Ten years. August 13th marked ten years of Sunset Gun. Of course I forgot the actual day. I've been prepping for Telluride, my mind focused on what occurs a week from now. And I'm not good with birthdays or anniversaries or certain holidays and when it comes to myself, I don't like fuss. It makes me nervous. It's my birthday. Great. Let's move on. The forgetfulness is likely a learned avoidance. But it occurred to me this morning when I realized it was Dorothy Parker's birthday, the writer who inspired the name of this blog. I thought, "What day did I start this thing?" My next thought was, "I need to post as much as I used to." Well...
I could go through the history, the work, the ups and downs, the personal drama (no), the claw machine videos, the road trips, Los Angeles, Joshua Tree, Winnipeg, Paris and back to Los Angeles, the cars and why I haven't changed the graphics, but who wants to hear all that? That's ten fucking years of ... stuff. I will say this -- the pink. I wanted my blog to look like a Nancy Sinatra album I've cherished from Chung Sheng Records, a label from Tawain "of doubtful legality." I loved the murky, photocopied cover (the records were for US soldiers stationed in Taiwan in the 60's and 70s) and the vinyl is orange. The pink and white gingham of Dare Wright's The Lonely Doll book also figured into the mix. If I knew what I was doing it would be a Bang, Bang Doll mash-up of Nancy and Dare simplicity but I don't so ... pink.
And then there's Patty. My first post was about The Bad Seed ("You Lie All the Time,") a movie I have loved since childhood and a movie that would return to this blog, quite happily, in the real life form of the great Patty McCormack herself. Rhoda Penmark started my blog and became my constant, and an oddly comforting brat in times of frustration. There's something exhilirating about watching little Rhoda threaten handyman Leroy, especially if you've been condescended to or left with one of those delightful comments that pop up every once in a while, and depending on the post, often. There are variations of this comment, but everyone's favorite seems to be, "dumb whore." In those get-your-shine box moments, Patty as Rhoda demanding, "Give me those shoes back" is deeply satisfying.
So The Bad Seed seems a fitting marker of these ten years (and yesterday was Patty McCormack's birthday -- Penmark to Parker) as if Rhoda survived that lightning bolt and kept this whole thing going. She even made my flu better on a "horrible Halloween" ten years ago when I rhapsodized about not only seeing The Bad Seed for the first time on the big screen, but seeing Patty in person. I wrote, in 2004:
"So as I write feeling as if a knife is scraping the inside of my throat... I will report that Halloween weekend was still perfect for the unexpected pleasure that occurred the day before. Never having seen one of my favorite blonde, psychopathic movies on the big screen, I journeyed over to Long Beach to witness The Bad Seed, writ large. But get this, not only was I allowed the joy of watching a larger than life Rhoda Penmark 'tap, tap tapping on the walk' but I was granted the honor of seeing Ms. McCormack in the flesh! I've been to Q&A's, big deal, but this was like viewing Pretty Poison only to have Tuesday Weld saunter out.
"I rarely bound up to celebrities but I had to at least shake Patty's hand. So not only did I get to meet Ms. McCormack (who was charming, funny, warm and just dark enough to understand why she was such a genius at age ten) but talk to her about what that movie meant to some girls (like me). We, Bad Seed fans would all like (or secrectly have) a little Rhoda Penmark in us, and Patty, with relish, agreed. 'It's scary for men,' she said, 'but girls get it! They want to do all these things, maybe not kill, but you know, work it...' Of course."
Five years later, when presenting movies at the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival, I thrillingly learned that the festival had programmed The Bad Seed with Patty McCormack in person. Great! No, it's not a noir, but the esteemed Foster Hirsch told me it was his favorite movie as a boy. He was obsessed with it. He was going to talk about it (I jokingly told him he better do a good job or he'd get the shoe). His obsession made for a perfect on stage interview -- a wonderful balance of Bad Seed fandom with academic assiduousness, discussing her performance first on the stage and working with Mervy LeRoy on the picture.
