I had a horrible Halloween. After discussing what babies people were over there beloved flu shots...after I bragged about how I NEVER get sick, certainly NEVER the Flu, I woke up the next day, sick with what would appear to be a cold/flu. So as I write feeling as if a knife is scraping the inside of my throat, I can only say that, well, I don't feel like writing much. I'd rather take more Xanax (I know, I know. It does nothing for a cold. But at least I'm calm) and watch Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford and Jack Palance for the tenth time.
But...I must 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 pleasure 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. Or taking in Fox and His Friends with a risen-from-the-dead Rainer Werner Fassbinder show up for questions.
I rarely bound up to celebrities and can think of four others I HAD to meet: Jerry Lewis, Camille Paglia, Ike Turner and Eldridge Cleaver whom I spotted walking around Powell's bookstore. Like them, I HAD to at least shake Patty's hand. So not only did I get to meet my idol (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 clear 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.
In honor--I'm running my Bad Seed piece again and then, going to bed, dreaming of the future of Monica Breedlove, who would have been iced had the movie not changed the ending to cute little Rhoda getting hit by that lightning bolt which always pisses me off. She could have grown up to become...Pretty Poison.
“Why should I feel sorry? It was Claude Daigle got drowned, not me.”
Ah…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? Of course, everyone, but by 1956, two important films emerged, showing the underbelly of these perfect specimens. The more esteemed, and notorious (it was banned by the Legion of Decency after all) 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. Never mind she’s 19 going on 20. While other relevant issues pervade Kazan’s masterful take on Tennessee Williams, the lingering image is of Ms. Baker in that crib…an iconic vision of arrested sexuality.
But just as viewers took a gander at Baby Doll, they had another blonde to contend with—a much younger, smarter and deadlier one—The Bad Seed. Pretty 10 year-old Patty McCormack playing an 8 year-old in 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 but its Mervyn LeRoy’s picture, though much loved by cultists, which remains highly underrated.
Part of the problem may lie in the transfer of play to film. LeRoy rightfully transported nearly all of the actors from the successful stage play (most likely to the annoyance of Warner Brothers who probably desired a bigger star for Rhoda’s mother) but had to change the ending. In the play, Rhoda goes on playing her continual practice piece, "Claire de Lune" on the piano after her killings. Perfect. In the film, she is socked with a lightning bolt. Also perfect. But not to endorse the harm of children, even the most evil, Warner Brothers had LeRoy tack on actress Nancy Kelly spanking little McCormack— assuring the audience this was all a bunch of fun. You know, burning, drowning, murdering kids with tap shoes--fun!
But, in an early bit of camp—The Bad Seed is fun. Gleefully, unapologetically and relevantly fun. In its own way, the end changes just make the picture even more inadvertently subversive. How we love to hate little Rhoda. And for some of us (myself included), how we love to love her…she’s just too damn full of vicious personality. I even go so far as to champion her actions and wish she would invoke more harm before her inevitable demise.
But enough of my sick adoration and to the movie itself. Living with her mother Christine (an understandably neurotic Nancy Kelly) and mostly absent father (William Hopper--Hedda Hopper's son) her 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 Rhoda, of course, loves. As she prattles on about Freud and abnormal psychology, this rather ridiculous woman cannot see the freakish behavior in front of her.
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), leading to some of the film’s greatest moments. Especially after the fateful class outing leaving one child dead; not coincidentally, the class-mate who won the penmanship medal over the all perfecting Rhoda (“Everyone knew I wrote the best hand!” she hollers in sour grapes dramatics). The little boy is drowned and Rhoda returns home as if nothing happened. She goes roller skating. Meanwhile, her mother becomes increasingly rattled.
Though some have a tough time with The Bad Seed’s talkier sequences (especially when Rhoda’s not around), they remain intriguing looks into ideas that would later be considered serious and or scientific. It also points out how psychology can’t explain everything (hence, a bad seed) as the one woman who brags of her knowledge, can’t sense anything wrong with a child who’s, at the very least, self obsessed to the point of vapid narcissism. Never mind she’s a murderer.
And, the golden moments come, again, between Leroy and Rhoda who argue like two prison inmates waiting for lockdown. Though Rhoda finds him revolting, he’s the only one who can scare her with his taunts of “stick blood hounds” or the idea that she can go to the electric chair for what he knows is a murder. “They don’t send little girls to the electric chair!” Rhoda protests. “Oh they don’t?” He answers. “The got a blue one for little boys and a pink one for little gals!”
Though films like The Omen or The Good Son have tried, nothing compares to The Bad Seed—and no child actor has out-seeded McCormack. 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 classic and first of it’s kind, the then shocking Bad Seed holds up, albeit with a tad more camp, but with just as much psychotic gusto. Revel in McCormack’s Rhoda, a character even the obnoxiously talented Dakota Fanning couldn’t play (though the rumor is, Dakota will star in the re-make). As Leroy spits out: “I thought I saw some mean little gals in my time, but you're the meanest!” Yes indeed, and also the greatest. If the crown could exist, Rhoda is our Queen.