My first experience of Agnes Morehead’s talent was her role as Endora on the TV series Bewitched. In the show, she was always impeccably coiffed, made-up, and dressed. So it was a bit of a shock the first time I saw her as Velma in the 1964 movie Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte.
In it, she plays a slovenly, loud-mouthed (but loyal) maid to Bette Davis’ Charlotte. It’s quite a contrast.
The movie was a (successful, as it turned out) attempt to repeat the big box office of the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, also starring Bette Davis. Joan Crawford was slated to co-star with Davis again, but she dropped out of the film, citing illness. (Supposedly, she resented the fact that Davis earned an Oscar nomination for Baby Jane while she did not.) Crawford was replaced with Davis’ friend Olivia de Havilland.
Charlotte is a Southern belle whose possessive father (Victor Buono) stops her elopement with a married man (Bruce Dern). At a party, Charlotte is devastated when her lover breaks off with her. After she leaves him alone, someone attacks him with a cleaver, chopping off his hand and head.
Never convicted of the crime, Charlotte is nevertheless believed to be the murderer. She, in turn, believes her father did the deed. Decades later, she is still living in her Southern mansion, a spinster who only has her maid Velma as a companion. She is about to be turned out of her home to make way for a new bridge on her property. She is convinced her dead lover’s wife, Jewell Mayhew (Mary Astor) is behind a conspiracy to throw her out of her home.
She contacts her cousin Miriam (de Havilland) and asks her to come home and help her. Miriam arrives, and with her erstwhile lover Dr. Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten) they try to convince Charlotte vacating the home is her only option. Velma suspects something is going on as Charlotte begins behaving even more erratically. She uncovers their plot to drive Charlotte mad and steal her money.
Like many of the movies Davis and other aging stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood made during this time period, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte is not exactly a work of art. The production and direction are well done, but the story skates on the edge of absurdity and the melodrama is dialed up to number 11. As I said, though, these films were very popular in their day, and audiences seemed to love seeing their favorites ham it up in the kind of roles they wouldn’t have played at the peak of their careers.
There’s also something gratifying about seeing the actors commit entirely to the high-pitched tone of the film, and all the major actors—Davis, Moorehead, Cotten, Buono, and de Havilland—go for it with gusto. (The exception is Astor, who underplays her role.)
The film was well received by critics and went on to gain several award nominations, including for Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Moorehead. (It was her final Oscar nomination. She did not win, but did win the Golden Globe that year for the role.) Jewell Mayhew was Mary Astor’s final film role before she retired.
Moorehead had a remarkable range—she could play quiet, introspective roles, comedic roles, glamorous roles. Here she’s on the opposite end of the scale, and very memorable among a cast of superb, seasoned actors.