I breathlessly reported in 2009: "I've written about this movie too many times to count... you have no idea how excited I am in the above photo." Talking with her (she had most recently played Pat Nixon in Frost/Nixon) and trying to shield her from the mob of fans, she was "relaxed, funny,down to earth and beautiful." Here I am talking to Patty in this little clip (special guest: the fantastic Robert Loggia). It has now occurred to me I have never actually interviewed her, officially. What is wrong with me? That needs to change.
And now five years later it's back to Patty. So far she has not reappeared in person again but her director, the inventive, often ingenious LeRoy (he's directed some masterpieces and some of my favorites including I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Two Seconds, Little Caesar, Gold Diggers of 1933, Random Harvest, Home Before Dark) made an appearance in my last post. I revisted, briefly, his excellent pre-code Heat Lightning which like The Bad Seed also features some arousing fulmination. The man knew how to throw a bolt.
And he knew how to open up both a stage play and a young actress with some scary and frequently funny power, unleashing this conniving, faux-hysterical psycho on the screen with a unique blend of camp and seriousness. It's not his greatest picture (it's not Fugitive, Gold Diggers or Random Harvest) but it is excellent -- it's so fun and fascinating and intelligent and McCormack is such a wonder (and so wonderfully horrifying) that it's nearly impossible to dislike. And it keeps returning to me. So, I'll close this with my first post, ten years ago.
The baby blonde. That symbol of purity, beauty and goodness. In 1950’s America who wouldn’t want to have a lovely, flaxen haired child to adore and spoil? Who wouldn't now? But by 1956, two important films emerged -- showing the underbelly of these perfect specimens. The more esteemed, and notorious (it was condemned by the Legion of Decency) was Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, in which the gorgeous child bride Carroll Baker destroys Karl Malden’s masculinity whilst sleeping in a crib and sucking her thumb. While other relevant issues pervade Kazan’s masterful take on Tennessee Williams, the lingering image is of Ms. Baker in that crib is an iconic, powerful vision of arrested sexuality.
But just as viewers took a heated look at Baby Doll, they had another blonde to contend with -- a younger and deadlier one -- The Bad Seed. Pretty 10-year-old Patty McCormack playing an 8-year-old, owning her pig tails and pinafore skirts as Rhoda Penmark, a curtsying, cutie-pie brat who’ll manipulate, terrorize and kill anyone who gets in her way. Both actresses’ were deservedly Oscar nominated for their performances, both pictures became the more cultish movies in these filmmaker's canons (Bad Seed and Baby Doll fans are a devoted group) and both have felt a touch underrated through time.
In the case of The Bad Seed, part of the problem may lie in the transfer from play to film. Director Mervyn LeRoy rightfully transported nearly all of the actors from the successful stage play (adapted by Maxwell Anderson from the novel by William March), but was forced to change the ending. In the play, an unstoppable Rhoda continues her evil while after her killings, she chillingly plays her continual practice piece, "Claire de Lune" on the piano. Perfect. In the picture, however, she is socked with a lightning bolt. O.K, also perfect. But, (and I'm not endorsing the harm of children here, even evil children), Warner Brothers instructed LeRoy to further punish Rhoda, or in this case Patty, by having cast members spank little McCormack, assuring the audience this was all a bunch of fun. You know, burning, drowning, murdering kids with tap shoes...
But The Bad Seed is fun. Gleefully, unapologetically and relevantly fun. In its own way, the tweaked ending just makes the picture even more inadvertently subversive and experimental, calling out to the audience that you've just seen a motion picture and haven't you enjoyed watching this cute little killer? The picture knows how we love to hate little Rhoda, and some of us, how we love to love her. She’s just too damn full of vicious personality. I'd even go so far as to nearly (I say nearly) champion her spirit (even if patholoical) and wish she would invoke more of that personality before her inevitable demise. She's such a fascinating vixen villain. More women, or little girls in this case, should be blessed with such material.
