The Bad Seed (1956): Evil within innocence poses universal conundrum

Twists and electric denouement drive old fashioned play script

Theme is hidden sociopathy, and nature versus nurture

Live acted credits at the end are special bonus

Rhoda and Lerpy, the maintenance man: it takes one to know one

The Bad Seed is disquieting, but comfortably so, as befits a “classic” rerun on PBS from TCM from time to time. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy in 1956, it’s a well produced and professionally acted old fashioned stage drama, based on a 1954 play by Maxwell Anderson, and includes many of the original Broadway cast. It’s also a must see, since it started a whole genre in devilish babes.

You can't judge a human by the cover

You can’t judge a human by the cover

Anderson adapted it from a novel from William March which was published the same year, only a month before the novelist’s death, and before he could enjoy the huge critical and commercial success of this work, which addressed one of the great concerns of human life: to what extent is heartless psychopathy inherited, and how often is it hidden under the skin of child or adult and unrecognized by others?

The movie’s initially routine development soon twists and turns as the devilish nature of Rhoda Penmark, a seemingly happy eight year old with doll-like charm, emerges to confound all the nice and conventionally well intentioned people that surround her, including her mother, who has mentally buried a dark childhood secret of her own.

The unfolding of her little treasure’s psychopathy generates enough tension and twists as the story develops to redeem what would otherwise be a too predictable melodrama better left to the stage or page. The innate evil hidden under cute, pigtailed innocence emerges soon enough as psychopathic acquisitiveness, wreaking murder more than once as well as havoc on the good, sensitive and conventionally nice people that surround her.

Taken them off Rhoda – they’re a giveaway!

Rhoda is played by Patti McCormick, who was nominated for an Oscar for her acting, which she said she enjoyed. She does seem older, although Bosley Crowther went too far at the time saying that she could stand next to Marilyn Monroe. The victims of her cruel greed include especially her mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly), who is weepily concerned with the feelings of others to an inordinate degree, and so horrified at her child’s murderous greed that she eventually tries to end both their lives.

Even Mummy has to look really closely to see what is inside a child

There is a special satisfaction in watching a well crafted story develop as its various plot elements dovetail nicely, one of them being a running debate on whether nastiness is the fruit of bad influences and upbringing or breeding ie results from genes and cannot be revised. Convinced that the latter is true, the mother assumes all the guilt of her dangerous offspring As the story stands, she must be right, since she undoubtedly gave her baby the best possible modeling for treating others with kindness and consideration. We are taken back to the days when an evilly psychopathic nature was recognized for what it was confidently taken to be, an internal state rooted in devilish genes, and twisting a soul beyond reform through punishment or reeducation.

It’s only a play. folks – but watch out for its real life counterparts

Stay with the film till past the end, when the standard approach of the credits as lines of text is replaced by the brief personal appearances and smiles of each the Broadway actors involved, a notion which is rounded off with a nice visual joke. This scene will appear on the PBS copy, which will also feature the electrifying end done by the director to satisfy the Hays Code (the novel and the play ended less dramatically, with Rhoda free to go on with her appalling career).

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Why so popular? because we all know someone sociopathic, we just didn’t know before

Directed by
Mervyn LeRoy
Writing Credits
John Lee Mahin … (screenplay)

Maxwell Anderson … (play)

William March – novel.
Cast (in credits order) complete, awaiting verification
Nancy Kelly – Christine Penmark
Patty McCormack – Rhoda Penmark
Henry Jones – Leroy Jessup
Eileen Heckart – Hortense Daigle
Evelyn Varden – Monica Breedlove
William Hopper – Col. Kenneth Penmark
Paul Fix – Richard Bravo
Jesse White – Emory Wages
Gage Clarke – Reginald ‘Reggie’ Tasker
Joan Croydon – Claudia Fern (as Joan Croyden)
Frank Cady – Henry Daigle

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