Written by: Tera Kirk
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Henry Jones, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden
Rhoda Penmark is an adult’s favorite kind of kid. She minds her manners, never gets her clothes dirty and even thinks to reinforce her tap shoes with iron so they’d last longer and save money. Nevertheless, Rhoda’s mother has little worries she can’t name. All this politeness, this perfect curtsying and “It was a pleasure to have met you, Mr. Taskard!” seems…off. (Her landlady, an amateur psychoanalyst who prides herself on her knowledge of people, would say that Rhoda’s mother is being silly.)
Then that poor boy drowns at the school picnic.
Written in 1954, William March’s novel The Bad Seed is an exploration of the “nature versus nurture” question. Can someone in a loving, financially secure home become a criminal–a murderer? It was adapted into a play shortly afterward, and shortly after that was made into a movie, starring many of the actors from the play’s original cast. While The Bad Seed’s specific answers seem dated now, that doesn’t take away from the complexity of the questions the story asks.
Rhoda’s personality is very simple, but eight-year-old Patty McCormack’s performance has a surprising amount of nuance. Rhoda’s only genuine emotion is rage. The politeness that so charms the adults in her life is calculated, as out-of-place as a pristine polka-dot dress at a school picnic.
All the actors are good, but Eileen Heck art stands out as the mother of the little boy who Rhoda drowned. Drunk, she visits the Penmarks because she’s sure Rhoda knows something about her son’s death that she’s not telling. Her performance is heartbreaking–so much pain and anger and above all, overflowing with love for Claude. In comparison, Christine’s politeness seems almost as shallow as Rhoda’s—you can see where Rhoda gets it from.
Yes, characters spend a lot of time spouting outdated Freudian ideas at each other. (This film had been adapted from a play, after all). And, yes, the new, Hays Code-compliant ending comes out of nowhere and pales in comparison to the original ending. But even after nearly 60 years, Rhoda is still terrifying (“What would you give me for a basket of kisses?” indeed), and “What would you do if your child were a cold-blooded killer?” still has no easy answers.
About the Author: Tera Kirk has loved horror movies since before her mom allowed her to watch most of them. (One of her fondest childhood memories is being terrified of the trailer for Stuart Gordon’s Dolls.) She has written for Monsters At Play, and reviews video games for GameCritics.com. Her more-or-less personal website is Sweet Perdition.