The Bad Seed
First screened and reviewed in May 1999 / I'm always too giddy after to record rewatchings
Director: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Evelyn Varden, Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, William Hopper, Paul Fix, Gage Clarke, Jesse White, Joan Croyden, Frank Cady. Screenplay: John Lee Mahin (based on the play by Maxwell Anderson and the novel by William March).

Twitter Capsule: What can you say about a movie this cray cray? Executed with some panache. Marred yet made sublime by its garishness.

VOR:   Camp would crumble without it. Delectable counter-programming for a decade that preached the gospels of motherhood and childhood innocence with such zeal.

Photo © 1956 Warner Bros. Pictures
Mervyn LeRoy's The Bad Seed belongs to that small, special category of pictures like Boxing Helena, Pink Flamingos, or Suddenly, Last Summer that all but defy criticism. It is less a movie about dementia than a movie which itself seems demented, though it is anyone's guess whether or not this effect is intended. What we have here is trash of an almost unparalleled dimension, trash that is either grossly inept or gloriously inspired, but in either case it is hard to deny that the entertainment value of The Bad Seed breaks every known scale. Why argue with something this much fun?

The plot of The Bad Seed centers around an eight-year-old girl named Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) whom everyone seems to agree is the most angelic little imp who ever tap-danced in a pinafore. Monica (Evelyn Varden), the tart-tongued landlady of the Penmarks' apartment building, is always popping in to give Rhoda specially-made pieces of jewelry or to take her upstairs for private dinners. Her teacher compliments her absolutely perfect curtsies. Rhoda and her father repeatedly ask one another, "What would you give me for a basketful of kisses," to which the other party excitedly blurts back, "A basketful of hugs!" It's that kind of family.

Only two people in Rhoda's privileged, all-white, picket-fenced world question her perfect purity. One of these is her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly), who is actually the movie's main character. Christine loves her daughter but, as she tells the schoolmistress, she is concerned about "a slightly mature quality" in Rhoda's demeanor that might alienate her from her classmates, and which seems to unsettle Christine herself more than a little. Though Christine is somewhat elliptical in describing this "mature quality" to Miss Fern, the audience does not need too much prompting to get where Mom is coming from. Perhaps she means the cute/scary way in which Rhoda asserts time after time, "I have the most beautiful mother in the world," or even the creepy, insinuating way she asks to go outside and play beneath the arbor of trees helpfully planted right in the front yard: "I never like to be out of your sight, Mother, not for too long!" Or how about that diabolical little tarantella Rhoda keeps banging out on the living room piano, or the way her pigtails are coiled so tightly as to look like little bullwhips?

Yep, there's definitely something odd about Rhoda. The other person who thinks so is LeRoy (Henry Jones), the gardener and maintenance man who lives in the basement of Monica and the Penmarks' building. LeRoy is on to Rhoda from the very beginning, and he doesn't mind telling her so. He knows that anyone who spends much time around Rhoda is in for it. Now, you may be tempted to discount the truth of LeRoy's doom philosophies because—well, because LeRoy himself is clearly stark, raving mad. In addition, he has the most unfortunate balding pattern known to Man, not helped at all by the dusty, straggly bangs that hang in front of his face or wrap around his ears. So gross, and a more than sufficient cue that LeRoy is a bit touched in the head. Nonetheless, Henry Jones practically gives himself an aneurysm to guarantee that everyone watching The Bad Seed knows what a lunatic he is. No cackle goes unvoiced, no stutter unstuttered, no ghoulishly lascivious leer withheld. Despite the baroque insanity of this character and this performance, however, you are in way over your head if you don't know LeRoy is 100% right-on in his sizing up of Rhoda Penmark. If you don't realize or remember that the Crazy Gardener is always the only one who knows what's happening in these kinds of plots, then The Bad Seed is out of your league, my friend. For the rest of you, read on!

