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The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed(1956)

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In 1956, Warner Bros. brought the most evil child short of the Anti-Christ to screen in the person of Rhoda Penmark, a murderous moppet so cold she could practice her piano lessons methodically while her latest victim was burning to death in the basement below. As embodied by eleven-year-old Patty McCormack, Rhoda was a character with no precedent in film history (so much so that the censors tried to keep her off the screen). Her distinct presence coupled with the intensely emotional playing of the film's adult stars have made The Bad Seed (now on DVD from Warner Video) a cult favorite, with contemporary audiences see-sawing between laughter at the histrionics and stunned disbelief at Rhoda's evil ways.

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

Originally director-writer Billy Wilder wanted to make the film version as an independent production, but he ran into trouble when he submitted the script to the industry's own self-censorship organization, the Production Code Administration. One of the Production Code's rules forbade "Pictures dealing with criminal activities, in which minors participate , or to which minors are related." Although juvenile delinquency had been a film subject since the '30s, when the Dead End Kids first hit the screen, Rhoda's criminal doings and the script's extended discussion of heredity were considered too strong for the screen. The implication that she wasn't really responsible for her crimes because she was, as the title suggested, a bad seed, was deemed a bad influence on the youth of America. Wilder dropped the project, only to learn that Warner Bros. had gotten approval for the material simply by offering to create a new ending in which Rhoda would be punished for her crimes. The real difference, in his view, was that Warners was a big studio while he was just an independent producer, a conclusion that led to his decision to ignore the Production Code when choosing properties in the future. Ironically, the film he chose to make instead 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 Bad Seed to the screen. Initially, they objected to his plan to cast the play's leading players -- including Kelly, McCormack, Eileen Heckart and Henry Jones -- in place of established box-office names like Bette Davis, who had expressed an interest in the film's leading role. He also decided to stick closely to Anderson's original screenplay, working with cinematographer Harold Rosson to open the film up primarily by moving the camera around. The choice paid off by visually isolating and trapping Rhoda'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. He recorded a voiceover introducing the film's cast and, as had been the case when the play was performed, followed the bows by having Kelly take McCormack over her knee for a good spanking. After the horror of the film'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 their biggest hits of the year, grossing $4.1 million (an impressive figure for the time) and landing in the year's top 20 at the box office. The film also landed Oscar® nominations for Rosson, Kelly, McCormack and Heckart, with the latter winning the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.

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

The Warner Video DVD of The Bad Seed looks just fine - the image is sharp and the audio is crystal clear with Alex North's dramatic score an added plus. The extras include a short interview with Patty McCormack entitled "Enfant Terrible" and a running commentary by the actress and playwright/actor Charles Busch which is a much more straightforward affair than you'd imagine. After all, by today's standards, the film is much closer to pure camp than serious drama but neither commentator makes this distinction obvious.

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by Frank Miller