Sunday 23 March 2008

The Bad Seed (1956)

My better half knows Patty McCormack from a whole host of TV shows and I think I only know her from last year's Psycho Hillbilly Cabin Massacre!, a fun little film that I saw as part of a horror shorts collection at the International Horror & Scifi Festival here in Arizona. My lass also knows this film, as a childhood favourite, but she hasn't seen it in years. It leapt out of the aisle at Fry's at her so we get the rare opportunity of watching an old black and white movie on DVD for a change.

At 11 years of age, McCormack debuted here as eight year old Rhoda Penmark, though she had made a couple of appearances at the age of six. Rhoda is the angelic child of the Penmark household, blonde haired and blue eyed and all sweetness and light. She's the pride of Col Kenneth and Christine Penmark, but mom still worries a little. She's not sure that Rhoda should be quite so grown up at eight and there are some powerful tantrums. Then Claude Daigle, the boy who wins the school penmanship contest over Rhoda, turns up dead by drowning at the school picnic and with every additional snippet of information that comes to light, Christine Penmark can't help but suspect her own angelic daughter.

Films like this seem to me to be very American, because my wife knows all the actors from their respective cultural contributions, just as I do in similar ways with many English films. There's Jesse White, who's just another actor to me but to my wife he's the original Maytag repairman. There's William Hopper as the father of the household but she knows him as Paul Drake to Raymond Burr's Perry Mason. There's Paul Fix, who I know now from Night of the Lepus but my wife knows as the sheriff from The Rifleman. There's Frank Cady, who I've seen in a few films but not enough for him to stick, who my wife knows as Sam Drucker from Green Acres.

The only name I know really well is that of the director, Mervyn LeRoy. He was one of the key filmmakers at Warner Brothers, with his classic perhaps I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. This is my fifteenth of his films and by far the most recent, the closest being Any Number Can Play from 1949. The earliest I've seen date back to 1931 including such luminaries as Five Star Final and Little Caesar, which started the whole gangster genre of the early thirties, but his career ran from 1927 to 1968 and was notable in every way except that he never won an Oscar.

Eileen Heckart won an Oscar, in 1972 for her supporting work in Butterflies are Free, but it wouldn't have been out of place here either. She's the mother of Claude Daigle, deceased, and she gets a couple of long scenes of drunken honesty that ring very true, true enough to win her a Golden Globe. She did get a Oscar nomination too, as did Patty McCormack and Nancy Kelly as Christine Penmark. A fourth Oscar nod went to Harold Rosson for Best Cinematography, but the film didn't win anything. As it's really a psychological horror movie, that may not be surprising. After all, only four years later, Psycho got four nominations and lost in all of them too.

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