Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Bad Seed 1956

Patty McCormack as Rhoda Penmark. The perfect angel or the bad seed?

***The best parts of The Bad Seed are its spoilers, so alerts ahead!***

Sorry, no can do! Spoilers are divulged! 

The high points of this totally ‘50s film are the chilling premise that evil is genetic and a trio of unforgettable performances by Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed, with Eileen Heckart and Henry Jones, as characters left in her wake.

Henry Jones gives a great performance as pervy Leroy in "The Bad Seed."

This classic story has been remade wretchedly for TV several times and “inspired” Macaulay Culkin’s The Good Son. Perhaps The Bad Seed was the product of post-war America, when our ideal was reflected in TV family sitcoms. The Bad Seed was the opposite image, as a decade later, when frothy movie marriages got a reality check with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Little Rhoda Penmark just lights up a room in "The Bad Seed!"

The Bad Seed is Rhoda Penmark, the outwardly perfect child who is really rotten to the core. Although Rhoda’s short past is marked by questionable incidents, her mother Christine must now see the light after a very public tragedy. At a school picnic, Rhoda’s classmate Claude Daigle “accidentally” drowns. But there is evidence that the shy boy struggled. And witnesses intervened with Rhoda and Claude, over a penmanship medal. As the truth comes out, the girl’s behavior becomes more overt.

The other shoe drops in "The Bad Seed."

The downside of The Bad Seed is that it’s filmed as a play, with the worst studio era movie conventions. You can thank Mervyn LeRoy for that, a most uninspired film maker in his later years. WB also ran into censorship issues, as Rhoda the sociopathic murderer survives at the end of the original story, while her martyr mother perishes. Not so in the film version, which leads to a lame finale.

Nancy Kelly gestures more than a cop directing traffic as the mother of "The Bad Seed."

McCormack’s Rhoda is so transparently phony and monstrous that most of the other “sympathetic” adults around her come off as nincompoops when they fall for her act. The worst offender is Nancy Kelly, who plays the mother, Christine Penmark. Kelly’s hilariously overwrought performance, complete with gesticulating, raised eyebrows, and the most whispery, raspy voice since June Allyson. After the sincere blathering of the airhead upstairs neighbor, the dull daddy and grandfather, and the handwringing mother, I always find myself rooting for Rhoda!

There's lots of finger-pointing and hand-wringing in "The Bad Seed."

Not surprisingly, the most interesting performances are by those actors whose characters are not fooled by phony Rhoda. Eileen Heckart, as Hortense Daigle, the mother of the dead boy, goes way big. But Heckart is also genuinely touching in her moments when the mother’s grief is laid bare. Kelly, McCormack, and Heckart all got Oscar nominations for their performances. Henry Jones as the pervy Leroy, should have gotten a nomination too, for his full-bodied performance as the childish but cunning handyman. Jones’ scenes with McCormack’s Rhoda crackle with tension. And Joan Croydon as Miss Fern, the school teacher who has Rhoda’s number, scores.

Patty McCormick's rages as Rhoda "The Bad Seed" Penmark are still frightful!

As for Patty McCormack, while her performance betrays its stage origins, is still utterly creepy as Rhoda. The scenes where the saccharine mask is dropped and the perfect angel reveals her rage, McCormack is memorable.

A lucky lightning bolt takes care of pesky Rhoda Penmark in "The Bad Seed."

The Bad Seed’s ending is a campy letdown. There are two, actually. First is when Rhoda attempts to retrieve the stolen medal that her mother planted near the lake’s dock. Seeing Rhoda decked out in bright rain gear in the middle of a late night thunderstorm is a great visual. This instantly explodes into absurdity when Rhoda gets blasted by a thunderbolt of biblical proportions at the dock. The other is when the cast takes a “curtain call.” As if that’s not corny enough for such a heavy drama, Nancy Kelly shakes her finger at Patty McCormack and takes her over her knee for a mock spanking! As laughable as this is, it’s an indicator of what Hollywood thought ‘50s audiences could handle. Thankfully, we weren’t subjected to that with WB’s filmed Virginia Woolf a decade later, or their curtain call might have had George and Martha’s “son” taking a bow, too!

Whew! Thank goodness this was only a movie! The incredibly corny curtain call
from "The Bad Seed."

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  1. Love this movie and thought your comments were spot on!

    1. Thanks, Karen! Wanted to write about this for a long time. Rick

  2. Read the novel by William March then the play By Maxwell Anderson.

  3. Great review! I've always loved this film. It may have its flaws, but it also has Patty McCormack, and she is infinitely cool. An excellent actress and a very intelligent, self-aware individual.

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for commenting. Having posted this all over FB, I've received a number of comments from people who know or have worked with Patty McCormack and how great she is! Cheers, Rick

  4. This movie in my opinion is creepy campy. And I found myself rooting for Rhoda when the Handyman was done in.

  5. Hi Rick, great review and right on in your assessments. I love this film and have watched my treasured dvd dozens of times. Agree that Heckart is over the top but it works and we believe her and feel for her. Croydon underplays beautifully and I enjoy her more with each viewing. McCormack is just perfect as the Jeckyll and Hyde title character, and yes, Nancy Kelly is histrionic as hell but I love her mannered performance and cracking querulous voice. Especially during her “mad scene” after Leroy’s death. Wow!! Lol.

    I watch this once or twice a year whether I need it or not!
    - Chris

    1. Hey Chris! That's awesome! It's a pretty wild flick. I'd like to read the original novel sometime, cheers, and thanks for writing, Rick