“What would you give me for a basket of dead lovebirds?”
The Bad Seed came out in 1956, the same year as Carousel and Tea and Sympathy. But while the latter films – one a grandiose musical, the other a social problem drama – are typical of their time and place, The Bad Seed seems to be have been dropped into projection rooms from another planet. The film’s main character and driving force, Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack), has no obvious antecedents in movie history and didn’t exactly spawn a new genre. She’s a charming pigtailed eight-year-old whose apparently perfect manners mask a genetically engineered mini-murderess.
Not surprising given its subject, the film was problematic from the start. Warner Bros. wasn’t thrilled by director Mervyn LeRoy’s insistence on importing most of the cast from the hit Broadway version. (Perhaps they envisioned Joan Crawford or Lana Turner in the mother role.) When they did relent, there was a thornier problem. The Johnson Office, which determined the releasability of major studio films, refused to certify the script because of the ending, which followed the original in having Rhoda blithely playing “Claire de Lune” on the piano after murdering half the cast. No matter; Warners had the ending changed so she’s killed by a lightning bolt, and the censors were happy with this heavenly retribution. Still, there was some feeling that showing a little girl being blasted to hell wasn’t quite right, and the film offers a breakthrough “proscenium-busting” second ending that reminds the viewer it was only a movie after all.
In his autobiography, director LeRoy dispatches The Bad Seed in a scant two pages; maybe nobody told him it’s revered as a camp classic, a widespread guilty pleasure, and a beloved showcase for some of the most rivetingly overwrought acting in movie history – all overseen by that vision in pigtails and rollerskates, Rhoda.
For those sad souls who haven’t seen it (or haven’t seen it in a while), here’s the story. Rhoda Penmark lives with mother, the nervous Christine (Nancy Kelly), and a doting but often absent father played by William Hopper. They live in a sheltered world of private schools and manicured lawns, shepherded in Daddy’s absence by doting, buffoonish landlady Monica (Evelyn Varden). Their lovely little world – punctuated by Rhoda’s grating curtsies, smarmy good manners, tacky piano stylings, and the toxic mantra “What would you give me for a basket of kisses?” – begins to unravel when one of Rhoda’s classmates turns up dead. Christine gets increasingly unhinged by hints that Rhoda doesn’t take defeat kindly, and it seems the deceased – little Claude Daigle – had the temerity to win the class penmanship medal. This in spite of the fact that, as Rhoda screams, “Everyone knew I wrote the best hand!” More puzzling deaths follow until Nature weighs in to reclaim the little beast.
There’s considerable film time devoted to the debate, then current no doubt, about whether evil can be inherited; and the staging is often, well, stagey, with self-consciously dramatic entrances and exits, and hothouse dialogue more suited to Broadway than cinema. That said, The Bad Seed is an actor’s dream, and these actors work every inch of it. This was recognized at the time; Nancy Kelly was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and McCormack and Eileen Heckart were nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
The most celebrated scene belongs to neither Rhoda nor Christine, but to Claude’s boozy mother Hortense. This “poor creature,” as Christine refers to her with subtle hauteur, comes a-calling in a drunken stupor, convinced her boy’s death is somehow linked to Rhoda. This sequence, brilliantly played by Heckart, becomes a riveting dance between the upper-class perfection of the Penmarks and the slobbering incivility of the working class as exemplified by the Daigles. The film scores comic points in the midst of the carry-on when Hortense blurts out that the prim Miss Fern, Rhoda’s teacher and enemy, dyes her hair. Adding to the comic confusion is the fact that Mr. Daigle looks more like his wife’s father than her husband.
Heckart’s screen time is more memorable for being limited. Nancy Kelly mines much of the same emotional terrain in most of her many scenes. And oh, does she mine. You can practically see the pick-axe under her skirt. Her bag of acting tricks is ready to burst, and she deploys them shamelessly in a rhapsody of hand-wringing, table-clawing, eyerolling, whisper-to-a-scream hysterics that could be excised as individual lessons on acting no-no’s. Hilariously weird indeed (and much noticed by modern audiences who respond with appropriate guffaws) is her constant anguished pummeling of her stomach in what looks like an ongoing assault against the uterus that produced this demon seed. (This legendary bit of business was even immortalized in the cover art of the VHS tape of the film.) And after seeing the mileage she gets out of her daughter’s name, few will believe that “Rhoda” has only has two syllables or should ever be pronounced in a normal tone.
More charming histrionics come from Henry Jones as the leering, demented janitor Leroy, who’s wise to Rhoda’s tricks. He gets some of the film’s most amusing dialogue, as when he says, “I’ve seen some mean little gals in my time, but you’re the meanest.” (He doesn’t say how he’s managed to meet enough other “mean little gals” to make the comparison.) He has wonderful flights of fancy describing to her the rarely sighted “stick bloodhound” police use to find killers by sniffing out bloody murder weapons, and the “little blue and pink electric chairs they have for little boys and girls.” Rhoda listens with a mixture of indulgence and annoyance, until she gets sick of his prattle and kills him.
Presiding over all this is Patty McCormack’s glacially calm Rhoda. Her performance is surprisingly sensible and mostly restrained, at least until she’s exposed. Then she almost outdoes Nancy Kelly in sheer volume of consumed scenery. Like the older, hammier actors around her, McCormack could work a phrase or a bit of business to a happy death, and could even convince us in a quiet moment that there was a rather sad little girl under the murderously sweet surface. McCormack was apparently an unusually grounded person, particularly for a child star. The director recalled asking her how she felt about playing “a girl who kills people,” to which she replied in her best Rhoda sing-song voice, “Oh Mr. LeRoy, I’m having so much fun!”