Saturday, April 21, 2012


For the most part, I don’t see anything inherently bad in a film morphing from one kind of entertainment into another over the course of its “screening life.” By this I mean, films - a populist entertainment/art form presumed of a certain marketable topicality at the time of their release, are, by nature, vulnerable to the vagaries of time. A movie can start out as one kind of entertainment—say, thoughtful social drama—but, due to changing public tastes, evolve over time into something that gives pleasure to countless hundreds in new, totally unexpected ways (e.g., high camp).

Some films, like John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951), feel every bit as powerful and affecting today as I imagine they did to audiences some six decades ago. While other films, dismissed or misunderstood in their own time (Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter) benefit from revisionism and the kind of clear-eyed, contextual reassessment of art only possible with the distancing effect of time. But more often than not, older films just take their place in our collective consciousness as works superficially cloaked in the trappings of their time. Dated vehicles addressing otherwise timeless concerns of love, death, humanity, and hope. If the emotions are true and the stories compelling, we don’t necessarily care if the costumes are out-of-date, the dialog archaic, or style of filmmaking passé; the movie still works in the ways originally intended.

What seems to play havoc with a film’s continuing relevance is a non-scientific equation that takes over-emphatic, up-to-the-minute immediacy, multiplies it by sensationalism, and adds a dash of self-seriousness. The result is usually something so mired in a particular time, place, and mindset that they become near-impossible to enjoy or take seriously on any of the levels once deemed effective. We see it in highly-stylized dramatic films from the '30s and '40s; where stage-bound acting techniques (characters speaking into the distance rather than to one another, over-broad gestures and facial expressions) have a distancing effect on our ability to become involved in the narrative. In these instances, a film’s elder status becomes an intractable element contributing to how it is viewed by contemporary audiences. A variable which establishes the terms and boundaries of its broader acceptance.
When psychoanalysis was new, juvenile delinquency in its infancy, and post-war conformity at its height, Maxwell Anderson’s Broadway 1954 play The Bad Seed (adapted from the 1954 novel by William March) must have been quite the eye-opener. A thriller about a sociopathic 8-year-old serial killer sounds like a weed among the roses in a Broadway season that saw the premieres of Peter Pan and The Pajama Game, but the chillingly original premise and by-all-accounts remarkable performance of little 9-year-old, anti-Shirley Temple, Patty McCormack, made The Bad Seed into a solid hit. Co-star Nancy Kelly won the Tony Award for Best Actress that year, and in a rarity for Hollywood, virtually the entire principal cast was recruited to recreate their roles for the 1956 film adaptation.

But not everything that plays well across the footlights survives the magnification of the movie screen. Suffering from a perhaps too-faithful adaptation that had characters doing nothing but conversing for fitfully long stretches while engaged in a lot of theatrically fussy “stage  business,” the close-up lens trained on The Bad Seed seemed to amplify the dubious premise of the plot (hereditary homicidal tendencies) while doing nothing to add verisimilitude or spontaneity to the progressively melodramatic proceedings.
Nancy Kelly as Christine Penmark
Patty McCormack as Rhoda Penmark
Eileen Heckart as Hortense Daigle
Henry Jones as Leroy Jessup
Navy Colonel Kenneth Penmark and wife Christine seem to have the ideal child in their little Rhoda: an angelic, near-perfect package of pigtails and ruffles, adorned with girlish grace and good manners. When Kenneth is called away to Washington for business, Christine (who’s wound a little tight from the get-go) begins to suspect that Rhoda’s immaculate façade isn’t perhaps masking a more disturbed, darker personality dysfunction. The mysterious death of a local schoolboy and Christine’s own epiphanic discovery of her birth lineage lead her to believe that little Rhoda might be a budding serial killer: a possessor of a hereditary “bad seed” gene passed on to Rhoda by Christine herself. What to do? What to do? What to do?

Al Hirschfeld
I make light of the preposterous-sounding premise, but quite honestly, when removed from the gimmicky “serial killer gene” plotline, The Bad Seed is pretty solid thriller material and might have even tapped into the post-war/ McCarthy-era “banality of evil” zeitgeist of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (released the same year) had it managed to sidestep the theatrical histrionics and showed more faith in presenting a dark vision of idealized suburban perfection.
* Spoiler Alert! If you've never seen The Bad Seed, read no further. Run, don't walk, and get your hands on a copy of this film NOW! You're in for a treat. Come back later...we'll still be here.

