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The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed
Warner DVD
1956 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 129 min. / Street Date August 10, 2004 / 19.97
Starring Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden, William Hopper, Paul Fix, Jesse White
Cinematography Harold Rosson
Art Direction John Beckman
Film Editor Warren Low
Original Music Alex North
Written by John Lee Mahin from a play by Maxwell Anderson and a book by William March
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Bad Seed is a prime example why stage plays need to be adapted for the screen. Slightly opened up from the confines of one apartment, it still retains its complete Broadway presentation including 'recognition pauses' during the entrances of major players.

Running amuck with the false concept that Evil is a genetic trait, this is a morbid soap opera with a couple of standout performances offsetting a lot of overboiled overacting. Worse, what bite the story did have, has been pared away by Hollywood censors incapable of allowing the play to roll to its grimly ironic ending. What's left is Hollywood Kitch.


Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) has the adults in her life completely fooled, but when her uncontrolled hellishness leads to murder, her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) becomes tragically aware. Learning that she is the daughter of a conscienceless killer, Christine realizes that Rhoda is a 'bad seed,' a genetically malignant person. But who would believe her - Rhoda is the perfect angel in the eyes of everyone she meets.

Stage acting has intensity and power designed to have an impact 40 seating rows away, and while watching The Bad Seed it's a good idea to imagine yourself at the back of a large amphitheater. In fact, I'll bet the some of the performances here will work great if you face your television out your front window and watch from across the street.

That's not quite fair, as all of the acting in The Bad Seed is very professional. But the show is so heavily theatrical, it comes off almost as self parody. The presence of Charles Busch on the commentary track suggests Warners' willingness to position the film as sort of a reverse Mommie Dearest for devotees of screechingly overwrought female drama. That's not a bad description of the film's impact. Little Rhoda Penmark is like a mutant Veda Pierce, torturing her mother Mildred with even more blatant crimes. Other moms mend hurt feelings or put ointment on scrapes, but Christine Penmark has to deal with the undeniable fact that sweety-pie "basket of hugs" Rhoda is a brutal murderess.

That's where the films real disconnect occurs. Perhaps back in the 1950s adults really were so unaware of kids (who were supposed to be seen and not heard) that they might accept Rhoda Penmark at face value. Now she seems so exaggerated, and the stage directions given Miss McCormack so grotesque, we wonder why anyone falls for her cutesy act for one minute. Rhoda is militantly false and overbearing in her sweetness, to the point that the adults' benign reaction makes them all look like cretins. I tell you, Mister Rogers would take two steps back and reach for the Mace.

So what we have is a spectacle where the supposedly normal people seem to be crazy, especially Nancy Kelly's overwrought Christine Penmark. She's terrified to find out from her father (Paul Fix) that, yes indeed, she was adopted ... and her mom was a BAD WOMAN! The only way to look at her performance is as controlled hysteria, which Kelly does well.  1 Backing her up is Evelyn Varden, so good as the obnoxious Mrs. Spoon in Night of the Hunter but here saddled with providing the play's major exposition and letting us know how thoroughly fooled she is by Rhoda at all times. She's also the butt of the play's offensive jokes, as she's always calling herself fat. Paul Fix and Gage Clark are writers who come to visit Christine and deliver more dubious 'information' about inherited Evil. Finally, columnist Hedda Hopper's son William (of 20 Million Miles to Earth) gets the mostly thankless role of Rhoda's clueless daddy.

I realize her performance is a director's concept executed by a talented child actor, but Patty McCormack's Rhoda is too exaggerated to be taken seriously at any level. Were people ever really this dense about kids?  3

There are three real reasons to watch The Bad Seed and they aren't the script or the direction. The wonderful actress Eileen Heckart plays the drunken, mournful Hortense Daigle with an intensity that commands attention. It's a showboat role; the fragile Hortense crumbles as we watch, eaten up by her suspicions of innocent little Rhoda (For her part, Rhoda recoils from Hortense like Dracula faced with a crucifix). Henry Jones made a couple of pictures before this but his creepy-crawly janitor LeRoy (I wish he was named after the director!) probably put him on the map. LeRoy seems demented and perverted in a modern, non-gothic way, taking over the reins of screen madness from Dwight Frye. Jones fidgets with his hands and plays verbal games with Rhoda until his malicious imaginings turn out to have more truth than he thinks; he's offscreen for his morbid last scene (no spoilers) but his vocal performance will curdle the blood.

