Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"The Bad Seed" (1956)

"Tell me, do children ever commit murders?"

That's the big question on Christine Penmark's mind when she hugs her little psycho child, Rhoda, in The Bad Seed.  The hit novel was adapted into a hit Broadway play and then turned into an Oscar-nominated film back when Hollywood studios still had to deal with censors and production codes.  Warner Brothers certainly had to deal with codes to tell this tale of a cold-blooded grade school killer with good penmanship.
Before I go on, this blog piece is for those of you who have seen that 1956 film because...this piece will have spoilers.  OK.  You've been warned.  Let's proceed.  Once, when dapper host and film historian, Robert Osborne, was introducing The Bad Seed on Turner Classic Movies, he noted that it was produced by Mervyn LeRoy, the same man who produced the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland.  Osborne added that they're two totally different films with nothing in common.  Hmmm.  I think otherwise.  The Bad Seed had to be altered for the film adaptation.  LeRoy was the movie's producer and director.  In LeRoy's hands, The Bad Seed becomes somewhat of a film noir follow-up to his The Wizard of Oz.  It's as if poor Christine is a grown-up married Dorothy who gave birth to The Wicked Witch.  The Witch takes little girl form and seeks revenge on the types who represent main characters we loved in The Land of Oz.  An Army wife, sweet Christine Penmark is a nervous breakdown just waiting to happen.  She has a feeling she was adopted and doesn't know who her real parents are.
We never know who the parents of Judy Garland's Dorothy Gale are.  We just know Uncle Henry and Auntie Em.  The Bad Seed has a dark story and theme but the movie is so perfectly overbaked that it's become a camp classic.  Rhoda is 8-years old.  But when the adults talk to her, they use words like "adroit" and "penurious."  Rhoda never says "What does that word mean?"  Last night, I had to explain cole slaw to my nephew -- and he's 11.  Then there all this Atomic Age psycho-babble dialogue about juvenile criminals.  Christine fears her little girl is a criminal and a misfit.  She's right.  Rhoda shouldn't be in the Penmark Family.  She should be in the Addams Family.  The distraught mom's friends convince her that juvenile criminals are the products of slums.  They don't come from nice family surroundings and advantages.  (You the Columbine High School shooters did.)  In this 1950s mentality, bad kids didn't come from good Caucasian families in the suburbs.  If the child was an after school serial killer, it was due to heredity. So, basically, ladies...they blamed it on your uterus.  The Penmarks appear to be the picture perfect American family living near Washington, DC.  They used to live in Kansas.  Hello!  Kansas, people!  Come to find out, Rhoda killed a kindly old lady in Kansas so she could have the old lady's crystal ball.  Professor Marvel, crystal ball, Kansas, The Wizard of Oz.  Dad leaves for desk duty at the DC base.
Christine's chatterbox "know-it-all" widow landlady is the hefty Monica Breedlove.  She finds little Rhoda to be "enchanting."  Monica loves to eat.  This explains why she's built like Jack Haley as the Tin Man. "Aunt Monica," as she's come to be called, is played by Evelyn Varden.
Monica has a gift for Rhoda early in the movie.  The gift?  A heart-shaped pendant.  OK, think about it.  What gift did Tin Man get in Emerald City when the quartet finally got through to the real Wizard?  He got a heart-shaped accessory.  And his ticked.
Look at the landlady's last name.  Breedlove.  Tin Man.  Heart.  See a connection?  Rhoda plans to push Monica off the roof to acquire her pair of lovebirds.  Not canaries.  Not parakeets.  Love-birds.  Monica is the boss of the simple-minded, leering janitor.  His name is Leroy.  He lives in the basement.
You get the feeling he should wear a drool cup every time he sees Mrs. Penmark.  Yes, she's on her way to having a nervous breakdown.  But she'll have it in a bullet bra.  Christine may be falling apart emotionally but her knockers always look like they're facing Magnetic North.  Leroy likes Mrs. Penmark.  He can't stand her little girl.
Says Mrs. Breedlove about her janitor, "He has the mind of an 8-year old."  Leroy is our film noir Scarecrow.  Monica Breedlove may think Leroy is an idiot but he's totally wise to Rhoda.  She doesn't fool him.  He knows she's bad.
They're all seeing Rhoda off for a special day at her private school.  It's the day for the school picnic on the lakefront.  Remember how Glinda the Good Witch and the Munchkins loved Dorothy in the Land of Oz?  Rhoda's Munchkins, her classmates, can't stand her.  Her teacher can't stand her either.  They'd be happy if Rhoda transferred.  To another country.  This too causes some Mama Drama.
In a classroom competition, Rhoda expected to win the penmanship medal.  But there was an upset.  Claude Daigle won it.  He's a sweet little boy who's described as "timid."  Psycho Rhoda still wants the medal.  Tragedy will ensue at the lakefront picnic.  She makes him cry and run away.  She chases him to the off-limits pier, beats him into a drowning death with her shoes and takes his medal.  Before lunch.  This means no one gets to eat because of this "accident" reported as a news bulletin on local radio.  The bus takes all the remaining kids back home.  We never see poor Claude.  We do see his medal.  Remember what Lion gets from The Wizard?  A medal.  Timid, dear Claude Daigle is our film noir Cowardly Lion.
 The shoes are incriminating evidence.  Mom discovers they were the murder weapon after Rhoda shrieks "It was mine!  The medal was mine!" during Mom's interrogation.  She found Claude's medal hidden in Rhoda's room.  Mom orders her bad seed to throw the shoes in the trash.  The trash goes to the basement.  Where Leroy lives.
By now, you're wishing Rhoda's mother was Tyler Perry's Madea and she'd go upside her blonde head with a skillet after "Oh, hell, no!  Killin' childrens.  Before lunch!"  Christine is haggard and high-strung.  Had this been musicalized, it would've been a great role for the grown Judy Garland.  Nancy Kelly has a touch of Judy Garland post-MGM years hysteria in her work as Christine Penmark. The juiciest, just-so-wrong scenes are between young Patty McCormack as Rhoda and Henry Jones (from the Broadway cast) as simple-minded Leroy.  Just as there was wonderful chemistry between Garland and Ray Bolger as Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, there's chemistry between these two actors of very different ages.  As Rhoda plays with her new tea set outside, Leroy teasingly accuses her of killing Claude.  He really puts the "b" in the word "subtle" when he drawls "They gonna fry you in the 'lectric chair."  She ignores all this.  That is, until he claims to have the shoes.  He doesn't really have the shoes but don't forget -- he's got shit-for-brains and she's a psychotic.
With that claim, Rhoda goes into full Wicked Witch mode.  Those shoes have power.  The next thing we know, an evil female character is demanding she be given a special pair of shoes.  "Give me those shoes back!" she barks to Leroy.  Now he's scared.  An evil female aggressively trying to possess a pair of girls' shoes that hold special power to her.  Gee, classic movie fans.  Where have we seen that before?
 Yep.  I think The Wizard of Oz and The Bad Seed could play on the same bill as a double feature.  By the way, remember how Rhoda gets rid of Bad Scarecrow Leroy?  She sets him on fire in the basement.  Again...Hello!
Christine is stressed out.  Her husband is still away in DC.  She's got to get things prepared because her dad is in town and he's coming over for dinner.  She had no idea Rhoda was plotting another murder when she went out to get a Popsicle.  And Claude Daigle's drunken, grief-stricken mother keeps dropping by.  Except for Rhoda's classmates and teachers, just about everyone else in this picture seems to live in Christine's building and drops by.  Claude was the only child of middle-aged Hortense Daigle.  She and Mr. Daigle won't have any more children.  When you see Mr. Daigle, you wonder how they managed to produce even one.  Just like Nancy Kelly and Patty McCormack, Eileen Heckart was in the original Broadway cast and recreates her terrifically over-the-top performance in the film version.  Her words whip out with a sort of jackhammer-like delivery.  Hortense would like a refill and she suspects that Rhoda has Claude's medal.
The Bad Seed put Eileen Heckart and Patty McCormack in the 1956 Oscar race for Best Supporting Actress.  Nancy Kelly was nominated in the Best Actress Academy Award category.  Christine continues to blame her uterus for producing such a demented grade schooler.  With good penmanship.  Suicide seems the only solution.  She hates guns but will attempt to blow her brains out with her husband's revolver.  Fortunately, she misses.  Remember, this is Hollywood in the 1950s.
Christine does shoot her herself in the head but, apparently, missed her brain.  It's only a flesh wound.  She's still able to talk on the phone to her husband two days later from her hospital bed.  No speech impediment whatsoever.
For Christine as the grown up film noir Dorothy, this phone scene mea culpa is the dark answer to Dorothy waking up and declaring "...there's no place like home" in The Wizard of Oz.  Kenneth Penmark is a loving, forgiving -- and clueless -- military family man.  No wonder the Army gave him a desk job.  He's now home with Rhoda while Christine recuperates.  And what about Rhoda?  Well, this incarnation of the Wicked Witch of the West has no problem with water.  She learned her lesson in 1939.  She sneaks out of the apartment at night, during a thunderstorm, while dad's asleep and returns to the scene of the crime.  Mom told Rhoda that she went to the pier and placed the penmanship medal at the very spot where Claude Daigle drowned.
I first saw this movie when I was a kid.  It was on local TV and it creeped me out.  Years later, when I was in high school, I found a copy of the play in the library.  I was stunned.  The play was really different from the movie.  Or, more accurately, vice-versa.  Then I learned about production codes during the old Hollywood studio days.  Bad behavior had to be punished.  That was the Hollywood code.  Mervyn LeRoy's The Bad Seed can be viewed as a black and white nightmare spin on Mervyn LeRoy's 1939 The Wizard of Oz.  The screenplay for The Bad Seed was written by John Lee Mahin, a writer for some of MGM's top stars in that studio's glory days.  For Jean Harlow, he wrote Red Dust, Bombshell and Wife vs Secretary.  Clark Gable starred in his Too Hot To Handle and Boom Town.  Mahin also wrote Captains Courageous, the film that brought Spencer Tracy a Best Actor Academy Award, the Oscar-winning crime drama Johnny Eager and MGM's 1951 remake of the musical, Show Boat.  He also wrote for The Wizard of Oz.
If you want to see a version of The Bad Seed that is more faithful to the novel and the play, rent the 1985 network TV adaptation starring Blair Brown, Lynn Redgrave and David Carradine as the adults dealing with little Rhoda.  That version is now available on DVD from Warner Archive.
The 1956 film creeped me out when I was a kid.  Now I want to watch it with friends while we have food and festive beverages.  The kind of beverages Mrs. Daigle would like.  Mervyn LeRoy's The Bad Seed is such a camp classic.  If you know TCM's Robert Osborne, show him this blog piece of mine.  I think he'll dig it.


  1. Brilliant & hilarious! I never saw the Wizard of Oz parallels until you brought them out - makes me want to watch The Bad Seed all over again, while downing some of Mrs Daigle's beverages. I do wonder, though, where the Wizard comes in (maybe he's the man behind the lighting bolt at the end...).

  2. Very interesting parallels! I enjoyed this movie except for the "born evil" shit. Little Rhoda should've learned to kill from her serial killer granny.
    This is still one of the creepiest movies of the '50s.


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