Some varieties of awful can entertain, but The Bad Seed makes the merely bad repulsive. There is virtually nothing to recommend this creaking adaptation of a Maxwell Anderson play about a child monster mistaken for an angel. The film’s suggestion that a child can be less than a saint is loaded, of course. It nonetheless repels not because it shows that children can be ruthlessly self-serving but because it does not. There is nothing like the frightening amorality of the children in Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, for example. Instead, Seed inverts conventionally optimistic and myopic views of children with equally conventional and formulaic melodrama. All of which is made even worse by pat psychological attributions of deviance to bad breeding.
Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack) is the “bad seed” in question. The film stumbles from the outset when Rhoda’s supposedly charming behavior proves so obnoxious it is difficult to believe anyone would be taken in by it. Not that plausibility is very high on anyone’s mind. In order to explain bad behavior, for example, the Penmarks’ landlady, Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) just happens to be an amateur psychologist ready to fill in the blanks for everyone. (Her smirking Freudian double entendres about her surname just turn a mouthpiece into a dirty-minded mouthpiece.) Then there is crime writer Reginald Tasker (Gage Clarke) who seems to exist just to lay the groundwork for a later plot “surprise.” (His gratuitous descriptions of past murderers are the character equivalent of planting a gun in the first act.) Rhoda’s absent father, Colonel Penmark (William Hopper) has nothing to do but make the occasional phone call to remind us he loves Christine and Rhoda. At least Monica’s reprobate maintenance man Leroy (Henry Jones), who sees through Rhoda, provides grimy, if over-done, nastiness.
As Rhoda’s mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) realizes the truth about her daughter, she telegraphs a display of suffering that would make Joan Crawford blush. Kelly chews so much scenery that it is probably a blessing the rest of the characters (other than Rhoda and Leroy) are little better than plot conveniences. The other actors run through their lines with a kind of deadpan obligation to provide the exposition, stranded on a cavernous set scaled to the wide berth of a stage. On the other hand, Jones’s performance suggests that if the minor characters had a little zip, they might at least raise Seed to the level of camp.
Instead, the cumulative effect suggests director Mervyn LeRoy mistakes blandness for realism. The only suspense in The Bad Seed lies in wondering how the filmmakers are going to twist their way to a happy ending when their setup offers no logical way out. In fact, their denouement indulges in the kind of flashy theatrical flourish that, present throughout, would not make the film good, but might make it bearable or entertainingly risible. Instead, The Bad Seed combines ugly material with unimaginative execution to produce something almost unwatchable.