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The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed(1956)

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teaser The Bad Seed (1956)

"Children can be nasty, don't you think? "
Eileen Heckart as Mrs. Daigle in The Bad Seed

In 1956, Warner Bros. brought the most evil child short of the Anti-Christto screen in the person of Rhoda Penmark, a murderous moppet so cold shecould practice her piano lessons methodically while her latest victim wasburning to death in the basement below. As embodied by eleven-year-oldPatty McCormack, Rhoda was a character with no precedent in film history(so much so that the censors tried to keep her off the screen). Herdistinct presence coupled with the intensely emotional playing of thefilm's adult stars have made the film a cult favorite, with contemporaryaudiences see-sawing between laughter at the histrionics and stunned disbeliefat Rhoda's evil ways.

Rhoda Penmark was the brainchild of writer William March, who drew onthe '50s debate over whether or not evil and mental illness were hereditaryto paint his portrait of a child unconsciously following in the footstepsof her serial killer grandmother. Playwright Maxwell Anderson, best knownfor such historical verse tragedies as Anne of the Thousand Days andElizabeth the Queen, turned the story into a hit play that won NancyKelly Broadway's Tony Award for playing Rhoda's mother and startedMcCormack on the road to becoming a household name.

Originally director-writer Billy Wilder wanted to make the film version asan independent production, but he ran into trouble when he submitted thescript to the industry's own self-censorship organization, the ProductionCode Administration. One of the Production Code's rules forbade "Picturesdealing with criminal activities, in which minors participate , or to whichminors are related." Although juvenile delinquency had been a filmsubject since the '30s, when the Dead End Kids first hit the screen,Rhoda's criminal doings and the script's extended discussion of hereditywere considered too strong for the screen. The implication that she wasn'treally responsible for her crimes because she was, as the title suggested,a bad seed, was deemed a bad influence on the youth of America. Wilderdropped the project, only to learn that Warner Bros. had gotten approvalfor the material simply by offering to create a new ending in which Rhodawould be punished for her crimes. The real difference, in his view, wasthat Warners was a big studio while he was just an independent producer, aconclusion that led to his decision to ignore the Production Code whenchoosing properties in the future. Ironically, the film he chose to makeinstead of the The Bad Seed, The Spirit of St. Louis (1957),would be released by Warners.

Warner Bros. gave producer-director Mervyn LeRoy the chance to bring The BadSeed to the screen. Initially, they objected to his plan to cast theplay's leading players -- including Kelly, McCormack, Eileen Heckart andHenry Jones -- in place of established box-office names like Bette Davis,who had expressed an interest in the film's leading role. He also decidedto stick closely to Anderson's original screenplay, working withcinematographer Harold Rosson to open the film up primarily by moving thecamera around. The choice paid off by visually isolating and trappingRhoda's mother as she discovered her little girl was a cold-hearted killer.LeRoy also decided to use a theatrical curtain call at the film's end. Herecorded a voiceover introducing the film's cast and, as had been the casewhen the play was performed, followed the bows by having Kelly takeMcCormack over her knee for a good spanking. After the horror of thefilm's subject matter, this served to let '50s audiences off-the-hook,while adding to the film's word-of-mouth appeal.

In another move to appease the censors, Warner Bros. added an "adults only"tag to the film's advertising. As a result, the film became one of theirbiggest hits of the year, grossing $4.1 million (an impressive figure forthe time) and landing in the year's top 20 at the box office. The filmalso landed Oscar® nominations for Rosson, Kelly, McCormack andHeckart, with the latter winning the Golden Globe for Best SupportingActress.

Over time, The Bad Seed has continued to wield its influence. Itwas re-made in Turkey in the '60s, then turned into a mediocretelevision movie starring Blair Brown in 1985. Australian singer-actorNick Cave even named his band, The Bad Seeds, for it. None of the re-makesever came up with a young actress who could match McCormack.Unfortunately, the child actress never came up with a performance thatcould match her turn as Rhoda. Although still active in the business,McCormack never got to capitalize on her child stardom. She moved into troubledteen roles in the '60s -- most ludicrously in 1968's The Mini-SkirtMob -- moved into the soaps and currently plays character roles. Hermost notable later assignments include two low-budget thrillers,Mommy (1995) and Mommy II: Mommy's Day (1997) in which sheplays a character who could easily be a grown-up Rhoda, a mother whomurders anyone who makes her daughter unhappy.

Producer-Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin
Based on the Play by Maxwell Anderson and the novel by William March
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Art Direction: Jack Bechman, Ralph S. Hurst
Music: Alex North
Cast: Nancy Kelly (Christine Penmark), Patty McCormack (RhodaPenmark), Henry Jones (LeRoy), Eileen Heckart (Mrs. Daigle), Evelyn Varden(Monica Breedlove), William Hopper (Kenneth Penmark), Paul Fix (Bravo),Jesse White (Emory), Frank Cady (Mr. Daigle).
BW-130m. Closed Captioning.

by Frank Miller

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