Movie Discussion: Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956)

  • Monthly Theme: Evil Childrenthe-bad-seed-movie-poster-1956-1020461248
  • The Film: The Bad Seed
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: September 12, 1956
  • Studio: Warner Bros.
  • Distributer: Warner Bros.
  • Domestic Gross: $4.1 million
  • Budget: $1 million (estimated)
  • Director: Mervyn LeRoy
  • Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
  • Screenwriter: John Lee Mahin
  • Adaptation? Yes, from the 1954 play The Bad Seed by Maxwell Anderson and the 1954 novel The Bad Seed by William March.
  • Cinematographer: Harold Rosson
  • Make-Up/FX: John Beckman
  • Music: Alex North
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? Yes, as the 1985 made-for-ABC-TV movie The Bad Seed, starring Lynn Redgrave and David Carradine.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Child star Patty McCormack (Bug(1975), Invitation to Hell, etc.).
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: Best Supporting Actress [Eileen Heckart] at the 1957 Golden Globes.
  • Tagline: “A WOMAN’S SHAME… Out in the open!”
  • The Lowdown: Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly) is a well-to-do American housewife without a care in the world – except that she’s slowly beginning to suspect that her adorable 8-year-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack) night actually be a cold-blooded killer. When one of Rhoda’s schoolmates dies mysteriously while on a class outing, Christine begins a process of self-examination that leads her to uncover dark secrets about her own past and the truth about her daughter.

If you haven’t seen The Bad Seed our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Sean: When we spoke briefly, you mentioned that your initial reaction was that The Bad Seed is anti-woman. Have your thoughts shifted since? Or do you still think that?

Kristine: My thoughts have shifted, for sure. I realized that my first reaction was genre shock. I don’t get a lot of melodrama in my day-to-day media intake, so I am not used to the simultaneous catharsis and critique that over-the-top “women’s stories” carry. Sean, this movie is just so excessive. I think we touched on this when we chatted on the phone earlier, but if I didn’t know better I would think The Bad Seed is a contemporary film by, say, Mr. John Waters, both paying homage to and spoofing 1950s ladies’ movies. What are your thoughts?

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 6.29.12 AM
The secret weeping of motherhood

Sean: The melodramatic elements of The Bad Seed appeal to me a lot. I agree that the movie is basically a really macabre weepie. It could be placed easily alongside, say, Stella Dallas or Mildred Pierce (in fact, that might be the perfect genrefuck trilogy about mother/daughter strife). My thoughts about the movie tend towards what it says about heterosexuality and the family more than its attitudes about women, per se. I was really struck by how the movie presents Rhoda’s extreme femininity as perverse which, in the context of 1956, feels a bit radical to me.

Kristine: Oh, I agree. How it is a facade, hiding her true “masculine” disposition – rageful and homicidal.

Sean: Right. She doesn’t like blue jeans because “blue jeans are not quite lady-like” (for which Monica calls her a “sweet, old-fashioned little dear”) and then later, when Miss Fern basically accuses Rhoda of murder to Christine, Fern presents as evidence the fact that “Rhoda was the only girl who wore a dress that day.” The dress marks her and sets her apart from other ‘normal’ girls.

Kristine: She gets busted by fashion.

Sean: Totally busted. Her feminine exterior is a mark of her conservatism. Her character is all about nostalgia, about this antiquated, outmoded expression of femininity. Like when Tasker tells her that her curtsies are “the best thing left out of the Middle Ages.”

Kristine: Rhoda justifies her acts of violence according to a very strict code. In her mind, when she lashes out at someone she is righting a wrong and exercising extreme behavior modification on her victims. Meaning, to Rhoda, the world is supposed to be a certain way and follow a very clearly defined set of rules and when it doesn’t, she is compelled to force it to do so. She was supposed to win the penmanship award, so when she didn’t the world was off-kilter and had to be corrected by any means. Likewise with Mrs. Clara Post’s tchotchke – it was meant to be hers. Rhoda simply speeded the process along by falling into her “on purpose” and knocking her down the stairs to her death. And Christine told her that the tell-tale tap shoes had to be destroyed, so when pervy Leroy got in the way of that he had to go. So, Rhoda is this deviant who is actually an extreme conformist to “the rules,” which makes her conservative to the max.

Sean: Also, her crimes all tie back to her narcissism and desire for products/markers of status – she’s the ultimate perverse capitalist.

1956 The Bad Seed McCormack
The creature regards itself

Kristine: Yeah.