I personally love the Hays Code-mandated, tacked-on ending  that has God’s retribution striking down little Rhoda in the middle of her most Godless act (in the play, Rhoda lives and it's the mother who dies), but feel it would have been even more powerful without the survival of the mother and her guilt-leaden hospital bed confession.
Thematically, The Bad Seed is ill-served by how deeply the plot (and seemingly interminable chunks of dialog) is mired in outmoded Freudian psychological theorems. Stylistically, its effectiveness as a suspense thriller is undermined by an overwrought theatricality that turns every scene that should be gripping melodrama into a satire of American suburban ideals.
Although not easy to make out, that little crinoline blur in the upper left-hand corner of this screencap is an airborne Rhoda, avoiding the passive-aggressive spray of  the garden hose Leroy (Henry Jones) is intent on training on her plot-significant Mary Jane shoes.

I couldn’t have been much older than Rhoda myself when I first saw The Bad Seed on TV (definitely the last time I ever took the film as seriously). I was raised in a middle-class neighborhood during a time when kids were brought up to be seen and not heard. To be obedient and polite, to say "Please" and "Thank you," and to never, but NEVER speak back to grownups. So it shocked the hell out of me to see a little girl who could have stepped out of an episode of Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver behaving so monstrously. The idea that a kid could exert any power over their own lives at all was alien enough, let alone plan and carry out vicious murders with nary a trace of remorse.

I certainly didn’t mind that the deaths of little Claude Daigle or handyman Leroy were never shown (something unthinkable today, especially if that talentless hack Eli Roth makes good on a long ago threat/promise to remake this film) because my fertile kid’s imagination furnished all the gory details. I remember being very torn up by the grief of Eileen Heckart’s Mrs. Daigle and the sound of the gunshot near the end nearly sent me flying off the sofa. The strongest memory I have is of Rhoda’s final trip to the boathouse. It was spooky enough that she was out by herself at night in a rainstorm, but I thought maybe her maddeningly clueless father was going to wake up and catch her red-handed with the medal. That bolt of lightning hit me like ...well, a bolt of lightning. OMG! I had NEVER seen a kid killed in a movie before and that image stayed with me for many a nightmare.
Evelyn Varden portrays annoying landlady and neighbor, Monica Breedlove. 
Naiveté definitely has its advantages with some films, so at least I get to say that I had one pure experience of The Bad Seed. Perhaps the closest one can get without time-traveling back to 1953.
Over the course of the next several years however, The Bad Seed, almost imperceptibly, went from serious to hilarious in my eyes. The pitch of the film had always been a little high, but with maturity, the passing of time, and changing tastes, The Bad Seed started to look as dated and reactionary as one of those “social guidance” films of the '50s and '60s. A turn of events that’s had the curious effect of making The Bad Seed more watchable, not less.

Although I consider a great many real-life children to be monsters, I think it’s extremely difficult to make them look menacing on the screen. The 1976 film The Omen sidestepped the pitfall the wan 2006 remake fell into (headfirst) by framing the action in ways which left the child’s evil nature left ambiguous. In the 1976 film, the child merely behaves in a normal fashion and the audience is left to project whatever we wanted onto his angelic pan. In the remake, the child actor is directed to continually glower into the camera...the result: the surely-unwanted effect of a child suffering a tummy ache rather than the conveyance of a subterranean malevolence within the spawn of Satan. What makes Patty McCormack so memorably creepy in The Bad Seed is that she's like a schoolyard bully dreamt up by Murder, Inc.
"You better bring them back here! Right here to MEEEEEEE!"

The only reason this scene gets laughs is because Patty McCormack is scarier than hell in it. You can't believe a little girl in pigtails and a pinafore can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
These days, when the bratty behavior of children is business-as-usual in every sitcom and movie I see (seriously, the sociopath at the center of the 2011 thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin is indistinguishable from and no more horrific than today's average over-entitled teen ...which may be the point) little Rhoda Penmark comes off more like a miniature Alexis Carrington than homicidal maniac. Her outbursts and threats make us giggle certainly because of the incongruity presented by her size and appearance contrasted with her behavior; but also because she’s carrying on in a way we’ve long come to associate with grown-up entertainment industry brats and divas. Rhoda is rude, ruthless, selfish, self-involved, single-mindedly determined to get what she wants, and impervious to the suffering of others. Now, who doesn't think that sounds like Madonna or Elton John?
The Original Material Girl
Nancy Kelly and Eileen Heckart give the kind of robust, herculean performances that garner Oscar nominations, and indeed both (along with McCormack) were in fact nominated for Academy Awards. Both are very good but neither actress lets up “acting” for even a second, making every ill-tempered intrusion by McCormack a welcome one. Kelly’s stylistic excesses and singsong way of conveying sincerity may induce laughter, but the anguish her character goes through is really rather affectingly played. Heckart has some great material and much of it she plays with real poignance, but a little too much theatrical “drunk” shtick creeps into the characterization for it to avoid the occasional lapse into overkill. The film’s true star and absolute marvel is 10-year-old Patty McCormack. Although her performance is over-rehearsed to within a hairsbreadth,  her Rhoda is a hilariously two-facedcreation an identifiable hyper-phony like Leave it to Beaver's Eddie Haskellwhose absolute refusal to behave in accordance to her appearance (and gender) feels like an act of guerrilla rebellion against the stuffy middle-class blandness surrounding her. Rhoda Penmark is one of my favorite movie villains. The film positively drags whenever she’s not onscreen.
Rhoda has intimacy issues
No longer a viable suspense thriller (not for me, anyway), The Bad Seed does work remarkably well as a satirical black comedy of American paranoia in the mid-'50s. McCarthyism took root when post-war America was just starting to look within its own backyard for threats to the so-called "American Way of Life." What did it find? Well, juvenile delinquency, for one. And what else is Rhoda but a steely-eyed juvenile delinquent in Mary Janes? (OK, a juvenile homicidal delinquent, but I’m trying to make a point.) As the perfect little angel who’ll stop at nothing to get that coveted Penmanship Medal, Rhoda is unassuming anarchy let loose on the stiff, airless “normalcy” of the falsely idealized world inhabited by the adults.
Like many a con man, crooked politician, and gangster throughout history, Rhoda manages to get away with murder (heh-heh) by presenting a false (but reassuring) front of conformity. Everyone is so slow to pick up on the rather obvious clues of Rhoda’s guilt because….well, little girls just don’t do that. If The Bad Seed were to be remade, possibly with Rhoda's guilt left ambiguous for much of the film, the drama would have to hinge on Rhoda making people uncomfortable by her too-perfect adherence to the image of the "good little girl", or by a reluctance to accept how she could ever be be anything other than what her image projects. (1985 saw a predictably unsubtle and over-obvious TV remake...a waste of time.)
Little Rhoda Penmark having one of her "moments"

In spite of its daringly original premise and first-class credentials, I’m afraid the movie that once promoted itself as “The most shocking motion picture ever made!” and containing “The most chilling moment the screen has ever unleashed!” is now an enduring camp staple, no more frightening and every bit as riotous as this scene of holy terror Jane Withers laying into Shirley Temple in 1934’s Bright Eyes (YouTube link). 
In her adult years, actress Patty McCormack has embraced the cult/camp status of The Bad Seed and frequently appears at screenings, judging Rhoda look-alike contests, and answering questions about the making of the film (her DVD commentary offers a wealth of behind-the-scenes info). Mining the camp-factor, the play version of The Bad Seed has become a favorite of 99-seat theater productions, often with an adult male cast as Rhoda. People seem to have a deep affection for The Bad Seed, either due to childhood exposure to the then-frightening film, or a later-in-life cult appreciation for the way the laughs come at the expense of the film’s sincere over-earnestness and '50s mind-set, not the performances.
In the Censorship Code sanctioned denouement, Rhoda goes back to the pier to retrieve the coveted Penmanship Medal and gets more than she bargained for. In the play Rhoda survives while her mother commits suicide.

Some time ago I had the chance to see a stage production of The Bad Seed and was surprised to discover that one of the big shocker set pieces of the play was a nocturnal walk through the house by a restless Christine after the death of Leroy. It’s a stormy night full of thunder and lightning, and as Christine moves to close an open window, a flash of lightning reveals the charred corpse of Leroy lunging out at her. It must have a been a big "gotcha" moment back in its day, but on the night I attended, the actress playing Christine had so much trouble lifting the window blind, she was ultimately obliged to politely hold the stubborn curtain aside to facilitate her own persecution. Matters weren't helped by Leroy missing his key light, leaving him thoroughly in the shadows, resulting in Christine appearing to be engaged in hand-to-hand combat with her living room curtains. 
More shocking than anything you'll see in the film itself is this bit of mind blowing behind-the-scenes cheesecake showing prim Nancy Kelly keeping the crew "entertained" between setups (more likely, giving her gams some air on the hot set). Meanwhile, Joan Croydon (Miss Fern) doesn't seem to be getting into the spirit of things.
Hard-to-argue-with logic
"But it was his fault. If he gave me the medal like I told him to, I wouldn't have hit  him!"
Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. The review should probably have a big "spoilers" tag under the heading, but then again, it's hardly surprising that several of the characters "get it" along the course of the film.

    That said, I had no idea about this movie before you posted your review (the rest of which I shall get back to reading after I see the movie). So I'm very grateful that you've posted about "The Bad Seed". I'm definitely going to look for it the next time I'm at the DVD rental store.

