The Film: The Bad Seed (1956)
[Note: There’s absolutely no way I can tiptoe around all the details of this movie and still coherently discuss it. So, I’m about to spoil the shit out of it]
The Principles: Mervyn LeRoy (Director). Nancy Kelly. Patty McCormack. Henry Jones. Eileen Heckart. Evelyn Varden.
The Premise: Christine Penmark (Kelly) has to deal with the realization that her 8-year-old daughter Rhoda (McCormack) is a remorseless, sociopathic murderer.
Is It Good: It is! It started as a novel by William March as a response to the surge in crimes committed by children in the 50s that had everyone all atwitter. This, of course, was where the ages-old “nature vs. nurture” question burrowed its way into the public consciousness and March latched onto the idea with a story that centered around a little girl who beat and drowned a classmate of hers because he won a penmanship medal that she felt she deserved. After it made a pretty big splash (no pun intended) it ended up getting adapted into a stage play by Maxwell Anderson and finally turned into a film by one Mervyn LeRoy. LeRoy, being no stranger to stage cinema (is that a real term? I think I might have just made it up) – having directed a few rather lavish musicals in his time – does an excellent job of transposing the play to the screen, finding a perfect balance between maintaining the theatricality of staging and blocking and directing the flow of traffic through a scene and subtly using the camera to give it that extra cinematic spark. So excellent a job, in fact, that it was nominated for a Best Black & White Cinematography Oscar. It ended up losing that Oscar to Joseph Ruttenberg’s work on Somebody Up There Likes Me, but that’s neither here nor there.
And it wasn’t just the direction that got carried over – Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Eileen Heckart and Henry Jones all reprised their stage roles in the film, with the first three getting Performance Oscar Nominations for their work (none of them won, but Kelly did win a Tony for her stage performance). And honestly, all the credit to LeRoy for his direction and March for the original story, but it’s the performances that make this movie, as it has to work on a couple of different levels. Kelly does great work evolving from a Mom who simply thinks her daughter’s a little too precocious for her age to slowly realizing the sort of monster she has on her hands to mentally breaking down at being unable to reconcile her love for her daughter with her own resentment, disgust, fear and guilt over everything little Rhoda has done. There are moments when she gets a touch too theatrical and spills over the top, but it’s never enough to actually sink the performance.
And Rhoda herself does amazing work as the entire conceit of the film arguably rests on McCormack’s tiny shoulders. It’s hard enough for kids to act without looking like they’re “acting,” and McCormack not only pulls that off but is able to switch back and forth between Rhoda’s innate charm and sweetness, blind rage and calculated cold-bloodedness –sometimes several times in a matter of minutes – without popping the seams on the performance. She plays sociopathic so well that you kind of have to wonder if she isn’t a little too method for her own good.
But while Kelly and McCormack lay the foundation for the thematic crux of the movie, it’s Eileen Heckart as Mrs. Daigle – the mother of the little boy Rhoda murders on a school picnic – that brings the human element home. Every time we see Mrs. Daigle she’s drunk and desperate and grieving and wants to relate to Christine as a mother while still being suspicious of Rhoda’s connection to her son’s death. It’s a damn near masterful performance by Heckart, managing to make us sympathize with her and feel awkward and embarrassed for her at the same time.
It all comes together – the performances, the direction, the story, the context of the era – to gel into a film that’s equal parts heady and disturbing and horrifying and tragic and even kind of funny. It’s good.
Is It Worth A Look: Definitely. In fact, if there’s any problem at all with the movie it’s that it winds up coming down too decisively on its thematic stance instead of letting it float around ambiguously. Especially because it goes to some pretty great lengths in the first half to be kind of ambiguous, having ancillary characters mull over the whole “nature vs. nurture” question and it worked because it only asked. But somewhere around the middle of the second act – in one of those aforementioned scenes where Kelly could have dialed it down – it throws the curtain back on a clumsy little twist/reveal that bluntly puts its foot down and answers it for you. But even then it’s not really a complaint – just one of those little “Hm” moments that you can’t help but notice but don’t have any troubles forgiving.
Random Anecdotes: Another problem some people have is with the ending, and while I agree it’s abrupt and has some very out-of-place heavy-handed morality, I wound up finding it incredibly fascinating because in the original (an additional spoiler alert just to make sure) book AND the play, Christine doesn’t survive the suicide attempt and Rhoda goes on to live with her father who’s oblivious to everything that’s happened since he’s been away on military business. But because of the Hays Code, censors felt it wouldn’t be right to “let crime pay,” so they changed it. Instead, Christine survives the suicide attempt and Rhoda – who goes down to the lake to fish the penmanship medal out – gets struck dead by lightning. The censors did that. The censors – the people who were in charge with protecting morality and decency in American entertainment – decided that the proper ending was for an 8-year-old girl to be struck dead, seemingly by God himself. There’s no humanity or an attempt to make Rhoda a sympathetic character given what we’ve learned about her. Nope – KILL THE LITTLE GIRL say the censors. It’s a rather amazing display of arrogance and – even though it doesn’t jive with the rest of the movie in a thematic sense, I kind of love it.
Also, at one point Eli Roth was set to remake this, but there hasn’t been any word on it for a long, long time. But considering he described it thusly: “This is going to be scary, bloody fun, and we’re going to create the next horror icon, a la Freddy, Jason and Chucky. She’s this cunning, adorable kid who loves to kill, but also loves ‘N Sync” I’m inclined to be just fine with it having fallen off the radar.
Cinematc Soulmates: The ’85 made-for-TV Remake (which used the original ending and is apparently kind of terrible). The Good Son. Orphan. The last 20 minutes or so of Pet Sematary. Village of the Damned. Children of the Corn. Beware Children at Play. Any other movies where kids kill the shit out of people.