Living with her mother Christine (an understandably neurotic Nancy Kelly) and mostly absent father (William Hopper, Hedda Hopper's son) Rhoda's life is one of privilege and attention. When kissing her father goodbye he asks “What would you give me for a basket of kisses?” Rhoda coos back: “A basket of hugs!” Landlady and supposed expert in psychology, Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) dotes on Rhoda, applauding her out-moded manners and showering her with presents, one, being rhinestone movie star glasses. Of course Rhoda loves those glassess and admires herself in the mirror like a little movie star. As Breedlove (the name!) prattles on about Freud and abnormal psychology, the rather ridiculous woman simply cannot see the freakish behavior in front of her. She's blinded by all that bright, beauteous blonde and fakey, clenched smiles.
But Leroy (a scene stealing Henry Jones), the disturbed, somewhat perverse handyman disrespected by the household can see right through Rhoda. You even get a sense he's got a thing for her, splashing her with the hose and harassing her tea parties. He understands her pathologies because he's pathological -- they'd make a fine pair. He's just not as smart as she is. Their scenes together provoke some of the picture's most inspired moments. Man, does Leroy get off digging into Rhoda, and especially after that fateful class outing leaving one child dead; not coincidentally, the classmate who won the penmanship medal over the all perfecting Rhoda (“Everyone knew I wrote the best hand!” she sulks in sour grapes dramatics). The little boy is drowned and Rhoda returns home as if nothing happened. "Why should I feel bad? It was Claude Daigle got drowned, not me" she insists. And then she goes roller skating.
Meanwhile, her poor mother becomes increasingly rattled and the boy's mother (a heartbreaking Eileen Heckart), stumbles around in a dipsomaniacal stupor, trying to understand the death of her son by making everyone uncomfortable, which is refreshing. Everyone should feel uncomfortable.
Though some have a tough time with The Bad Seed’s talkier sequences (especially when Rhoda’s not around), to me they are an intriguing look into ideas that would later be seriously considered in American life. They also point out how psychology can’t explain everything (hence, a bad seed) as the one woman (Breedlove) who brags of her knowledge, fails to sense anything wrong with a child who is, at the very least, self obsessed to the point of dangerous narcissism. Never mind she’s a murderer, she's an ungrateful, vapid manipulator.
And, the golden moments come, again, between Leroy and Rhoda who argue like two prison inmates waiting for lockdown, they're not gonna narc on each other. Though Rhoda finds him revolting, he’s the only adult who can actually frighten the child with his taunts of “stick blood hounds” or the dreaded electric chair, a fate he swears she'll meet. “They don’t send little girls to the electric chair!” Rhoda protests. “They don’t?” He answers. “They got a little blue chair for little boys and a little pink chair for little gals!”
Films like The Omen or The Good Son or Orphan have tried, but nothing compares to The Bad Seed, and no child actor has out-seeded McCormack (Nick Cave knows). Calm and cool, she can also rip into fits of rage that are both terrifying and hilarious. Perfectly balancing a disarmingly adult demeanor with the tantrums of a little girl, her performance is even more impressive in that it’s the blueprint. Where did McCormack learn this wonderful balance of over-theatrical camp with an icy, realistic serenity? And before John Waters became obsessed with her?
A first of its kind, the then shocking Bad Seed holds up, albeit with a tad more camp to some. Though I would say stylized and intriguingly formal, while also terrifying, touching and real, particularly in moments between mother and daughter. Nancy Kelly is superbly moving in her need to believe and her realization that she can't any longer. But the psychotic gusto of Rhoda! You hate her. You love her. And she's devilishly entertaining. Revel in her. Agree with Leroy who spits out: “I thought I saw some mean little gals in my time, but you're the meanest!” What a character. The itty bitty ultimate ice queen bitch goddess. Future Pretty Poison. The original Curse of Millhaven. "My hair is a-yellow and I'm always a-combing. La la la la La la la lie!"
Here's to ten. I can't imagine ten more but... perhaps. Perhaps. When I shut this pink thing down I'm hoping, well, I pray for that bolt of LeRoy lightning. It parts your hair, neat!
And here's Patty McCormack's 1957 single "Bubble Gum."