Ah…the baby blonde. That symbol of purity, beauty and goodness. In 1950's America who wouldn't want to have a lovely, flaxen haired child to adore and spoil? Of course, everyone, but by 1956, two important films emerged, showing the underbelly of these perfect specimens. The more esteemed, and notorious (it was banned by the Legion of Decency after all) was Elia Kazan's Baby Doll, in which the gorgeous child bride Carroll Baker destroys Karl Malden's masculinity whilst sleeping in a crib and sucking her thumb. Never mind she's 19 going on 20. While other relevant issues pervade Kazan's masterful take on Tennessee Williams, the lingering image is of Ms. Baker in that crib…an iconic vision of arrested sexuality.
But just as viewers took a gander at Baby Doll, they had another blonde to contend with—a much younger, smarter and deadlier one—The Bad Seed. Pretty 10 year-old Patty McCormack playing an 8 year-old in pig tails and pinafore skirts as Rhoda Penmark, a curtsying, cutie-pie brat who'll manipulate, terrorize and KILL anyone who gets in her way. Both actresses' were deservedly Oscar nominated for their performances but its Mervyn LeRoy's picture, though much loved by cultists, which remains highly underrated. Part of the problem may lie in the transfer of play to film. LeRoy rightfully transported nearly all of the actors from the successful stage play (most likely to the annoyance of Warner Brothers who probably desired a bigger star for Rhoda's mother) but had to change the ending. In the play, Rhoda goes on playing her continual practice piece, "Claire de Lune" on the piano after her killings. Perfect. In the film, she is socked with a lightning bolt. Also perfect. But not to endorse the harm of children, even the most evil, Warner Brothers had LeRoy tack on cast members spanking little McCormack— assuring the audience this was all a bunch of fun. You know, burning, drowning, murdering kids with tap shoes--fun!
But, in an early bit of camp—The Bad Seed is fun. Gleefully, unapologetically and relevantly fun. In its own way, the end changes just make the picture even more inadvertently subversive. How we love to hate little Rhoda. And for some of us (myself included), how we love to love her…she's just too damn full of vicious personality. I even go so far as to champion her actions and wish she would invoke more harm before her inevitable demise.
But enough of my sick adoration (clearly, I-HEART-Rhoda as my member profile shows) and to the movie itself. Living with her mother Christine (an understandably neurotic Nancy Kelly) and mostly absent father (William Hopper--Hedda Hopper's son) her life is one of privilege and attention. When kissing her father goodbye he asks "What would you give me for a basket of kisses?" Rhoda coos back: "A basket of hugs!" Landlady and supposed expert in psychology, Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) dotes on Rhoda, applauding her out-moded manners and showering her with presents—one being rhinestone movie star glasses Rhoda, of course, loves. As she prattles on about Freud and abnormal psychology, this rather ridiculous woman cannot see the freakish behavior in front of her.
But Leroy (a scene stealing Henry Jones), the disturbed, somewhat perverse handyman disrespected by the household can see right through Rhoda (you even get a sense he's got a thing for her), leading to some of the film's greatest moments. Especially after the fateful class outing leaving one child dead; not coincidentally, the class-mate who won the penmanship medal over the all perfecting Rhoda ("Everyone knew I wrote the best hand!" she hollers in sour grapes dramatics). The little boy is drowned and Rhoda returns home as if nothing happened. She goes roller skating. Meanwhile, her mother becomes increasingly rattled.
Though some have a tough time with The Bad Seed's talkier sequences (especially when Rhoda's not around), they remain intriguing looks into ideas that would later be considered serious and or scientific. It also points out how psychology can't explain everything (hence, a bad seed) as the one woman who brags of her knowledge, can't sense anything wrong with a child who's, at the very least, self obsessed to the point of vapid narcissism. Never mind she's a murderer.
And, the golden moments come, again, between Leroy and Rhoda who argue like two prison inmates waiting for lockdown. Though Rhoda finds him revolting, he's the only one who can scare her with his taunts of "stick blood hounds" or the idea that she can go to the electric chair for what he knows is a murder. "They don't send little girls to the electric chair!" Rhoda protests. "Oh they don't?" He answers. "The got a blue one for little boys and a pink one for little gals!"
Though films like The Omen or The Good Son have tried, nothing compares to The Bad Seed—and no child actor has out-seeded McCormack. Calm and cool, she can also rip into fits of rage that are both terrifying and hilarious. Perfectly balancing a disarmingly adult demeanor with the tantrums of a little girl, her performance is even more impressive in that it's the blueprint. Where did McCormack learn this wonderful balance of over-theatrical camp with an icy, realistic serenity? And before John Waters became obsessed with her?
Video: The Bad Seed is presented in Full Scren Standard (1.33:1). The transfer is crisp, highlighting the sometimes interesting black and white cinematography (as McCormack points out in the commentary, notice all the crosses in the celluloid). Lovely to look at--you really appreciate the staging and composition of the picture in this superior transfer.
Sound: The film's audio comes in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. The sound is excellent. This is a talky movie and tone is important--from Rhoda's voice rising over her stolen shoes to the theatrical asides Leroy imparts to himself. The music is effectively conveyed and you will not get Rhoda's piano tinkling out of your head.
The Bad Seed has nice extras, though not enough to satisfy the bigger fans. You do learn a lot about McCormack's experience through the commentary track with McCormack and Charles Busch (who wrote and starred in the campy Die Mommie Die!--he claims The Bad Seed one of his favorite movies). He probes Patty on all aspects of the film--who she got along with, how did she channel this evil little "bitch" and the transfer from play to film. It's a fun track that isn't afraid of underscoring the camp, even if the film is good enough to be given a straight track. But Patty's game. Also on board is the film's trailer and "A Conversation with Patty McCormack," a fifteen minute conversation with the star that reveals more about her work. This is a remarkably well adjusted woman for such a performance.
A classic and first of it's kind, the then shocking Bad Seed holds up, albeit with a tad more camp, but with just as much psychotic gusto. Revel in McCormack's Rhoda, a character even the obnoxiously talented Dakota Fanning couldn't play. As Leroy spits out: "I thought I saw some mean little gals in my time, but you're the meanest!" Yes indeed, and also the greatest. If the crown could exist, Rhoda is our Queen.
Read More Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun