THE BAD SEED (1956)


Some films don’t  sit in areas of   style or content that fit a particular genre. THE BAD  SEED (1956) is thought to be Horror film,   a Film Noir or  a thriller.  Where  it fits  in the canon is not important only that it is  a strong film yet not to everyone’s taste.  THE BAD SEED (1956) fits right along with  WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (1962) and HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) as a  story  of  urban terror.

The Warner  Brothers  picture came from a Maxwell Anderson play from a novel by  William March.  Shot in moody black and white which still packs a punch for stories of this nature THE BAD SEED became one of the biggest hits of 1956. You can have a good story, good images but if the actors and Director and other  personal make poor choices then  the  film can be a missed opportunity this is not the case.

THE BAD SEED shines from the moment it opens with the quirky music mixing child rhythms and simple piano melodies which will become important later on by Composer Alex North.   The star of the show  is  Patty McCormick  as the  eight year old  Rhoda Penmark who is doted on by here parents Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly)  and Col Kenneth Penmark (WillIam Hopper).

The love  expressed is sickly in nature with platitudes of  ‘doing no wrong’ and ‘The perfect child’ gushing out as Col Hopper is leaving on a work trip.   McCormick uses a high pitched voice to utter her  ‘Daddie’s’ and ‘Mommie’s while all dressed in “Pippi Longstocking’ braids and little  dresses.   Christine doesn’t look like a child of the fifties but a strange Doll contrivance reminiscent of the use  of a other Doll in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (1962) .

 

 

Nancy Kelly as her mother Christine is high strung herself yet  doting on her  Daughters  whims. She tries to be a firm parent in tone at times yet looses the point of her talk when the  master manipulation begins by Rhoda.  She desperately wants her husband to stay but  Military work calls him away so he must go.  They have a strong marriage bordering of  desperation on Christine’s part as  shown when they kiss almost frantically as the Colonel is leaving. One senses this is a wife and  a mother on edge of what  we  do not as  yet know.

Evelyn Varden plays Monica Breedlove who is  a sort of nanny/ companion to both Christine and  Rhoda.    Breedlove  is  forever complimenting Rhoda on her perfect she is when she curtsy’s when guests arrive is always saccharine polite.   She tells Rhoda that she should have won the Penmanship medallion  which was  given to a classmate Claude Daigle as  she was the best at her school only the others  didn’t  see it.   Rhoda is  disappointed deeply yet the  anger and temper simmers just below the surface as  her expression darkens.

This not a childish disappointment to be  gotten over by gifts or  ice cream.  There is  something behind Rhoda’s  eyes when she hugs you see her expression switch to something malevolent  when not  visible then back again to sweet when she is seen.  Rhoda entertains herself by taking the covers the  soft heel covers off a pair of shoes to create  tap dancing boots  so she  can  click on the wooden floor much to her personal glee. Rhoda and her mother leave for a picnic and nearby park with her school friends.

Later when  back at home Christina and Monica her a  radio News report that a yet un identified child has  drown at a nearby park lake. This throws the home into panick as everyone thinks it is Rhoda but child is identified as Claude Daigle; the boy who won the prize.  It is also said that he had several abrasions on his face and head thought to bruising from the water knocking  him into the wharf. Christine is also worried that  Rhoda will be  traumatized as  she  saw the child’s corpse.

Rhoda’s teacher Mrs Fern (Joan Croyden) visits saying that Rhoda was  last person to see Claude alive and was  seen grabbing at his metal which would indicate a connection yet she stops short of accusation.

The story becomes  darker as connections are made and  Rhoda’s deep psychosis  comes to the surface yet always unpinned by the smile. Christine finds Claude’s penmanship medallion in Rhoda’s jewelery box and  demands to know  how she got it. Rhodas cajoles her even to the point of physically stroking her mothers next cooing that she ‘has  the best Mommie in the world  and the best family’ in an act similar to a master petting an  animal.

Christina makes  desperate calls to her husband yet he cannot get away from his duties but will try.   Christina also goes through the revelation of  a horrid family secret by her father Author Richard Bravo (Paul Fix) who comes to visit and see  his grand daughter.   Christine finds  her own origin in terms of a  parental confession is not what  she thought it was but something  entirely different that has  unleashed something beyond her control.

Several other roles complete  add color to this story particularly Ellen Heckart as the mother of the boy killed at the picnic  Hortense Daigle.   Heckart gives one of the best performances as a intoxicated broken mother seeking answers from Rhoda.  She know s Rhoda with with her soon Claude on the wharf and wants to know ‘any little thing’ or ‘thought’ he might have said in his last moments.  She makes catty remarks  about people’s hair being dyed and  how she is not  educated and  rich like all the people in the house only to be lead  away by her husband Henry Daigle (Frank Cady)

 

 

Jessie White as  Emory Wages  and Gage Clark as Reg Tasker  round out the family friends all  thinking that Rhoda is the perfect child.

 

Special mention to actor Henry Jones as  the slow, dimwitted gardner/ handyman LeRoy Jessup.  Jones in the best role I have seen him play shines  as  the  only person who sees Rhoda for what she is and enjoys what he sees.  Jessup calls her at one point ‘Mean’ which is okay  for him as he is ‘Mean’ as well.  Jessup taunts her with the  fact he  knows what she is thinking particularly  in a  wonderful moment as the two exchange  vicious  barbs while Rhoda is having a  imaginary tea party outside with a  gift she  got from her father. Rhoda  tosses him some straw packing material from  her  gift for his bed which is located in house basement next the  furnace.  Jessup knows all about  Rhoda before anyone else does as  he  taunts her  about her shoes with hard soles which will become important.

 

 

Revelations grow culminating in a shocking abrupt moment similar  to  NIGHT MOTHER (1986) which was also a play and a film.  The evil will be avenged by something greater than us all even if it contains  a ‘curtain call’ credit sequence meant to restore reality.

THE BAD  SEED (1956) is not your average thriller  film as it being characters thrust into a  orbit around a  single person unleashing a  chain of events. The actors were  many that originated their roles  in the Broadway production. Academy award nominations of which all would  lose featured one for Nancy Kelly for  Best actress, Best  supporting actress for  both Patty McCormick and Elleen Heckart and  Best  Cinematography for Harold Rossen

THE BAD SEED  was  remade for  television in 1985 and  was poorly received only to be remade again in 2018 with  Rob Lowe  directing.  Patty McCormick takes  bow as  Doctor March in the  film.

 

THE BAD  SEED (1956)  features  a wonderful ensemble  and  creative team that brings  this story that appears simple on the  surface yet grows  more insidious. You may notice that some of  actor blocking and movement is  theatrical in nature. You watch the  disintegration of a  family and a  change  of values for all.  True today we  never  really know what really  goes on behind someone’s eyes.

 

 

 

 

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