    I'm glad that you made the reference to Don Sigel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", because the first thing that I thought about when I saw the title "The Bad Seed" and its release year (1956) was "Invasion".

    "The banality of evil" is something that I think a lot of people don't get these days, and of course, the "passage of time" does alter how some films are perceived. With those thoughts in mind, I recommend the anti-Communist short film "Red Nightmare", starring Jack Webb. It's one of those "social guidance" movies you mentioned (made with help from the US Department of Defense!) that is deadly serious in tone but is absolutely hilarious with the benefit of hindsight.

    I immediately looked up "The Bad Seed" in the Leonard Maltin film guide, and it's available on DVD; the guide also directed me to a film entitled "Mommy" (1995) starring a grown up version of Patty McCormack playing a "bad seed mother"(there is also a sequel, "Mommy 2: Mommy's Day").

    Again, thank you for reviewing the film--I'll get back to you if/when I locate and watch it on my next trip to the DVD store. I'll also look out for "Mommy"; I may need to order that on special import.

    1. Aw Mark, very sorry that your exposure to The Bad Seed might be spoiled by what is divulged in this post, and indeed, I did consider tagging it with a “spoilers” heading (the poster for the film pleads “Talk you want about the man and the woman, but please don’t tell about the girl!”) as I did with my post on The Mephisto Waltz; but that set a precedent I won’t be repeating. As I don’t consider myself to be either a reviewer or a critic, my posts are just personal essays about certain films that mean something to me. Depending on what observations I want to make, the full content of a movie has to be open for me to examine. On review, I see all of my posts contain major spoilers, but the practice is especially dicey with thrillers.
      I’m certain The Bad Seed will become one of your favorites, and if you’ll take a little advice from a guy whose seen it, don’t waste your money exporting Mommy…it’s super low-rent and an embarrassment that McCormack even participated in it. Thanks Mark

    2. Well, I certainly see you as a reviewer/critic! Please don't sell yourself short, Ken! Newspapers and magazines would be extremely fortunate to have you write for them.

    3. Wow! Thanks, Mark. I'm aware that you've actually been motivated to seek out and view many films you might not have otherwise known about on the strength of my posts, so I will give the spoilers issue a consideration... especially when it comes to thrillers. I love the discovery aspect of films. Do you know how rare you in not being familiar with "The Bad Seed" in the first place? I envy that you get to experience the film with "somewhat" fresh eyes. As always, glad that you enjoy the site!

  2. You cover far too many of my favorite films here. I'll definitely be back often. Great work!

    1. Thanks very much, Thombeau! If you like my blog even a little, it's a small way of paying you back for all the hours of gut-busting laughs and "What were they thinking?" shocks I've enjoyed at your blog "The Redundant Variety Hour"
      A site that makes me both proud and ashamed to be a dancer!

  3. Really enjoyed your terrific post on one of my favorite camp movies. I particularly liked your point about Rhoda as both a precursor of Madonna (and what does THAT tell us about Madonna?) and as a guerrilla rebel girl - There's something remarkably subversive about our little darling in her forthright non-niceness and in her determined sense of what she's entitled to; you almost find yourself envying her confidence. No doubt, she has the makings of a CEO. I recall when I first saw the film that its 'shock' ending induced belly laughs in me - I was not prepared for it, and yet it was so entirely over the top that I nearly fell off the couch in hysterics. The film, like you say, is so theatrical and over-rehearsed that it can only be approached as prime camp. I will say, though, that the novel is actually quite good and quite chilling (and does NOT make you laugh). If you haven't read it, I do recommend it.

    1. Thanks for sharing your personal response to the film's "shock ending"...I swear, everyone has a different story based on how old they were when they first saw the film. Your reaction (hysterics) reflects most of what I hear, accounting for the film ranking so high on everyone's "must see" camp lists. I think I will take you up on getting a copy of the novel...Hello, Amazon! Thanks for writing and I am looking forward to exploring your film blog, Grand Old Movies. I see you discuss many films i'm unfamiliar with... perhaps a new favorite is lurking there somewhere.

  4. I adore those backyard scenes with Rhoda and Leroy. I've got the DVD, so I can revisit them whenever it's been awhile. "You can Waaassh and you can Waaassh, but there's always some [incriminating blood spatters] left." I'd love to have heard Henry Jones talk about playing Leroy. Both he and Patty McCormack are soooo terrific in their roles, it really is a Clash of Sociopathic Titans when they come up against one another.

