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1956's 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, Mervyn Leroy's production retains much of the blocking and style of the original Broadway presentation, including 'recognition pauses' during the entrances of major players.
Running amuck with the false concept that Evil is a genetic trait, playwright Maxwell Anderson fashioned a morbid soap opera. Several standout performances offset a lot of over-boiled overacting. Worse, what bite the story may have had has been pared away: the Hollywood censors would not allow the play to roll to its grimly ironic ending. What's left is Hollywood Kitch.
An unpleasant tragedy at a grammar school slowly enlarges into a larger, terrible curse. False, insincere sweetheart child 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 distraught and melancholy. Realizing that she is the mother of a conscienceless killer, Christine decides 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.
The stage-stylized acting in The Bad Seed musters an intensity calculated to make an impression 40 seating rows away, and while watching this show 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 improve considerably if you point your television out your front window and watch the show from across the street.
That's not quite fair, as all of the acting in is very professional. But the show is so heavily theatrical, it almost comes off as a 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 atrocious crimes. Other moms mend hurt feelings or put ointment on scrapes, but Christine Penmark must deal with the undeniable fact that sweetie-pie "basket of hugs" Rhoda is a brutal murderess. It's enough to put Barbara Billingsley off her feed.
That's where the film's 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 as a reasonable simulacrum of an actual child. Now she seems so exaggerated, and the stage directions given Miss McCormack so grotesque, we don't believe anyone would fall for her cutesy act for one minute. Rhoda is militantly false and overbearing in her sweetness to the point that the adults' benign and approving reactions make them all look like cretins. I tell you, Mister Rogers would take two careful steps backward and reach for the pepper spray.
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 learn from her father (Paul Fix) that, yes indeed, she was adopted ... and her mom was a BAD WOMAN! The only way to look at Ms. Kelly's performance is as controlled hysteria, which the actress does well. 1 Backing her up is Evelyn Varden, so good as the obnoxious Mrs. Spoon in The 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 made the butt of insensitive jokes -- she's always calling herself fat. Writer Gage Clark visits Christine to 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. Is Rhoda Penmark the antimatter Pollyanna? Were people ever really this dense about kids? 3
There are three good reasons to watch The Bad Seed. 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 guilty, self-destructive suspicion 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 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 the likes of Universal's old looney Dwight Frye. Jones fidgets with his hands and plays verbal games with Rhoda until his malicious imaginings accidentally stumble onto the awful truth. LeRoy is off-screen for his morbid last scene (no spoilers) but his vocal performance will curdle your blood. Warners' classy sound recording and mixing really score here, as even with a mono track we can sense LeRoy moving in audio perspective across the back yard of the apartment building.
Finally, there's Alex North's music score to calm some of the film's more extreme moments with its soothing lullaby passages. The lullaby eventually becomes tender/sinister in itself. 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 jumped through hoops to make the show palatable to the still-vigilant Production Code.
(a fat paragraphs of fat spoilers follows ...)
Apparently the stage play ends with the blood-curdling morning-after revelation that Rhoda 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 audience would be whipped into a hanging frenzy, ready to lynch whatever poor child actress was playing Rhoda. (There's a movie idea...) The film concocts a knee-jerk act of God to give Rhoda her just desserts. I mean, a bona-fide Biblical Act of God: Rhoda is reclaimed by her maker in very clear terms. 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 sort-of in character, including characters that have died! The last curtain call is for Nancy Kelly, now no longer wrapped in gauze. She proceeds to deal 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. The only precedent that comes to mind is the delightful banquet denouement of Murnau's silent The Last Laugh.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of The Bad Seed is either an idiosyncratic release choice from the front office or a reflection of the film's campy reputation. The presentation replicates a DVD special edition from seven years ago that was unaccountably formatted flat full frame; since 2000 or so Warners has been one of the best labels when it comes to replicating original aspect ratios. Never fear, for this very clean HD transfer retains the original 1:85 wide screen shape, correctly framing the apartment interiors and properly focusing our attention on background detail, like LeRoy's straw nap bed in the basement or the notorious pier that reaches out into a nicely-designed interior set of a nighttime lake. The film elements are in fine shape, and both Alex North's music and Henry Jones' tortured screams come across clearly on the crystal clear audio track.
The older extras are repeated, starting with an original trailer. Patty McCormack appears in an illustrated interview called Enfant Terrible, mainly repeating statements she makes in her feature commentary with Charles Busch, the playwright and cross-dressing actor. Curiously, this commentary doesn't stress the show's camp aspect, even though The Bad Seed apparently runs a close third just behind Mommie Dearest and Mildred Pierce, with a dozen other Joan Crawford pix in there too. For Warners to underscore the film's camp connection is a kind of cultural revisionism, but only for those who know Busch's point of view -- the commentary is a straight and insightful discussion of the movie and its actors and features no rude jokes or Rhoda imitations. At any rate, the personable Mr. Busch serves as a pleasant host and subject-navigator to aid McCormack in recalling her years of fame.
The cover re-interprets the show with a graphic in keeping with today's idea of how a horror movie is sold. The original poster is heavy with unhealthy-relationship associations. As a kid I remember being concerned over the silhouette of the woman in the doorway: what horrible crime or perversion does that suggest? I have to admit that it now 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 home life!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Bad Seed Blu-ray rates:
1. The commentaries suggest that Ms.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. Now we watch the film and wonder what Christine is 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 diabolical 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 great 1938 version of Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Sidney is the rotten little sneak who's always crying for Aunt Polly after the good kids have retaliated against his latest jerk offense. The joke is that no matter how baldly snide and insincere Sidney is, Aunt Polly assumes he's a little angel. In the wonderful payoff Sidney's act no longer works: He whines "Aunt Polly" one more time and gets a rude slap in the face, just for existing. After laughing, we almost expect Woody Allen to walk forward from the scene and say, "Don't you wish that would happen to all the people that bother you?"
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T'was Ever Thus.