Charlotte insane in order to get her money. Miriam also tells Drew that back in 1927 she saw Jewel murder her husband. She's been using this knowledge to blackmail Jewel for all these years, while plotting to gain possession of Charlotte's wealth.
Charlotte overhears all. She moves toward a huge stone urn on the ledge of the balcony, almost directly over the lovers' heads. Miriam embraces Drew, then the two look up and into Charlotte's knowing eyes. They are paralyzed by the sight as Charlotte tips the stone urn off the ledge, crushing both to death.
The next morning the authorities take Charlotte away, presumably to an insane asylum. Many neighbors and locals gather at the Hollis home to watch the proceedings, believing that crazy Charlotte has murdered again. Willis hands her an envelope from the now-dead Jewel Mayhew, who has had a stroke after hearing of the incident the previous night. The note contains Jewel's confession to the murder of her husband. As the authorities drive Charlotte away, she looks back at her beloved plantation.Bette Davis as Charlotte Hollis
Olivia de Havilland as Miriam Deering
Joseph Cotten as Dr. Drew Bayliss
Agnes Moorehead as Velma Cruther
Cecil Kellaway as Harry Willis
Mary Astor as Jewel Mayhew
Victor Buono as Big Sam Hollis
Wesley Addy as Sheriff Luke Standish
William Campbell as Paul Merchand, reporter
Bruce Dern as John Mayhew
George Kennedy as the foreman
Following the unexpected box-office success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), director Robert Aldrich wanted to make a film on similar themes, that reunited stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Writer Henry Farrell, whose novel the film had been based on, had also written an unpublished short story called "Whatever Happened to Cousin Caroline?" that seemed to make an excellent followup. It told a similar story of a woman who manipulates a relative for personal gain, but for this film, Aldrich's idea was that the two actresses would essentially switch the roles from the previous one, with Crawford playing the devious cousin trying to manipulate the innocent Davis into giving up her estate.
While the two had actually worked together fairly well making Baby Jane, with most of their feud played up by the studio's public relations department, Davis had been incensed when Crawford accepted Anne Bancroft's Oscar for The Miracle Worker on the absent winner's behalf at that year's ceremony, an award Davis had been nominated for but not Crawford. She believed Crawford had somehow ensured Bancroft would win just so she could upstage her costar and rival. So, after asking Aldrich if he had been having a sexual relationship with Crawford (much as Crawford had asked the director the same question about him and Davis before Baby Jane), she agreed to take the role only if she got a production credit.
Aware of this, Crawford was convinced that Davis was trying to undermine her in retaliation for the Oscar-night humiliation. Her suspicions only increased when no one came to pick her up at the airport in Baton Rouge, for the location shooting aspect of the film's principal photography. Davis was in fact making crew members decide whether they were with her or Crawford, and wound up support even from those who had known Crawford and worked with her for a long time due to Crawford's imperious behavior on the shoot. On the last day of filming, Crawford, who had gone back to her trailer and fallen asleep there in case she was needed for anything extra, awoke to find everyone had left her behind after wrapping and gone back to the hotel.
Crawford was convinced Davis had engineered this, and upon returning to Hollywood where production was to continue on set announced after one day that she was sick—at first a ploy to get changes made to the script, but then she actually convinced herself she was sick. Production was mostly suspended to allow her to recover, and she returned for a day, but then after two months, during which a private investigator trailed her to see whether she was really sick or not, the producers were told that either Crawford would be replaced or the production would be canceled. After Aldrich spent four days at Olivia de Havilland's home in Switzerland, she agreed to take the part. Crawford later complained that she only learned of her firing during the news on the radio.
One other cast member from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? did appear in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte: Victor Buono. The cast also included Mary Astor, a friend and former co-worker of Davis' during her time at Warner Bros.
Scenes outside the Hollis mansion were shot on location at Houmas House plantation in Louisiana. The inside scenes were shot on a soundstage in Hollywood.
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte was another hit for Aldrich, opening to positive reviews. A pan, however, came from The New York Times. Bosley Crowther observed, "So calculated and coldly carpentered is the tale of murder, mayhem and deceit that Mr. Aldrich stages in this mansion that it soon appears grossly contrived, purposely sadistic and brutally sickening. So, instead of coming out funny, as did Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, it comes out grisly, pretentious, disgusting and profoundly annoying."
Variety says, "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 says, "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."
Judith Crist said about the film, "The guignol is about as grand as it gets."
Kenneth Tynan asserted that, "...(Davis) has done nothing better since The Little Foxes."
The film maintains a 85% rating on review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes based on 20 reviews.
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte received Academy Award nominations for the following:Best Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorehead)
Best Art Direction (Black-and-White) (William Glasgow and Raphael Bretton for set decoration)
Best Black-and-White Cinematography (Joseph Biroc)
Best Costume Design Black-and-White (Norma Koch)
Best Film Editing (Michael Luciano)
Best Original Score (Frank De Vol)
Best Song (Frank De Vol and Mack David).
Moorehead won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress. Farrell and Heller won a 1965 Edgar Award, from the Mystery Writers of America, for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. The song became a hit for Patti Page, who took it to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The film's seven Oscar nominations were the most for a movie of the horror genre up to that time.
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte was first released on DVD on August 9, 2005. It was re-released on April 8, 2008 as part of The Bette Davis Centenary Celebration Collection 5-DVD box-set.