Blind Spot Series 2017: The Bad Seed (1956)

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The Bad Seed (1956)
Directed and produced by Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based on a novel by William March and a play by Maxwell Anderson
Cinematography by Harold Rosson
Edited by Warren Low
Warner DVD (2:09)

The passage of fifty years can certainly lessen the impact of some movies once considered powerful at the time of their release. If any of the impact from a film’s initial run survives, there has to be something going for it. In many ways, the impact and power of The Bad Seed (1956) has certainly lessened. We’ve seen plenty of other evil children in the movies since 1956 (The Excorcist, The Omen, The Good Son, etc.) so watching one from 50 years ago may seem almost quaint. Yet Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) still holds up as quite a hellion.

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When Rhoda’s mother Christine (Nancy Kelly, left) learns that Rhoda was a witness to the accidental drowning death of one of her classmates, Christine is concerned that the event will traumatize Rhoda. Far from it. She’s totally unfazed by the incident. Later Christine wonders if Rhoda was actually the cause of the little boy’s death.

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I am generally not a fan of plays adapted into films and while LeRoy gives us some good tension-filled scenes away from the interior of the house, most of the film takes place in confined indoor areas, reminding us (or maybe just me) that this is based on a play. That’s not as much of a problem as a play that loads us down with information that’s already been well-explored. Add to this the endless number of scenes of the Penmark’s caretaker LeRoy (Henry Jones, not the director) taunting Rhoda, and the film seems much longer than the two-plus hour running time. (95 to 100 minutes would’ve been plenty.)

Patty McCormack as Rhoda Penmark - The Bad Seed 1956 - by Bert Six  AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE'S 2010 AWARD

Yet despite the tacked-on curtain call ending that totally lessens the impact of the film, much of The Bad Seed remains effective, especially the performance of Patty McCormack, who went on to star in many child and adult roles including Frost/Nixon (2008) and The Master (2012). At 71, she’s still quite active with two films currently in post-production.

3.5/5

Photos: Way to Famous, IMDB, Movie Poster Shop, MovieQuiz Blogspot

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10 thoughts on “Blind Spot Series 2017: The Bad Seed (1956)

  1. Pingback: Blindsided by THE PLAYER | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective

  2. Eileen Heckart did much more stage and TV than film but she did win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for repeating her stage success on screen in Butterflies Are Free, she’s the best thing in that very dated film and deserved the prize. She also had a decent if smallish role in Up the Down Staircase, a highly enjoyable film with Sandy Dennis’s best film performance. A very good film if you haven’t seen it.

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  3. Thanks for stopping by! I’m totally with you on the Nancy Kelly performance and I think that type of performance (among other things) is part of what makes me cringe when I see a film based on a play. Maybe those problems manifest themselves to a lesser degree now, but I think many performers (and maybe directors) had difficulty with the two mediums.

    Eileen Heckart does hit some solid notes, but you’re right – at times too much. I am not familiar with her and will check out some of her other work.

    McCormack – wow, a great performance, but I looked at her IMDB list and was disappointingly underwhelmed at what she’s done as an adult. You’re right – I think very few can make that transition.

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  4. This is a hooty but enjoyable enterprise! Having read the book I have to say I find the movie ending satisfying but the original ending more chilling and true. The impact is surely less this many years on but what strikes me is the performance style of the various players and how some understood the difference in mediums between the stage and screen and some never would.

    Nancy Kelly, who should have known better having had the big push from Fox in the 40’s-unsuccessfully, gives an operatic full blown, playing to the rafters performance that must have been gripping on stage but is far too big for the room on screen. I’ve read that both Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell were considered for Christine before Warner’s decided to go with the stage cast. Both are intriguing possibilities, two such different actresses but I can see both in the part although what divergent interpretations they would have given.

    Eileen Heckart hits the middle ground somewhat, some of her scenes are pitched a bit too big but she is terrifically affecting at others. Henry Jones is venal and creepy as Leroy but is always contained in the scene: he’s fighting with or tormenting Rhoda not playing to the crowd. Evelyn Varden modulates Monica Breedlove to a realistic level. Monica is a bit of a chattering good-hearted buttinsky so any overly big gestures are more organic to her part than others but the actress still keeps them within range of the screen.

    Patty McCormack gives a great chilling performance surely formed over months of continuous reenactments on stage. Within itself it’s masterful but limiting work and I think is a fine example of the difference between a talented child performer who doesn’t make the transition to adult star and one who does. She’s terrific here but as she grew she became unrecognizable to this girl. She’s had a steady respectable career but hardly a remarkable one.

    On the other hand when you watch any of the big five, Natalie Wood, Judy Garland, Jodie Foster, Deanna Durbin and Elizabeth Taylor, that made the successful move across that tenuous road in their childhood roles or their adult ones they are readily identifiable and there is a clear remnant of their younger selves in the woman they had become. Perhaps that’s the key-a sort of inborn magnetism, rare and present from birth that defines true star quality.

    One last bit, the closing credits introductions are such an odd thing. I completely love them but they also break the entire mood of the picture and are now one of the things that firmly moves it into the cheese factory.

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  5. Yes, Heckart was excellent! I’ll give the movie another shot in a year or two, but I think my expectations were a bit too high. McCormack was spectacular, however.

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  6. What? A 3.5 for this cult masterpiece? Yes, the curtain call is absurd, and Nancy Kelly chews furniture, drapes, and the very air out of the film, but I love it so. Not only McCormack shines, but Eileen Heckart as the poor Daigle boy’s drunk mother. Infinitely watchable! 🙂

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  7. Pingback: Movies Watched in February 2017 Part I | Journeys in Darkness and Light

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