Henry Jones, Nancy Kelly, and Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed (1956)


(director: Mervyn LeRoy; screenwriters: from the play by Maxwell Anderson of the Novel by William March/John Lee Mahin; cinematographer: Harold Rosson; editor: Warren Low; music: Alex North; cast: Nancy Kelly (Christine Penmark), Patty McCormack (Rhoda Penmark), Henry Jones (LeRoy), Eileen Heckart (Hortense Daigle), Evelyn Varden (Monica Breedlove), William Hopper (Colonel Kenneth Penmark), Paul Fix (Richard Bravo), Gage Clark (Reginald Tasker), Joan Croydon (Claudia Fern); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Mervyn LeRoy; Warner brothers; 1956)

The Bad Seed left me with a bad taste.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A totally absurd melodrama done in the style of literary high art, which makes it all the more ridiculous since the acting was so hammy. It was the first of the so-called evil child flicks, and is now considered by many as a cult classic. But that recognition for its camp hardly makes it a good or entertaining film. Bad Seed is based on the Mervyn LeRoy adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s creaky Broadway play, which was based on the novel by William March. It’s a stagy and overlong production, as basically the same stage cast recreated their roles in the movie and played it as if still on Broadway. It was unintentionally funny in all the psychobabble that spills out, as the characters debate if it’s hereditary or the environment that makes the criminal. The criminal they are talking about is possessed by the hereditary “bad seed,” an 8-year-old girl serial killer who eerily kills without any feeling or concern.

The film opens to a loving suburban family, as the frequently absent Colonel Kenneth Penmark must leave again his adoring but tense wife Christine (Nancy Kelly) and sweet blonde pigtailed daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack, eleven year old). She is cheerfully playing “Claire de Lune”on the piano, and only stops to get a ‘basket of kisses’ from her doting dad. Ken must go immediately to Washington for an undisclosed military assignment, which must be important because he quickly gets off the phone to his wife when the general beckons.

At the private school picnic, a classmate of Rhoda’s drowns and the school headmaster Ms. Fern tells Mrs. Penmark that she doesn’t want her perfectly well-behaved daughter back next year. There is suspicions that Rhoda had something to do with the boy’s drowning. Rhoda expressed displeasure that she lost out in the Gold Penmanship Medal to the boy, and that medal his mother clasped on his shirt is strangely missing. Little Miss Perfect, who curtsies to adults and always wears dresses and never scuffs her shoes, expressed displeasure at home claiming that she deserved that medal. Mother begins to become suspicious of her daughter as a number of things come together. One of them is that Mom dreams she was adopted and that her criminal journalist father (Paul Fix) hid from her that her real mother was a serial killer, who behaved just like Rhoda. The adoption is confirmed on a visit by Mrs. Penmark’s busy journalist dad.

Warning: next paragraph contains spoilers.

When the dead boy’s mom (Heckart) barges in on Christine’s home twice in a drunken state and the retarded handyman (Jones) guesses that Rhoda killed the boy and rattles her with his probing questions, Mom soon learns that her daughter’s a liar and has a history of murdering those around her. Mom knows for sure when she finds the medal hidden in her room. Mom’s solution is to ply Rhoda with enough sleeping pills to kill her and she then shoots herself. Of course, Mom screws up, as her babbling buffoon of a landlady (Evelyn Varden) hears the shot and calls the hospital. This comes just in time to save both mother and daughter. The censors did their dirty work and removed the chilling ending of the play by tacking on a ridiculous ending involving divine intervention. But it gets worst, the film ends with a curtain-call for the actors to be introduced. It goes on to show that the film was not meant to be taken seriously, as Nancy Kelly is playfully spanking Patty McCormack.

The acting was so cheesy from the overwrought Nancy Kelly to the unconvincing lush act of Eileen Heckart to the ever-creepy Henry Jones, that I could see how later audiences discovered how ridiculously theatrical the acting was and responded to their over-the top histrionics by laughing their heads off in jest at this tacky production. Though Patty McCormack is to be commended, as she remains in character and is surprisingly restrained. She gives a chilling performance until the climax, but she unfortunately catches the same hammy fervor as the adults and then tries to outdo their scene stealing act.

The Bad Seed left me with a bad taste.