    I think, over the years, I've become more appreciative of just how exceptionally talented McCormack was. She does things that simply amaze me, coming from an actor that young. Like when her [Rhoda's] mother's reminding her of the old lady who once lived above them and of her fateful relationship with Rhoda...and meantime, Rhoda just sits there with her back turned like it's something she's heard a million times before, coming out with a perfectly bored "Yes, Mother [sigh]."

    An excellent review, Sir, by the way. I've already forgotten how I stumbled on this blog, but I'm very glad I did.

  5. Thanks, Rennieboy.
    I have to agree with you about those scenes with Leroy and Rhoda. Their characters are so evenly matched in depravity that you always wish the scenes would go on longer. McCormack and Jones play off of each other so well;
    each giving as good as they get in a verbal volley and battle of wits. Patty McCormack's performance is indeed one of those that is so remarkable for one so young. Especially when you read about how Peter Bogdanovich had to stitch and paste Tatum O'Neal's performance together in "Paper Moon", you really get a sense of how talented McCormack is. Thanks so much for the comment and compliment!

  6. Sorry, but I forgot (a bad habit) to mention just possibly my favourite line of Rhoda's in the whole movie. It's when Leroy unwittingly signs his own death warrant by telling Rhoda he's got the murderous shoes. He then desperately tries to pass it off as just kidding, but there's no fooling Rhoda.

    I think one of the keys to effective film acting is not only what you say, but how you say it...the overall impression you give. At one point in Rhoda's increasingly threatening confrontation with Leroy, McCormack has the line "They're mine [meaning the shoes]. Give them back to me."

    Your description of Rhoda as "a schoolyard bully dreamt up by Murder, Inc" is wonderfully apt. That line is delivered perfectly - and I mean "perfectly." The truly menacing but still controlled emphasis McCormack gives to "mine" and "back" cooks Leroy's goose right there. What Rhoda looks like and who she really is - masterful creativity!

  7. Ha!
    Well, I think you nailed it. A prefect description of just what would make a grown man recoil in fear from an advancing little girl. The big flaw in the TV remake was that they gave the little girl the words, but you could totally tell she had absolutely no idea what she was saying or why. You're spot-on in noting McCormack's modulated emphasis that speaks volumes and REALLY gets under the skin. Leroy doesn't have a chance.

  8. I've never seen the TV remake, Ken, but yeah, it's those relatively little things (you might think) like tone of voice, inflection, facial expression; they're so much a part of McCormack's power - and Rhoda's credibility.

  9. Finally, I got around to taking a look at this movie. They just don't make them like this anymore. As a rather pleasant surprise, the film featured one of my favourites things--spoken credits!

    It seems like these days, horror films fall into one of three categories: (a) zombies rising from the grave, (b) demented slasher, or (c) hideously inventive forms of torture--some movies promise two or all three of the above in various combinations and measures. Usually they involve a bunch of callow youths getting lost somewhere in a forest. Haven't we been there (many) times before?

    "The Bad Seed" leaves so much unseen and therefore leaves it down to viewer imagination. You don't get that very often from movies these days.

    Who did the drawing of the cast of characters? It's also worth looking at the full-colour publicity pictures of Patty McCormack mugging like crazy for the camera at Internet Movie Database.

    Great to hear the hometown mentioned in this one!

    1. Yay! Welcome to the land of "The Bad Seed." perhaps now you'll get a chance to see a stage production of it sometime and see how it differs. I've seen two different productions and nothing sins it faster than a Rhoda who's not up to the job. It a tough role to pull off.

      As per your comments about movies today, it seems people are somehow so benumbed in their experiences that they need movies to throw jolts at them every two seconds in order to elicit any kind of response from them. Ergo, films today are so hyperactive and needlessly explicit when a little bit of subtlety would go a long way to really tapping into the difference between suspense and shock.

      The late, great Broadway caricaturist, Al Hirshfeld did the drawing. Did you see the movie on a big screen or on DVD? The commentary by Patty McCormack is priceless. She get's the movie's camp appeal, but she also knows it's a well-made suspenser. Now...remind me who mentions your hometown and when? Was it Rhoda's windbag grandfather?

    2. I watched the movie on DVD and the copy looked like it came from Japan--it seemed to have what looked like kanji all over the box. I'm not certain if there was a commentary; probably not on the copy that I saw.

      Yes, Melbourne is mentioned by the grandfather as the place where Bessie Denker wound up after moving to Australia. It's always good to hear Melbourne mentioned in foreign movies and know that we're not all that obscure to the rest of the world (it's not a small place, but it's also not what you'd call a "world city").

      Just remember, "On The Beach" was filmed here! But what really makes me laugh is that some scenes were filmed in a place called Geelong!

