Next time you get bullied into coughing up a baby shower present for a coworker who you weren’t fond of before she decided to spawn and who has been boring you silly with details about her morning sickness, let your evil side run wild and get her the 1956 classic The Bad Seed.
The Bad Seed in question is little Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack in an iconic, Oscar-nominated performance), who seems to be most adults’ idea of the perfect child. She’s pretty, charming, polite, and tidy. This outward appearance and surface charm hide something very unsettling – Rhoda has no empathy, and no emotional connection to anyone. What she does have is greed - when a boy at her school wins the gold penmanship medal that Rhoda had been coveting, and the boy is later found drowned at the school picnic, Rhoda’s mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) begins realizing what her daughter really is.
Adapted from Maxwell Anderson’s stage play, which was based on the novel by William March, The Bad Seed is very much a mixed bag. The stage play was quite popular, and director Mervyn LeRoy chose to replicate the play as much as he could, even using much of the same cast. The result is not a movie but a filmed play, at times so static it makes the film of Glengarry Glen Ross look like a Michael Bay movie. There’s even a curtain call at the end. LeRoy gets some of the actors to make the transition from stage to screen – Henry Jones as a creepy caretaker and Eileen Heckart as the drunken mother of the drowned boy are particularly effective. Unfortunately Nancy Kelly as Christine turns in an overly stagy performance of the clutch-the-forehead, “when in trouble or in doubt, run in circles scream and shout” school. Since she has most of the dialogue, her performance is quite wearying by the movie’s end.
More successful is Patty McCormack as Rhoda. She never comes across as a “real” kid, but it works because Rhoda isn’t a real kid. She’s a sociopath masquerading not as a kid, but as the kind of kid adults think is ideal. It’s significant that adults love Rhoda but children detest her, and that the more educated an adult, the less able he or she is to see what Rhoda really is. Only the disreputable caretaker Leroy sees through Rhoda, and even he fatally underestimates her.
McCormack’s performance doesn’t always work – she comes off false when she’s arguing with her mother or Leroy. But she’s chilling when she’s unobserved by others and lets her true feelings – or lack of them – show.
In addition to being stagy, The Bad Seed is also marred by a fairly ridiculous ending thanks to the Hays Code, which didn’t want to show a criminal getting away unpunished. It’s not a movie that’s going to frighten most people, but it is a fun curiosity piece. The book is worth a read as well.
Extras are quite good. Trailers, an interview with Patty McCormack, and a commentary by McCormack and fan (and Psycho Beach Party director) Charles Busch.