The Bad Seed (1956)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden, William Hopper
1/2 (out of 4)
The nature versus nurture debate takes center stage in director Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed, which came out in 1956 and was based on the popular play of the same name (written by Maxwell Anderson), which was itself based on a novel by William March. Predating “evil kid” movies like The Omen and The Good Son, The Bad Seed stars a young Patty McCormack as a prim and proper 8 year old blonde with pig tails named Rhoda who just happens to be a complete sociopath. (McCormack had previously played the role on stage). Nancy Kelly plays her mom Christine Penmark, who at first doesn’t want to believe that her precious little Rhoda killed her classmate down by the water because he won the school penmanship medal and she didn’t. After some laughable melodrama involving the dead boy’s mother (Eileen Heckart), who periodically barges into Christine’s household drunk and tosses around J’accuse! at anybody who happens to be in the vicinity, Christine confronts her father only to find out an unfortunate bit of information involving her lineage (you know – she’s adopted, her real mom was a serial killer, etc).
When a rivalry erupts between Rhoda and the resident janitor man-child Leroy (Henry Jones), the tension and overacting grow to unbearable heights. Leroy isn’t all dumb – he knows what Rhoda did last summer and all that. (I actually rather enjoyed Jones’ performance). Rhoda then torches him in the cellar and very coolly returns to her piano lessons. This leads to an interesting scene where Christine witnesses Leroy’s death by fire and is slowly driven mad by Rhoda’s relentless piano playing of Au Claire de la Lune. Speaking of relentless, the histrionics on the part of all players just doesn’t quit. We should be creeped out by Rhoda’s transformations from cute blond girl to psycho serial killer but little Patty McCormack isn’t experienced enough to display the subtleties necessary for this kind of complex character. Nancy Kelly fares a bit better, but not much – she’s forced to spew out meandering and overdramatic dialogue which pulls us out of the movie.
The main problem is that the film version of The Bad Seed is no different from the play in terms of structure and delivery – there’s precious few sets, more talk than action, and it seems like everybody was told to shout their lines so that the person in the back row can hear everything. This staginess gives a distinctively uncinematic quality, and it’s only made worse by the bizarre curtain call at the end of the film. I suppose the idea was to have the audience leave the theater in an upbeat mood (You see? The evil child was just a cute actress, after all! We can now go back to fearing the commies!)
The worst mistake made by The Bad Seed is the ridiculous Deus ex machina ending, which probably shouldn’t be totally blamed on the film’s creators. Back then, the Hays code wouldn’t let crime pay; as a result, the ending is a complete tonal shift and makes no sense. Of course, the movie isn’t all bad – there is a lot of potential in the material. For example, a discussion could be held about the strength of the mother-daughter bond – take Christine’s conflicting feelings regarding her daughter – it’s hard not to love your own flesh and blood, no matter how evil they are. (Rhoda is Rosemary’s Baby as a preteen.) Something might also be said about the noticeable absence of Rhoda’s dad, who as a military man must spend weeks away from home. So much for the “environment” side of the argument – the rest of the movie clearly sides with heredity.
Later films like The Exorcist and The Omen would give religious origins to the evil-child scenario, but I think a screenplay like The Bad Seed could be remade well (I have heard that The Good Son and the 1985 TV remake wasn’t it). As long as somebody realizes that some works can transfer well from the theater to the movie screen, but other works need tweaking (like toning down the “theatrics”). The few things that work in The Bad Seed are unfortunately lost in the dull stretches.
- Bill Gordon