The Bad Seed (1956)

The Bad Seedbad seed poster
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
John Lee Mahin from a play by Maxwell Anderson and a novel by William March
1956/USA
Warner Bros.
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

Leroy: [to Rhoda] I thought I’d seen some mean little gals in my time, but you’re the meanest. You wanna know how I know how mean you are? ‘Cause I’m mean. I’m smart and I’m mean, and you’re smart and you’re mean. And you never get caught and I never get caught.

I don’t find this movie scary anymore but, boy, do I love it.

Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) is the kind of eight-year-old I hated in grade school. She is just about perfect.  She wears frilly dresses even to the school picnic but that’s OK because she never gets dirty.  She is unfailingly polite to grown-ups and super-affectionate to her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) and father Kenneth (William Hopper).  If she has a fault, it is a love for pretty things.  She is an expert at wheedling presents out of her parents and landlady Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) who adores her.

As the movie begins, Rhoda’s father, a colonel in the military, is leaving for a month long assignment in Washington DC.  Rhoda is getting ready to go to the picnic.  She is complaining about how unfair it is that classmate Claude Daigle won the penmanship medal when she deserved it herself.

The Bad Seed-01

I’m not going to reveal too much of the plot because this is a movie that absolutely should be seen.  Suffice it to say that Claude winds up being found drowned in the water near a pier at the picnic grounds with strange half-moon marks on his body.  The drowning has been chalked up to an accident but the headmistress of the school would like to get more information from Rhoda, who was the last to see him alive.  So would Claude’s mother, Hortense (Eileen Heckart), an alcoholic.  The apartment building’s janitor, the deranged Leroy, is having fun tormenting Rhoda with stories of a “stick blood hound” that will find a murder weapon in the case.  Meanwhile, Christine is slowly losing her mind.

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I saw this for the first time as a pre-teen and loved it.  At that time I thought it was creepy and it certainly is presented as a horror movie, beginning with a scary view of the pier on a dark and stormy night.  As an adult, I thought this was a hoot!  Almost all the actors came from the Broadway play, where they had honed their roles to the very edge of high camp. That is to say they are just perfect for this particular story.  The film is extremely well written and some of the lines had lived in my memory all this time.  The film is very stagy but in this case that did not bother me in the least.  Highly recommended.

The commentary on the DVD has a very fun conversation between Patty McCormack and a film historian.

The Bad Seed was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Actress (Kelly); Best Supporting Actress (Heckart); Best Supporting Actress (McCormack) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.

Trailer

4 thoughts on “The Bad Seed (1956)

    • I’m still visualizing all the great moments with Eileen Heckart! When she said “I’ll ask her when I get get an interview”, I cracked up.

  1. I first saw The Bad Seed when I was about 25 years old, and it’s in my rotation. I try to see it every three or four years. It’s so awesome.
    I bet nobody will be surprised to find out that it’s one of the three movie posters that John Waters has hanging on the wall over his workspace.

    • I can see why this would be right up John Waters street! It’s like Clouzot and Hitchcock ramped up to the max and twisted a little.

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