Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Bad Seed

"The Bad Seed" (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956) I was probably just emerging into my "terrible two's" when "The Bad Seed" premiered, so I suspect my parents never saw it, as my up-bringing was limited to stern looks and measured tones. "The Bad Seed," however, is such a gleefully over-the-top pot-boiler that toys with murder, matricide, infanticide, and pure evil in the form of a child (Patty McCormack, a wise, knowing performance...with just a touch of gonzo sadism...for one so young), I wonder how many children suffered at the hands of it.

Believe me, I've heard the stories of children's lies being used to destroy adults and it has been a part of art since
Oedipus, and has been hoisted from "The Crucible," until "The Children's Hour." And it became Script #05 in the television writer's bible for dramatic series ever since.

But little
Rhoda Penmark's (McCormick) motto is "Actions, Not Words." During the course of the film she kills a school-mate with the metal soles of her tap-dancing shoes and sets the only person who can incriminate her (handyman Henry Jones) on fire. A sociopath in pig-tails, Rhoda may make this Diane Downs' favorite movie. LeRoy basically transformed the Broadway production into a film, with an economical direction that eerily evokes television set-ups of the sort you'd find on "Leave it to Beaver," but with Grand Guignol dialogue in its place. Rhoda is actually an uber-version of creepy Eddie Haskell.

The stage-play (by
Maxwell Anderson) ended with the death of the mother in a murder-suicide attempt and Rhoda living on,* but The Production Code would have none of it, so Mom is allowed to live in regret, and Rhoda? Well, the writers let God sort out the mess, the Almighty not stepping in previously to prevent the Evil.**

And then, as if the "creep" factor weren't enough, the film-makers have a bizarre curtain-call in which McCormick is turned over a smiling
Nancy Kelly's knee and given a spanking, for some sort of audience catharsis. Gotta give the audience what they want, so they leave the theater with a smile on their face.

Rhoda's not the only one with "issues."

* This may be the reason why, in the airline emergency instructions, they insist the parents put on the oxygen masks first.

** SPOILER ALERT: How Rhoda gets her "comeuppance" is the sleaziest form of lazy writing in the form of a Deus ex Electrica. But, there's a gleeful sadism in "The Bad Seed" that leaves one a bit speechless. I can just see an studio exec with a cigar, advising the script-writer to "fry the bitch."

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