Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Bad Seed (1956)

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Starring Patty McCormack, Nancy Kelly, Henry Jones

"I don't like blue jeans." 

America was gripped with a strange new (and largely imaginary) fear in the early 50’s: juvenile delinquency. From the reefer and be-bop of the beatniks to the screaming guitars and unbridled sexuality of the first wave of rock n’ rollers, parents were panicked that their kids had gone primitive on them. And as with any bout of widespread hysteria, someone somewhere is going to go nuclear, unleashing the final, ridiculous, two-ton, over-killing teenage Nagasonic warhead on the whole silly affair, essentially blowing its cover, illuminating how dumb we collectively were for worrying about any of it in the first place. And so it was with The Bad Seed, a 1954 novel written by William March. Based in part on the misadventures of several early 20th century female murderesses, the story is basically a serial killer tale, only in this instance, said killer is a blonde, pig-tailed, eight year old girl. The book was gruesome and outrageous, and the absurdity of a kid going bad at such an early age no doubt confirmed the already bizarre fears of many atom-age parents. The book was a hit (Sadly, William March died a month before publication, so he did not get to enjoy its success), as was the Broadway play it was based on.

After running for over a year, the show was developed into a film, utilizing the Broadway cast. Little Women director Mervyn LeRoy was recruited to bring the crazed play to life, and in 1956, The Bad Seed was released to theaters. At the time, it was a bomb. However, it built a cult following almost immediately, thanks the overheated, pitch-black script and the screamy, bug-eyed theatricality of the cast. Funny, weird, and aggressively over the top, what may have been conceived as social commentary and melodrama quickly became tongue-in-cheek horror and high camp. 

As you may expect from a film that is actually a play, The Bad Seed is extremely stage-y; most of it takes place in one sitting room. That’s where it begins, too. Dad, Kenneth Penmark (William Hopper) is a lantern-jawed military officer of some kind, off for an extended trip to DC to serve his country. Sadly, he must say goodbye to his doing wife Christine (Nancy Kelly), and his strangely mature daughter, Rhoda (Patty McCormack), a little blonde nightmare in a frilly dress. Also in the mix is upstairs neighbor Monica Breedlove, an oppressively friendly amateur psychiatrist who is always around and who never, ever shuts up.

Dad says goodbye to little Rhoda thusly: 
Dad: "What will you give me for a basket of kisses?"
Rhoda: "I’ll give you a basket of hugs".

That same weird exchange is uttered in Leslie, My Name is Evil, another film about a bad seed.

So, off dad goes to work-slash-war, leaving Rhoda with mom and Monica. Monica gives Rhoda her some gifts of jewelry and goofy sunglasses. Rhoda acts like she appreciates 'em, but she winces when she hugs Monica. Her curtsies and pleases and thank yous are all a ruse; she actually hates the meddlesome woman (join the club), but loves shiny trinkets.

Speaking of hate, there’s an angry prick handyman around, Leroy (Henry Jones, The Girl Can’t Help It, Angel Baby, Vertigo, endless TV shows, etc etc). Leroy hates everybody – which is ok, because they all hate him, as well – but he especially can’t stand Rhoda. The loathing is mutual.

So, dad splits, and almost immediately, there's trouble in paradise.Rhoda didn't win the penmanship award at school, and she’s not taking the loss very well.

Christine and Monica chase Rhoda outside, and they kick around the handyman some more. I mean, there’s nothing they can do about the award, so you’ve gotta take your frustrations out on somebody. Might as well be the misanthropic weirdo in the overalls. At least he gets spray the middle monster with his garden hose.

Later on, Christine takes Rhoda to the park, where her class is having their annual lake-side picnic. While she’s there, mom talks to Rhoda’s teacher, Mrs. Fern (Joan Croydon) about how fuckin' weird her kid is. Mrs. Fern clearly wants to let mom know her daughter is a psycho, but she abruptly excuses herself. No use aggravating the situation. Mom could be just as crazy as the kid.

With Rhoda at the picnic, Christine heads over to a tea party at Monica's. Monica blathers on and on to her friends about meeting Sigmund Frued and  lady poisoners and psychology and whatnot.  Everybody's into it except for Rhoda's mom, who feels bullied by Monica and also a little worried that she is actually the adopted daughter of the black widow they’re all jabbering about.