Sean: Remember when Monica gives her the rhinestone sunglasses and is like “My, my, who is this glamorous Hollywood actress?” and the score shifts from sunny 1950s piano tinkling to this dark and ominous horror movie music as Rhoda regards herself in the mirror. Narcissism is part of her perversion.

Kristine: Totally. She can wrap her mind around that feminine archetype – glamorous Hollywood actress – as easily as she can the archetype of the “perfect little girl.”

Sean: It feels like a comment on the constraints of classical femininity to construct this little killer girl who seems to come roaring out of the Middle Ages/18th c. French society as a monster – like the repressed past returning with a vengeance. None of the other women in The Bad Seed are as “feminine” as Rhoda in the movie – they’re all “modern.” Remember when Monica is gushing over Rhoda and says “How wonderful to meet such a natural little girl,” which is of course hilarious and ironic. There is nothing natural about Rhoda’s self-presentation. It’s all extreme artifice, as evidenced by those cloying curtsies that nauseate Miss Fern. Also, her sick braids are totally phallic and I was dying when Tasker reaches out to stroke them.

Kristine: “Tasker” sounds like an S&M sex toy. Those braids. The perfect symbols for Rhoda – tightly wound, controlled, twisted. That reminds me, I feel like there is probably something going on with the names in this movie. Remember Monica Breedlove (!) holding her psychiatric salon with Tasker and Christine and Emery? She says that her trouble, according to her analyst, is “associating ideas with words and names.” I feel like that is a cue to us that all of the characters’ names in the movie have some significance.

Sean: To me, the naming scheme is meant to be a joke. The movie pokes fun at Freudian analysis throughout – mostly through the character of Monica – but also sets up its entire universe in the most explicitly Freudian terms imaginable, as evidenced by the absurdly literal “metaphors” for each character’s name – I mean, Richard Bravo for the phallic and heroic patriarch? Miss Fern for the spinster schoolmarm? The Penmarks and the penmanship trophy?

Kristine: Right, right.

Sean: And all of the relationships – especially between adults and children – are painted as polymorphously perverse and thrumming with sexual tension, in the most exaggerated Freudian fashion. And then there’s moments like when Christine admits that she’s terrified equally of both the revolver (phallic/manhood) and the poison (vaginal/ladyhood). I’m not sure if the movie, overall, is lampooning analysis or just poking fun at it while also invoking it and presenting it as valid. But something is up there.


Kristine: I agree. On the surface, deeply conservative Rhoda and the wild children from Who Can Kill a Child? seem diametrically opposed, but I think both are motivated by some deeply-ingrained belief about how the world should be, right? Remember how the killer kids in Who Can Kill a Child? are just absolutely shocked when Tom kills some of them in self-defense? To them, that is just not done. You do not kill a child, even if they’re gunning for you. I feel like both movies are pointing out the universal truism that children are, for the most part, deeply conservative and rule-driven. Thus Rhoda’s overuse in The Bad Seed of “but it’s not fair” and “but you said…” Adults tell children the world is one way, children believe it, and then adults change the game plan.

Sean: Right, right. So Rhoda plays “Au Clair de la Lune” over and over on the piano, which connects her back to 18th c. society and its stricter (and thus potentially more comforting) social codes. Remember how Hortense reads Christine to filth for being rich and from a better class of people and keeps remarking on Rhoda’s “social engagements” with bitterness? That song, by that way, was an 18th c. French folk song in which the speaker asks her friend Pierrot to let her borrow his pen so she can write a word. So…

Kristine: Hortense is my fave (though Monica Breedlove is pretty awesome, too). Every time she staggered on-screen I was like, “Yep! Here we go!” I found her performance both highly entertaining and genuinely moving. And she had some killer lines: “I’m unfortunate, that’s all. Drunk and unfortunate.” Loved it.

Sean: What about when she says that when she was little the other kids teased her by chanting, “My girl Hortense hasn’t got much sense, Let’s write her name on the privy fence”?

Kristine: That was too much, in the best way.

Sean: Rhoda’s continued playing of “Au Clair de la Lune” also links her to the movie’s opening Gothic landscape – the darkness and shadows that surround the otherwise bright and “normal”-seeming American small town. I was really struck by that bedtime story Christine reads to Rhoda early in the movie, which is called Inside the Castle Wall (a title that promises containment and protection) but ironically the scene she reads takes place out in the wilderness, where a knight meets a strange lady setting out cakes and dainties and a fucking flagon of wine and shit. Then Christine reads that the knight feasts with the lady until “the light had gone out of the wood and it was dark” and there is suddenly a pavilion that had been “created out of darkness by magic” – the tone shifts suddenly to one of menace, and the story invokes a more archetypal kind of female power – that of witchcraft and sorcery. I was really struck by how the movie juxtaposes old ideas about female power with “new” ideas about female psychopathy (Bessie Denker, Mrs. Allison the poisoner, etc.) and over all of it is that specter of the Gothic – the moonlight, the darkness out of which sinister magic is created…

