The Bad Seed
A proficient and quite prolific playwright, Maxwell Anderson is significant not necessarily for the brilliance of his work, but for its production-friendly content. Key Largo and What Price Glory? are two of the more notable regional theater chestnuts he contributed to the canon, but his most enduring creation is unquestionably his 1954 adaptation of William March's novel The Bad Seed, a thoroughly conventional and uncontroversial treatment of the then-highly provocative notion that a sweet-faced little girl could be capable of multiple, cold-blooded homicide. The tale is rather quaint in the wake of the bloodier and more exploitative likes of genre-mates The Omen and Children of the Corn, but, oh, if only datedness was its only sin. Because an unrepentant killer child was an unthinkable idea 50 years ago, veteran director Mervyn LeRoy wedged it into the high-production-value trappings of the prestige picture. And while the film looks fabulous (as any picture shot by the great cinematographer Harold Rosson is wont to look), it is a stiff, airless, and preposterously serious 129-minute slog enlivened only by the performance that launched a thousand drag routines, that of Patricia McCormack as Rhoda Penmark, the titular demon spawn. Rhoda is the daughter of Colonel Kenneth and Christine Penmark (William Hopper and Nancy Kelly respectively), two seemingly good-hearted and unconditionally loving parents blithely tolerant of the child's aggressive precociousness. At the tale's outset, Kenneth is called for some unspecified service, leaving Christine to contend with Rhoda, who is in danger of being spoiled rotten by their doting landlady, the unsubtly christened Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden). Rhoda, it appears, is accustomed to getting precisely what she wants, which is why her inability to win a coveted penmanship medal at school eats away at her. The failure is especially acute since it's an honor conferred on the most precise, and Rhoda prides herself on perfection at all things, from schoolwork to her flawless curtsey. So, when the child who beat her out for the medal mysteriously drowns during a school picnic, Rhoda becomes an unspoken suspect, though no actual charges are ever brought. Though motive and opportunity are ironclad, she is, after all, a child of two highly respected parents; such evil needs to be bred into the girl, and she's been inundated with nothing but love and good manners. Capitalizing on the era's fascination with analysis, Anderson's script (opened up slightly for the screen by John Lee Mahin) lapses into dime store psychology, which, while it might've been terribly novel and fascinating at the time, is as plodding as the expository denouement of Psycho. Worse, a burdensome subplot involving Christine's possible adoption is invented for the sole purpose of belaboring the story's simplistic nature vs. nurture inquiry, which also necessitates the prolonged absence of McCormack, who's the only thing worth watching in this creaky melodrama. But the film's most unforgivable infraction is its refusal to embrace its obvious camp trappings. Instead, LeRoy seems content to film his actors imitating whatever it was that brought them onstage acclaim (Kelly, McCormack, Varden and a few others reprised their roles from the original Broadway run), which results in a lot of highly theatrical acting. As the tortured mother with a dark, suppressed secret, Kelly's performance suffers the most, while McCormack, by virtue of the role's presentational quality, lingers most favorably in memory. Warner presents The Bad Seed in an excellent full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with monaural Dolby Digital audio. Extras include a vigorous, highly entertaining feature-length commentary from McCormack and the always-entertaining playwright/drag queen Charles Busch, and a "making-of" featurette entitled "Enfant Terrible: A Conversation with Patty McCormack" (15 min.) Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
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