So, we know Rhoda is well on her way to full Rebecca de Mornay-hood, and only Mom can be counted on to figure this out. Unfortunately, Mom has her own problems. Her husband leaves for a temporary position in Washington, D.C., in the opening sequence, so she's already feeling lonesome and overchallenged. (Remember, this movie was made in 1956.) Also, she has at no point in her 30 or 40 years of life been able to shake the feeling that she was adopted by her famous father—and this is not just a glancing thought or an insomniac's feverish fancy. Christine spends hours worrying about this. She spends days. Not a good sign, nor does she acquit herself well in a hilarious scene halfway through the movie in which Monica, a self-ordained expert in psychotherapy, has decided to expose Christine's inner workings by dragooning her into a game of free-association. Monica's houseguest, an aficionado of lurid murder cases, is to recount one of the most ghastly, while Monica will interrupt Christine at intervals and command her to admit what she is thinking about. When first asked, Christine is thinking about her father, because someone in Reginald's story kills their father, or wants to kill their father, or merely has a father. A minute later, when Monica next puts Christine on the spot, she confesses, "I guess I'm not associating anything, because I'm still thinking about my father!" When the man himself arrives for a scheduled dinner date with his daughter, she flings open the door and gasps, "You're here, you're actually here!! I'm so glad!" We've got another live one, folks.

I cannot tell exactly how much or how little to reveal to you of The Bad Seed's narrative. Not only do I not need to say much else beyond what I have introduced (and beyond what is evident from the title), but a great deal of the joy of watching this movie is the unexpectedness not of its plot—which could hardly be more predictable—but of the manner and tone in which these incidents are delivered. After about the midpoint, just about every incident and every plot-point is overwrought to the point of perversity. Nancy Kelly beats all comers at this game. The Bad Seed was her 33rd motion picture, and her first in a decade at the time it was made. Though I have not seen Kelly's other efforts, nothing could be more fitting than to discover among her credits films entitled The Untamed Lady, Follow That Woman, The Woman Who Came Back, and Women in Bondage, a.k.a. Hitler's Women. The valiant climb into graduated hysteria seems to be Kelly's stock in trade, so LeRoy and screenwriter John Lee Mahin allow her to whip up a storm in each scene. She begins in her uniquely raspy, singsong voice, extending all vowels until the breaking point, and then dramatically ups the register until she is screaming and clutching the air, Norma Desmond-style. Charmingly, she has inevitably achieved domestic placidity once more by the beginning of each new scene, which only means we're in for another show.

Two other performances are as striking as those of Jones and Kelly. One is a near-cameo by Eileen Heckart, an esteemed actress who appears here as the mother of a boy whom Rhoda has killed because he beat her in a penmanship contest at school. (I am not kidding.) Her job is to show up in the Penmarks' apartment drunk as can be, which Eileen Heckart could probably do in her sleep; much more demanding on her talents is to blowze around convincingly but not so convincingly that the movie's rapturously grotesque tone is broken. The other notable is the bad seed herself, whom McCormack brings to zombotic life with a perfect sense of camp menace. One will never know if the Oscar nominations afforded to Kelly, Heckart, and McCormack were in earnest praise of their technique, in consolation for their outrageous material, or in gleeful reward of the shocking compatibility of all three overdrawn performances. A major thrill of The Bad Seed is just this uncertainty—are we watching a terrible attempt at a good movie or a great realization of a terrible one?

The high mark I am giving here to The Bad Seed is less an endorsement of its dramatic success than an acknowledgment that I have rarely been so brightly entertained by any comedy, intentional or otherwise. I can hardly single out my favorite line. Strong contenders include the moment where the June Cleaver-ish Christine quaintly explains that mass murderers are produced by "growing up in slums with other criminals," or an entire sequence in which Rhoda finally admits to killing the Handwriting Hero, a hyper-frenetic episode during which she wails like a banshee and pounds the furniture three different times. Even when you think the pleasures of The Bad Seed have concluded, LeRoy adds a roll-call of his cast that unpredictably turns out to be as oddball and perverse as the film it follows.

I celebrate The Bad Seed not as art, nor even as commerce, but as a pop-cultural artifact, a sort of glimmering kitsch-object that I already can't imagine my life without. As my responses to Top Gun and Reptilicus have earlier suggested, I am occasionally elated by movies that have nothing to recommend them but the elation produced by their own awfulness. If you've ever wanted to see a production of Annie starring Rosemary's Baby, or wondered how Pippi Longstocking would do playing Hannibal Lecter, you really shouldn't pass this up. Grade: B+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Nancy Kelly
Best Supporting Actress: Eileen Heckart
Best Supporting Actress: Patty McCormack
Best Cinematography (Black & White): Harold Rosson

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Supporting Actress: Eileen Heckart
Best Supporting Actress: Patty McCormack

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