The Bad Seed (7)
The well of loneliness

Kristine: Oh, good point. I was just astounded by how Christine was still acting so maternal and loving and gentle (which are “proper” feminine traits) towards Rhoda, once she has started to realize her daughter’s true nature. I loved the scene where Rhoda is off-screen playing “Au Clair de la Lune” faster and faster, providing the soundtrack for Christine losing her shit and pounding her hand on the kitchen table. A classic moment of female hysteria within a domestic setting – truly, Christine finds herself trapped ‘inside the castle wall.’ Also, that scene is just a great example of how kids can literally drive their mothers insane.

Sean: According to this movie, children drive their mothers insane and turn their fathers on. There was so much uncomfortable sexuality in this movie. And so many pervy moments between blood relatives.

Kristine: What about when Monica’s brother says that she’s “been spread out on couches from New York to Los Angeles” and it’s totally sexual and gross? And yes, the relationships between parents and their children are presented as deeply perverse, even when the child is an adult, right? I’m thinking of Christine and her daddy the RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority].

Sean: I’m sorry, don’t you mean Richard Bravo? Or is it Dick Bravo? People must call him Big Dick Bravo.

Kristine: Just like stupid Tom in Who Can Kill a Child?, Dick Bravo believes in shielding women from truths that they are entitled to know. He doesn’t tell Christine that she is adopted and that her mother was a psychopath until now? Also, I think it’s revealing that Bravo doesn’t make an appearance until Kenneth is gone, underscoring that he is filling the daddy/husband role for her. I think Christine speaks virtually the same sentiments to both her father and her husband at different times, something along the lines of ‘I’m so glad you’re here. I only feel safe when you’re here because you are so big and strong and smart. Please don’t go.’ I agree with your earlier statement that the grown women in The Bad Seed are mostly modern when compared with throwback Rhoda, but Christine’s need for an authoritarian male on the scene cuts against that. It’s as though all hell breaks loose in an all-female environment and a man needs to be around to keep the hysteria under control.

Sean: Oh yeah, the Oedipal/Electra stuff in this movie is really intense, right from the first scene in which Rhoda tells Kenneth, “I’ll miss your kisses, Daddy. You’re so big and strong!” as he presses her body against himself really intensely and fondles her braids and she’s there in that shockingly short dress and there’s just so much wrong with it. For me, the most subversive thing about The Bad Seed is that it locates the site of sexual perversity in heterosexuality and not in the queer characters like the (clearly lesbian) Miss Fern, who pauses from her passive-aggressive bitchery long enough to tell Christine, “You’re so much prettier when smiling.” But it’s the straights who are perverted. They all want to fuck their daughters and their fathers and their mothers and their sons. Like when Hortense tells the story about Claude wanting to marry her when he grows up and how pretty he thought she was… When Christine complains that “there’s a mature quality to [Rhoda] that’s disturbing in a child,” I was like, ‘You mean like how she wants to fuck your husband?’ Fathers and daughters talk to each other like lovers in this movie, including like you said, Christine and Big Dick Bravo. And lots of the instances of female violence cited in the movie happen between fathers and daughters. Mrs. Allison was caught when “she poisoned her 80-year-old father with arsenic in his buttermilk.” Bessie Denker was said to have “never used the same poison twice” and “her father, for example, died of rabies, supposedly contracted from a mad dog.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 6.24.38 AM
The passionate embrace of fatherhood

Kristine: Right. Monica mentions several times that Leroy “has the mind of an eight-year old, but he’s managed to produce a family.” She allows him a livelihood only because he is following the program of being a normal part of society by marrying and reproducing, even though he is clearly a complete and utter freak. I see this kind of fucked up decision-making in the workforce all the time. In my professional life, I’ve borne witness to numerous incidents wherein men performed atrociously and had supervisors tell me that the only reason they aren’t fired is because they have families to support. Of course, the subtext being that in I would not be allowed to behave in that manner. Sorry, I guess that was veering into personal rant territory….

