The Bad Seed (1956)
"What will you give me for a basket of kisses?"
"I'll give you a basket of hugs!"
— Said no parent and child to each other ever in the history of time.
Such is the charming colloquy between Kenneth Penmark (William Hopper) and his darling daughter, Rhoda (Patty McCormack), in William March's 1954 novel, The Bad Seed, repeated in the hit Broadway play of the same name, and again in the 1956 film version of the play. The pair enact this call-and-response every time Kenneth leaves for or returns from one of his many extended military trips. It is a mark of their affection; it is their Thing.
Kenneth's wife, Christine (Nancy Kelly), thinks it's adorable. She loves her husband and is proud of his service and success. The Penmarks have moved several times in their young married life, but Christine is happy, makes friends easily, and is blessed with the company of their charming, if "old-fashioned," well-behaved, polite eight-year-old daughter, Rhoda.
Rhoda attends a country day school run by a Miss Fern. On the day of the school picnic, Rhoda insists upon wearing a pretty dress and her new patent leather Mary Janes, which are tricked out with metal clips to protect the heel. She likes the way they clickety-clack on the floor. The Penmark's friend and neighbor, Monica Breedlove (Evalyn Varden), stops by — because that's her Thing — and delights in the fact that Rhoda isn't wearing dungarees as do today's grubby children; how she loves to be a little lady all the time.
With Rhoda off at the picnic, Monica and Christine have an expository chat about how perfect Rhoda is, how lucky Christine is to have such a devoted husband and precious, precious girl. Suddenly, a news announcer comes over the radio to inform the public that a child has died in an accident at the Fern school picnic. Panic and worry abound until Rhoda, wholly unruffled, walks through the front door.
Turns out the child who died was poor little Claude Daigle, the recent recipient of school's penmanship medal, an award Rhoda believed was rightfully hers. Expecting Rhoda to be traumatized, Christine is surprised at how matter-of-fact her daughter is in retelling that Claude fell off the pier (which they were told not to play on) and was found drowned among the pilings. She saw the body. Can she have an ice cream now?
Christine is then visited by several people, because 75 percent of the film takes place in her living room (stage-to-film: no frills). First is Miss Fern, who asks that Rhoda not return to her school in the fall. Apparently, she had been hounding poor little Claude Daigle at the picnic, demanding that he give her the medal. While Rhoda was polite and obedient in class, Miss Fern is sorry to say that her cold manner has made her unpopular with both students and staff, and well, the picnic was the last straw.
The next person to drop in is a very drunk Hortense Daigle (Eileen Heckart), who has learned that Rhoda was the last person to see her poor little Claude alive. From her we learn that 1) the boy had peculiar half-moon marks on the back of his hands and forehead, 2) Hortense will never have more children, and 3) Eileen Heckart is the best drunk in the history of cinema.
Then Monica pops by to pick up a necklace she told Rhoda she would have repaired. As Christine is poking around Rhoda's jewelry box, she finds poor little Claude Daigle's penmanship medal. She immediately confronts the girl, who lies, saying she won it back from him, but didn't want to say anything at the time, because poor little Claude Daigle went and got drowned. A nervous Christine goes to the fishing pier and throws the medal into the water.
A few days later, Christine's father, the famous journalist, Richard Bravo, comes to town and they all have drinks with Monica and her friend Reginald Tasker, a crime writer. The conversation turns to serial killers, and Tasker remembers that Bravo covered the famous Bessie Denker case. Denker murdered her entire family, except one child, a girl, who got away. The group then discusses the nature of evil (as you do). Christine believes that violence is the product of brutish people who live in poor conditions, surely not in "good" families who want for nothing. Her father disagrees: some people are just born bad.
And by the way, you were adopted. Also, your mother was Bessie Denker.
Meanwhile, under the scuppernong arbor, creepy handyman, LeRoy (Henry Jones), is engaged in his favorite pastime: teasing Rhoda. He believes—as do we all—that it's weird for “Miss High and Mighty” to be so unmoved by her classmate's death, so he decides to tell her all about how the police can find blood on anything and that they have special electric chairs for children: pink for girls and blue for boys.