  10. actually, i would have preferred the original ending, the betty-crocker-bites-it version in which mom fails to survive, and the crinolined devilress prevails. people WILL insist that virtue triumph in these things, even insisting on REMAKES so that it can be forced to.

    1. Hi Gus
      Thanks for stopping by! I think it would have been fun to see the film with the original ending. It certainly would have been a shocker back in 1956, but I honestly think they could have gotten away with it. To me, killing a child (even one as rotten as Rhoda)was more traumatizing than what the original plot contrived.
      Now, the murderer getting away with it is a common twist (The Omen).

  11. Terrific recap of a very conflicting picture. Is it a quality recapturing of what was surely a riveting stage presentation or a stinky piece of overripe cheese? As you said as time moves on it's really both and entertaining either way it's approached.

    Having read the book, seen the remake (pallid but Blair Brown is worth watching in most anything) and watched this several times I have to say I find the movie ending satisfying but the original ending more chilling and true.

    Having watched it several times as I said I was struck by the performance style of the various players. Viewing now you can see some players understood the difference in mediums between the stage and screen and some never would.

    Nancy Kelly, who should have had that understanding since she got the big push from Fox in the 40's although unsuccessfully, gives a operatic full blown playing to the rafters performance that must have been gripping on stage but is far to big for the room on screen. Eileen Heckart hits the middle ground somewhat, some of her scenes are pitched a bit to big but she is terrifically affecting at others. When she hugs Christine and tells her she knows that Christine knows something it's heartrending. It's two of the main supporting players who knew how to bring down the work to the proper level, Henry Jones is venal and creepy as Leroy but is always contained in the scene: he's fighting with or tormenting Rhoda not playing to the crowd. The other is Evelyn Varden, so great as Icey Spoon in Night of the Hunter, who modulates her part of Monica Breedlove to a realistic level. Monica is a bit of a chattering good-hearted buttinsky so any overly big gestures are more organic to her part than others but the actress still keeps them within range of the screen. She probably would have had a quite successful supporting career in film and TV had she not died suddenly a few years later.

  12. That leaves Patty McCormack who gives a great chilling performance surely formed over months of continuous reenactments on stage. Within itself it's masterful but limiting work and I think is a fine example of the difference between a talented child performer who doesn't make the transition to adult star and one who does.

    To go off point of the movie for a minute, McCormack and another equally talented although quite different child star Margaret O'Brien shone brightly if briefly but I think what stood in the way of their making the difficult leap to adult stardom is that what was special about them disappeared as they matured. Watch them in later work and there's no connection to that childhood figure. When you see Margaret O'Brien in Heller in Pink Tights there is no resemblance to the winsome overly weepy child she was. I remember being shocked when I saw in the credits list of Frost/Nixon that Patty had played Pat Nixon, she's unrecognizable. True that is several years on but even in the early 80's when she was in The Ropers she looked like someone else. She's had a steady respectable career but hardly a remarkable one.

    On the other hand when you watch any of the big five, Natalie Wood, Judy Garland, Jodie Foster, Deanna Durbin and Elizabeth Taylor, that made the successful move across that tenuous road in their childhood roles or their adult ones they are readily identifiable and there is a clear remnant of their younger selves in the woman they had become. Perhaps that's the key-a sort of in born magnetism, rare and present from birth, that defines true star quality. Maybe it's not fair to compare her to Judy and especially Deanna, choosing as she did to withdraw into anonymity, who had their great musical gifts to carry them over although other talented childhood singers faded in maturity but the other three ladies had and still have an innate charisma that jumps off the screen at any point in their careers. Patty does not, even in her big follow up vehicle Kathy O' where the studio tried to sweeten her she makes minimal impact.

    Okay off my soapbox and back to the film. I've read that both Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell were considered for Christine before Warner's decided to go with the stage cast. Both are intriguing possibilities, two such different actresses but I can see both in the part although what divergent interpretations they would have given. I could see Bette's being closer to Nancy Kelly's but more modulated while Rosalind's would have been a more suppressed anxiety along the lines that she played in The Velvet Touch. Have you seen that? It's an awesome little suspenser with a brilliant ending that besides Roz has Claire Trevor, Leon Ames and Sydney Greenstreet in the cast.

    One last thing, the closing credits when they introduce the cast are such an odd thing. I completely love them but they also break the entire mood of the picture and are now one of the things that firmly move it into the cheese factory.

    1. Hi Joel!
      Thanks again for stopping by and for such an info-filled comment! I especially like the observations you make about child stars and what qualities are retained or lost as they transition into adult roles.
      i had no idea of either Rosalind Russell or Bette Davis being considered for this film, although Russell seems the best fit (Bette looks EXACTLY like someone who would pass a homicidal gene down to her kid)..
      I have seen "The Velvet Touch" and was delightfully surprised by what a good film it was given its relative obscurity.
      As always, I get a big kick out of reading what you think about these films. Thanks for taking the time!