Sean: No, that’s actually really fascinating. Men are allowed to be barely competent as long as they’re fulfilling our cultural fantasy of being patriarchs and “family men.” Like I’ve heard moms/wives complain about all the time, men get congratulated just for showing up. Mothers are expected to be everything and better not show any stress/strain. Has this changed that much since the 1950s? I was struck by how potentially subversive it was to have Christine kill Rhoda, even though the movie backs off from that idea by having Rhoda survive (though notice that Christine fulfills her genetic destiny by becoming a female poisoner). And Christine survives, which is ridiculous. In the book, Christine dies and Rhoda lives on to kill another day. But without that change, we wouldn’t have gotten that gloriously campy scene where Christine, head swathed in bandages, basically has phone sex with Kenneth while all the doctors and nurses are standing there watching.

Kristine: Christine’s attempt to kill Rhoda comes out of a place of maternal love, though, right? She knows Rhoda was “born bad” and wants to spare her from living this evil life. She also wants to protect society from her spawn, and is thus being a “good mother” to the culture-at-large. There are shades of Beloved-esque pathological maternal logic at play there – kill your own child to spare them the evils of the world that they have been born into (like the character from La Dolce Vita that Tom talks about in Who Can Kill a Child?).

Sean: Being a mother, according to The Bad Seed, is an existential dilemma that’s about (1) the social code/status quo and “protecting” society against what our children have become – which seems to me like a very post-war, creation-of-the-American-teenager anxiety and (2) a woman’s own sense of her origins and nature, as dramatized here by the most Freudian scene in the movie, that epic ‘return of the repressed’ monologue in which Christine uncovers buried memories of her “other life” and has vague memories of hiding, terrified, outside (in the Gothic landscape that is paired with the medieval forest of the storybook from earlier) and hearing her mother’s voice calling to her…. That moment when her own origins are revealed to her feels like the heart and soul of the movie to me, and was a very Roseanne-says-that-a-hypnotist-helped-her-remember-childhood-molestation moment of pop psychology on a grand scale.

Kristine: Wow. So true. Tell me how you responded to Leroy. I lived for the his tête-à-têtes with Rhoda. When you were a kid, was there a creepy Leroy in your world?

Gargamel wants a piece of Smurfette

Sean: Leroy’s presence in the movie was very child predator and I thought all of his scenes with Rhoda suggested the drama of an adult predator attempting to seduce/entrap/prey upon a child victim. Like when Leroy SPRAYS Rhoda’s shoes with his HOSE. Of course, the sick joke in The Bad Seed is that Leroy’s the one who will be Rhodas’ victim. One way in which Rhoda is a kind of feminist icon is that she turns Leroy’s attempts to “fuck with her” (the subtext is that he wants to actually fuck her) against him and destroys him, which was pretty awesome. But yeah, there are lots of scary/leery adult men in my childhood memories.

Kristine: Yeah, mine too.

Sean: Most of them were older, though. Much older than Leroy. I was just instinctually afraid of men over the age of 40 as a kid.

Kristine: That doesn’t sound like an unreasonable rule of thumb.

Sean: I agree that Leroy’s off-screen family is significant, and he’s presented as this kind of failed paternal figure. Instead of radiating strength and safety and protection to women like Dicky Bravo and Daddy Kenneth, Leroy radiates danger and perversion. I also thought Tasker’s fondling of Rhoda’s braids and general ‘suspicious’ (in the universe of this movie) bachelorhood marked him as weirdly predatory.

Kristine: Leroy is granted access to a class higher than his own (shades of Hortense’s read here) via his status as family man. There are lots of little moments of class resentment and condescension, right?

Sean: Like Leroy calling Rhoda “Miss Uppity” and referring to Christine as “trough-fed,” which was disgusting.

Kristine: Besides Hortense and Leroy, there is Miss Fern, who doesn’t back Hortense up, even though she knows Rhoda was somehow responsible for the death of little Claude Daigle. It’s implied that Miss Fern is complicit because the Penmark family has means. There’s the scene at the picnic where Christine tries to talk to her about Rhoda’s behavior and Miss Fern dodges her questions as she tucks away the tuition check Christine just gave her.

Sean: Yes, yes, for sure. Also remember that Christine claims that they sent Rhoda to Miss Fern’s school because the school believes in “discipline and the old-fashioned virtues” and could teach Rhoda to “behave more like a child.” Guess that didn’t work. But I also thought that Fern’s confusion/repression of what she knows is true about Rhoda was also meant to dramatize the Freudian processes of denial and repression that we then watch Christine go through and dismantle in order to face The Truth About Rhoda. Fern both knows Rhoda killed Claude, but cannot bring herself to consciously acknowledge it. I think that has more to do with her psychological block around being able to imagine the cultural perversion of a homicidal child than her angling for Penmark money. After all, she takes some pride in telling Christine that Rhoda isn’t welcome back, which I think is a victory for her because its the closest she can come to acting on what she knows is true about Rhoda but can’t face. See, here’s where the movie invokes the Freudian analysis that it also lampoons in other scenes.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 6.27.14 AM
A Sapphic aside

Kristine: True, good point. But I also think that even though Miss Fern boots Rhoda from the school, she isn’t prepared to actually take the Penmarks on (i.e. report Rhoda to the police) and part of that has to do with her being from a lower social station than the Penmarks, in addition to not being able to face the reality of the horror.