Rhoda decides she needs to get rid of her new Mary Janes with the half-moon metal heel protectors. Christine catches her on the way to the incinerator and Rhoda spills the beans: When poor little Claude Daigle wouldn't give her the medal she chased him off the pier, ripped the medal off his shirt as he tried to climb out and hit him with her shoes until he went under. Rhoda was afraid he would tell.
Christine starts to remember other strange "accidents" that happened to people and pets when Rhoda was a child. Believing she is responsible for handing down the killer gene, Christine tells Rhoda to burn the shoes. LeRoy runs into Rhoda in the garden and decides to tease her some more, wondering aloud why she doesn't wear those awful loud clackety shoes anymore? Oh! You must have used them to kill that poor little Claude Daigle. Ha ha ha! Rhoda, not laughing, goes off to play some pick up sticks. With matches.
Later that day, while Rhoda is practicing her piano, Monica and Christine hear muffled screams from the basement. It seems LeRoy's bed of excelsior caught fire while he was sleeping on it. The spectacle of LeRoy en flambe dying in the garden sends Christine around the bend. Monica brings her some vitamins and a spare bottle of sleeping pills to help her through the night.
That evening, as Christine reads Rhoda a bed time story, she hands the child a bunch of "vitamins" to take with her milk. "Why so many?" Rhoda asks. "They're special," says her mother. After Rhoda takes the last sleeping pill and drifts off, Christine, closes the book, walks to her bedroom, and shoots herself in the head.
Here is where Mervyn LeRoy and the producers lost their minds. In both the book and the play, Christine dies, but Monica, alerted by the gunshot, gets Rhoda to the hospital in time to save her life. Kenneth comes home believing his child survived a murder-suicide committed by his wife and has no idea his kid is a sociopath. Now that’s scary!
In the movie, Christine survives the gunshot wound and Rhoda goes home with her daddy (along with, presumably, a basket of hugs). Kenneth, played by William Hopper with the emotional depth of a bingo caller, apparently forgives the wife that just tried to kill their child and herself. But because it is 1956 and the Production Code does not allow a murderer to go unpunished, Rhoda gets out of bed in the middle of night during a thunderstorm, throws on a charming raincoat and boot ensemble and goes out to the fishing pier to try to retrieve the penmanship medal with a net. She is then struck by lightning and killed.
The Bad Seed is, in spite of its absurd, moral panic of an ending, a good story, if not a good movie. It was probably an excellent play, given the quality of the performances given by Kelly, McCormack, Heckart, and Jones, all of whom reprised their Broadway roles. But the production is flat, the scenes too theatrical, and the pacing melodramatic.
To top it all off, the whole goddamned cast comes out from behind a literal curtain at the end of the film to take their bows. Then Nancy Kelly puts Patty McCormack over her knee for a hilarious spanking. Apparently, the thought of a murderous (blonde, white) child from a “good” family was so frightening, that the studio had to remind audiences that the story wasn’t true. After this spectacle, viewers were implored not to spoil the shocking ending for future viewers.
Rhoda Penmark was a horrifying prospect. A child of loving parents in a good (i.e., not poor, not foreign, not minority) home turns out to be a murderous sociopath; she is obedient, charming, and does what she’s supposed to, until she wants something. Kind of like actual sociopaths, who don’t go around slow-singing nursery rhymes, as today's cinematic killer children would have you believe.
My favorite scene in the film is when Christine is slowly plying Rhoda with sleeping pills while reading her to sleep. Rhoda mentions that Monica has a love bird she promised to give her when she dies. Reading continues. “How long do love birds live, mother?” “Oh, a year or two, I expect.” More reading. “Monica and I are going sunbathing on the roof tomorrow. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
What a tender, terrifying moment: a mother believing that what she is about to do is safer for everyone—no one will know about Rhoda, the killing will stop, and Christine will gladly pay the price. At least the book lets her die in peace. The movie makes her live with it.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
Proud Member Of