Their gruesome conversation is interrupted by an announcement on the radio: one of the kid's in Rhoda's class drowned at the picnic. Mom is, of course, panicked that it was Rhoda. Of course, it is not. Could it be the kid who won the fuckin' penmanship contest? Why yes, it could. Rhoda clomps in from her half-day at the park hungry for a sandwich, and not at all concerned about the dead kid.

The next day, Miss Fern shows up. Seems that the penmanship award the kid who drowned received is now missing! Also, Christine finds out that Rhoda was fucking with the kid right before he died.

So teach pretty much tells mom she thinks Rhoda killed the kid and doesn't want her coming back to school next year. And then the parents of the dead kid show up. Mom, aka Hortense Daigle (Eilleen Heckart) is drunk! It's an ugly scene.

Later on, Monica comes over to get the necklace she gave to Rhoda to put a new gem in it for her. Rhoda keeps all that stuff in her jewelry box, so mom goes to get it and discovers...that's right, the goddamn penmanship medal. Mom confronts Rhoda about it, and she makes up some bullshit. Mom doesn't believe it, and she is even more alarmed when Rhoda shows no sympathy for the dead kid or his mother.

Out in the backyard, Rhoda plays with the new tea set  that dad sent her. Leroy shows up and tells her he knows she bashed the kid's head in and pushed him into the water, and that they were gonna use bloodhounds to find her murderous blood stick and send her to jail.

Worried that she’s got a psychopath on her hands – and that it might be her secretly tainted bloodline that caused it – Christine calls up her crime-writer pal Reginald (Gage Clark), and asks him to come over. When he gets there, he sorta hits on Rhoda, which is creepy. Christine asks him Reggie psychopaths can start their careers as children. He tells her they can. Why not? And then Christine’s dad, Richard Bravo (Paul Fix)  shows up – he's also a crime-writer – and they all sit around swilling gin and talking about killer kids.  After Reggie splits, she asks her dad if she's adopted, because she thinks her mom might have been the poisoner lady they keep talking about, which would explain why her kid's a nut, because she comes from a long line of murderers. Chrstine thinks a lot.  Dad doesn't actually answer her, which I believe is how conversations went in the 50's. So she has a repressed memory episode, and works it out on her own. There's a lot of teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing involved. And also over-acting.

So, even though it’s revealed that Chrstine’s real mom was a cold-blooded killer, Mr Bravo decides Rhoda is fine and goes to bed. Rhoda, meanwhile, tries to sneak out with the shoes she used to kill the kid. Mom finds her and shakes her until she admits what happened.

She also admits to killing one of their old neighbors. Mom, appalled but still feeling maternal, goes into crisis mode and tells Rhoda to burn the shoes.

Rhoda figures she's in the clear, but Leroy reminds her that he knows what's up. And that pretty much seals his fate. 

And then Hortense shows up again and makes things worse with her drunken antics. 

So then Rhoda burns Leroy to death and mom goes right over the edge. Does she allow Rhoda's murderous rampage to continue, forced to cover up her daughter's atrocities forever, or does she destroy her own creation, like Dr. Frankenstein?

Yes and no. Plus, surprise ending!

Endlessly quotable and consistently hair-raising, The Bad Seed is one of the most outrageous movies of the 1950’s. Patty McCormack’s portrayal of Rhoda is amazing – the twitching eye, the phony-baloney curtsies, the high-pitched squeals of panic and the guttural growls of rage, they all add up to one legendary, career-making performance. If you’ve ever been on the fence about having kids, you’ll be off said fence for good after watching this. Rhoda Penmark is the greatest advertisement for birth control I’ve ever seen. There isn’t one likable character in the whole movie, so you’re never really invested in what happens to anyone, but it sure is fun to watch them all self-destruct. Don’t let this film’s vintage release date put you off – it’s barely aged at all in fifty years, and unlike a lot of black and white era movies, it doesn’t drag. It’s two solid hours of mayhem and outrage. Highly recommended. 

- Ken McIntyre

PS: You can hear the Movies About Girls crew discussing The Bad Seed on episode 117 of the Movies About Girls show! 

1 comment:

  1. One of the all-time best! Crazy movie, genuinely horrifying when Leroy is burning up -- and nothing better than Eileen Heckart's great drunk scene. Pathetic and sad. Great write-up! I agree, it's aged very well!


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