Finally, there's Alex North's music score to calm some of the film's more extreme moments with its soothing lullabye passages. The actual piano piece Rhoda plays is used in annoying variations, but Christine and Rhoda's famous "bedtime scene" is beautifully tracked. It may be the first scene of its kind in an American film (no spoilers, but conceptually it's pretty extreme) and the music makes it seem even more "Hollywood Impossible" than it is.

It's easy to tell from The Bad Seed that the screen adapters had to jump through hoops to make the show palatable.

(a fat paragraphs of fat spoilers follows ...)

Apparently the stage play ends with the blood-curdling revelation that Rhoda, the morning after, will continue to play her piano and wait for more victims to cross her path. Frankly, I can't imagine how that ending would have worked on stage. If the play were successful, I'd think the the audience would be whipped into a hanging frenzy, ready to lynch whatever poor girl was playing Rhoda. (There's a movie idea ...) For the film, there has to be a knee-jerk act of God to give Rhoda her just desserts, and it falls really flat.  2 Adding insult to injury, there's a The Cobweb-like string of theatrical cast bows at the very end, where the actors say adieu in weird semi-surreal vignettes (they're still in character, sort-of). The last is Nancy Kelly, now no longer wrapped in gauze. She proceeds to give Patty McCormack an enthusiastic paddling, another moment that we stare at wondering what was intended. This is a dead-serious movie, and suddenly the filmmakers want to send us out with a good laugh. Speaking of laughs, it's almost like the banquet denoument of Murnau's silent The Last Laugh!

Warner's DVD of The Bad Seed looks fine even though it's mastered at 1:37. The studio is so detail-oriented when it comes to formatting movies (they even did an honorable recall of Kiss Me Kate last year) that I tend to take them at their word even though it's hard to believe that a 1956 show wouldn't be at least 1:66. Perhaps it is an unusual exception. The picture is sharp, the elements in good shape, and both Alex North's music and Henry Jones' tortured screams come across uncomfortably clearly.

There's an original trailer as the first extra. Patty McCormack appears in an illustrated interview called Enfant Terrible, mainly repeating statements she makes in her Commentary with Charles Busch, the playwright and cross-dressing actor. Curiously, the commentary doesn't stress the camp aspect of the show, which apparently keeps a close third just behind Mommie Dearest and Mildred Pierce (with 30 other Joan Crawford pix in there too). The film's distributor underlining the camp connection is a kind of cultural revisionism, but only for those who know Busch's point of view - the commentary has no Rhoda imitations, and is just a straight discussion of the movie and its actors, etc. At any rate, Busch serves as a pleasant host and subject-navigator for McCormack to recall her years of fame.

The cover's image of a pig-tailed Rhoda makes her look more cross-eyed than malicious. I remember being concerned as a kid by the silhouette of the woman in the doorway, however: What horrible crime or perversion was involved with that? I have to admit that it does look like the P.O.V. of Christine Crawford, watching Joan enter to deliver another beating. Hm. Maybe that's the camp connection - The Bad Seed is a perverted reversal of Joan Crawford's domestic situation!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Bad Seed rates:
Movie: Good --
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary with Patty McCormack and Busch, short subject interview with McCormack.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 10, 2004


1. People in the commentaries say Kelly had a tiny film career, but she has dozens of credits in the IMDB, including a role in the Henry King version of Jesse James. She also played the haunted heroine of The Woman Who Came Back, a late-40s ghost story with a good reputation.

2. Although I must admit that when I saw the picture at about age ten, I whooped with delight at Rhoda's late-night accident on the dock. Part of my hostility toward the play comes from growing up with the false concepts of the movie burned into my young brain. I don't think I saw it again until High School, when I'm proud to say I saw through the bogus themes. ("Duh, hey, this picture is stupid-er than I am ... I mean, stupid!") Now we watch the film and wonder what Christine's so upset about. Rhoda is underage and probably cannot be tried for her crimes, so nobody's going to touch her. Sorry, I forgot we were dealing with inherited EVIL here. Off the kid.

3. Perhaps they were. The only comparable movie situation I can think of is that kid Sidney in the 1938 Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the rotten little sneak who's always crying for Aunt Polly after the good kids have retaliated at him just for being a jerk. The joke is that no matter how baldly snide and insincere Sidney is, Aunt Polly assumes he's a little angel. The best joke in the movie is the unforgettable scene where his act no longer works: He goes up to her, whines "Aunt Polly" once more and gets a rude slap in the face, just for existing.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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