  13. As not only a dear friend, but also co-star of my TV pilot HAVE YOU MET MISS JONES? It was an absolute honor for my creative partner and I to have Patty McCormack accept the role of Connie -- a part that was written for Patty herself! The TV pilot is currently on Youtube for people to watch and the producer and star James Di Giacomo is presently in talks with a couple major Hollywood studios -- hoping to get this witty dramedy on a major cable network.

    If you loved Patty as "Rhoda," then you will most definitely love her as Angelina's mother, Connie. Patty plays a fouled-mouthed married-to-the-mob type character who carries a gun a in her purse!

    See Patty McCormack in this original comedy series for free on and follow the show on Facebook and Twitter to get up to date info about their progress @MissJonesShow

  14. Ken, I swear you must be a long lost brother! You spotlight so many of the films my sisters and I discovered on the Late Show. (Thsnk goodness my parents were movie buffs!). The Bad Seed was a particular favorite for us.

    As usual your evaluation of the film is astute. There is no hiding the stsgebound feel, and mannered stylistic choices made by the cast at different points, or thosevthat were allowrd (encouraged?) By the director. (Would have been interesting to see how a top flight director could have shaped the film.)

    The fact remains that this film works on a visceral level more than masny other movies my sisters and I saw as children. In short we were scared to death! Both Rhoda and Leroy haunted us, even as we'd replay the "give me those shoes" scene over and over in our backyard. Rhoda's complete amorality was somehow understood by us as children, and I think it instinctively awakened in us a sense that once we were old enough to venture out into the world we'd have to be afraid of the monsters in our midst, not the ones from outer space.

    I may be in the minority here, but I actually found Nancy Kelly very compelling. I realize that she does come cloes to going over the top, but I think the truth of her portrayal of Christine's anguish keeps her from crossing over into camp. Partly, I think I'd be a lot more over the top if I was in a similar situation in real life. (But then again I slide into sheervterror at the sight of a spider!). Also, I think that the husky undertone to her voice is effective especially late on the movie as it sounds as if she has shed many tears over her situation. She also makes an interesting choice of a gesture repeated throughout the movie. In several instances she pounds her hand down sideways, not with a flat palm as one would expect, or in away that would convey a position of authority. Instead, the gesture makes her hand appear limp, silently falling on her lap in a way that mirrors the helplessness Christine must feel.

    Finally, I think no one can underestimate the effective, chilling use of the piano piece that Rhoda plays over and over again, each time underscoring the mounting tension. It is played aetlessly with so semblance of feeling -- no wonder it becomes Rhoda's theme song. To this day, my sisters and can hum that tune to each other as a clue to calm down and act human again.

    Thanks as always foryour sophisticated take on movies I love, and those you've tantalized me into wanting to see!

    1. Hi Roberta
      Ha! Even after all this time I still find myself somewhat surprised when someone expresses a taste in movies similar to my own.

      Reading your comments about the film reminds me that there was once a time I too felt the same about Nancy Kelly's performance. I've seen the film so many times I think I fail to appreciate some of those aspects of her performance that really work. Your description of what you like about her is nicely detailed and insightful.

      I also like what you say about understanding, as a child, Rhoda's amorality. The level of her self-interest is right in line with what is common among children. Rhoda has just taken the selfishness of an only-child to homicidal levels.

      I love that you are still able to retain your youthful reaction to this film, and have not allowed it to so completely slide into camp.
      It is great having parents who are film buffs (in my case, a film buff older sister) because they expose us to so many movies we might not have ever taken it upon ourselves to seek out.
      Fun to know too that you and your sister did what I'm now sure a great many young film fans do, which is act out scenes and share inside joke quotes and references.
      Glad you enjoyed the post and very happy to have your family memories of the movie (and kindertrauma) as part of our comments section!

  15. Ken!
    There's a soapy kinda male "Bad Seed" version...:
    If you can take a look at Abner Biberman's "Flood Tide" (1958) with British Michel Ray as the 'Little Darling', German Cornell Borchers as the loving mother and George Nader as the guy who tries to get things right...

  16. Richard...what an impressive gift you have for finding intriguing obscurities! And such treasures, too. I looked at clips from this and it appears to be right up my alley. I mean, what a bizarre plot! Thank you, again!