Sean: I think that’s probably true. I also want to point out that not only is it suggested that Rhoda represents a medieval/antiquated past, but also a distant evolutionary past that marks her as less-than-human. Tasker tells Christine that the ‘bad seed’ represents, “A type of criminal born with no capacity for remorse or guilt, no feeling of right or wrong, born with the kind of brain that may have been normal in humans 50,000 years ago.” Rhoda’s a fucking caveman.

Kristine: She even has the caveman eye-twitch/squint thing. What a hideous child.

Sean: Right???

Kristine: Yes. Rhoda being a sociopath is why her behavior is so bizarre and artificial. She doesn’t have normal emotional reactions, she has caveman reactions. So she has to study and copy these archetypical examples of femininity in order to “pass” – the good little girl, the glamorous Hollywood actress, etc.

Sean: Yep. I think The Bad Seed is one of the first representations of what has become a post-war American tradition. A movie comes along that asks us all what our children have become and wonders how our society has produced such amorality. In the 1980s, it was River’s Edge, more recently it was The Bling Ring, etc. But there’s always one of these, every 5-to-10 years or so.

Kristine: Is Who Can Kill a Child? also on the list?

Sean: I don’t think so. I think Who Can Kill a Child? is about asking us what we’ve become, the world of adults. The children are the innocents.

Kristine: Rhoda reminded me of that segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie where the little boy wishes things that come true. When they showed his big sister with no mouth, it was an indelible image that terrified me for years and years. I Googled it and yep. Still horrifying. Does this mean that my biggest fear is being rendered speechless? Hmmm… Another great Hortense moment/example of the significance of names: “I always considered Christine a gentle name. Hortense sounds fat.” That made me laugh and laugh and think of then best line in The Breakfast Club: “Claire is a fat girl’s name.”

That caveman glare

Sean: Apparently, Hortense is fat in the book.

Kristine: I saw something about Eli Roth doing a remake. Did that ever happen?

Sean: I read that too. No, it never happened – but his take on it was going to be thus:

“The original was a great psychological thriller, and we are going to bastardize and exploit it, ramping up the body counts and killings,” said Roth. “This is going to be scary, bloody fun, and we’re going to create the next horror icon, a la Freddy, Jason and Chucky. She’s this cute, cunning, adorable kid who loves to kill, but also loves ‘N Sync.”

Ugh, sounds terrible.

Kristine: That does sound terrible, and I disagree with his assessment of the original, too. It’s not a thriller, other than not knowing if Christine will kill Rhoda or not. And Rhoda doesn’t kill because she is bloodthirsty. She does it to restore order in her world. Duh.

Sean: Rhoda ‘like Freddy’? No.

Kristine: Just no.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Worth watching for the campy dramz AND More feminist than you’d think

The Freak’s Rating: Bloody wonderful gender exploration and critique AND Camp classic

One thought on “Movie Discussion: Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956)

  1. Good thing Waters was mentioned, his ‘Serial Mom’ is this little girl all growed up.

    Also re: “A type of criminal born with no capacity for remorse or guilt, no feeling of right or wrong, born with the kind of brain that may have been normal in humans 50,000 years ago.” also a fairly common genre explanation/cop-out, though it ties the story to the Science Fiction genre by bringing in a mutant or genetic throwback.

    I wrote this about Argento’s Cat O’ Nine Tails; “This is really a murder mystery, not so much a horror film, but due to a pseudo-scientific revelation it becomes a sort of science fiction. Now, most reviewers point out that the murderer acts due to a defective gene, but in an attempt to bring it into the SF genre I will treat it differently.
    What if the gene is not defective, but a logical evolutionary development that results in the survival of the human race? (Shades of Quatermass?)
    What is we are not merely talking about an XYY, but more of a genetic pattern that gives us the ‘killer instinct’?
    And what if some humans still have inherited from our ancestors, but other have had it bred out via either selective breeding, natural selection or whatever other processes have produce both Homo Sapiens Domesticus and Homo Sapiens Lupus? Let us assume the wrong laguage is being used…”

    Pretty much the same thing.

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