  17. Hey Ken,

    (I'm in the midst of a re-read of many of your past posts this weekend.) :)

    When I was 13, I started reading plays. I had seen "Sleuth" on TV and loved it so much that I wanted to read the original script and that was the catalyst for my life long enthusiasm for play reading. "Bad Seed" was in the anthology where I found "Sleuth" and I read that as well. It creeped me out - the idea of a child psychopath in the banal and "safe" environment of a friendly neighborhood like the one I was living in and not an urban wasteland or far-flung exotic locale was a shocking concept to me at the time. And, as you mentioned above, the play ended with the kid getting away with it!
    One can see why a Hollywood version would want a much tamer ending - but having Rhoda pretty much "blow up real good" by lightning is hilarious overkill. I forgot when I first got around to seeing this movie version (it was long after I had read the play), but I know I was sitting there with mouth agape like the theater-goers in "The Producers."
    I've always wondered whether the curtain call bit where Kelly spanks McCormick was also done during the actual Broadway curtain call.

    Mark R.Y.

    1. Hi Mark
      That's very interesting how you developed an interest in reading plays. Movies inspired me to read plays as a youngster as well. The theater section of the local library always had several of those "The Best Plays of..." collections, and it was fascinating to read and let my imagination create all these plays I wasn't likely to ever see.
      I didn't read the play version of THE BAD SEED until I was an adult, but I was fascinated by the small changes and minor opening up the film did.
      I laughed imagining what it must have been like for you to see the film version for the first time. It was so startling to me as a child, I think I was disappointed that the theater version didn't end that way.
      And that's an interesting question you pose about the stage production...whether that whole curtain call spanking might have been lifted from the theatrical run. It never occured to me!
      Certainly audiences in those days would have welcomed a bit of release, for as you mentioned, the idea of a child psychopath was unprecedented. Thanks for this comment and for re-visiting a past post or two. I appreciate it!

    2. Yes, "The Best Plays of 1976-1977," "1981-1982," "1964-1965" and so on. I devoured those like crazy from the age 13 to...uh, still to this day. What a detailed exploration of each New York theater season those books are!

  18. Watched the movie last night for the first time in many years. It has, I think, some of the most awkward exposition in the history of drama. All of the scenes with Evelyn Venable ("It's the effusive landlady from upstairs!" and Christine's father are just painful to listen to. I love the fact that the father is prepared to let his daughter die without revealing that she's the child of a notorious serial killer ( "It won't change anything."). Venable played pretty much the same part in The Night of the Hunter and she was brilliant. In this movie I wanted her to get shoved off the roof in the first scene.
    I also wish Eileen Heckart had been allowed to play the second scene sober. To have Rhoda's main accuser putting the pieces together would have made the murder/suicide all the more inevitable and given Heckart something more to play than a repeat of the exact same drunk scene.
    Finally, the lightning bolt at the end is hilarious, but they could have kept the original ending and still have Rhoda get her comeuppance by having Christine leave a suicide note with the medal for her husband. He has a few anguished moments, picks up the phone to call the police when Rhoda walks into the room. He pauses for a moment, tells Christine he wants her to play the piano for him, and while she's banging out Claire de la Lune one more time, he starts talking to the police chief...

    1. Hello Kip
      It's always a kick reading about what particular elements of a dated film stand out for someone who hasn't seen the movie for some time. Your noting of the clumsy, exposition-filled dialogue aptly tops the list, as is the curious notion of adoptions always being treated as a big, dark secret a parent is willing to take to their grave if they can (The Ann Blyth movie "Our Very Own" comes to mind).
      And I wholly agree about Eileen Heckart's "encore" drunk scene. It really does feel like the same scene done twice.
      The struck by lightning ending is a hoot, but it plays better in my mind each time I’m confronted with anything other than the play’s original ending.
      I think your idea is dramatically intriguing, dramatically well-structured (the twist of her piano playing covering her OWN undoing is a nice touch) and suspenseful. But if this were a story meeting, the one stalling point would be the question of if a doting father (blind to Rhodas faults) would ever call the cops on his daughter (maybe a psych hospital), and how it would play after the scene in which Rhoda begs her mother "Don't let them hurt me" concerning her fear of being arrested or taken away.
      I think it was smart for the filmmakers to consider (especially back in the 50s) that no parent they hope to depict as sympathetic could participate in the harming of their own child…even a homicidal child

      So, for me anyway, allowing "Divine Intervention" serve the moral needs of the Production Code get the parents off the hook and saves viewers from having to grapple with the moral messiness of imagining what would be the humane way of dealing with a child who poses a threat, but (given the film's it's-all-in-the-genes plot device) is not really responsible for her actions.
      I very much enjoyed reading your observations and well-considered thoughts on THE BAD SEED.Thank you for reading this post and for taking the time to contribute. Cheers!