|Different kind of shocker|
Writer (novel): William March
Writer (play): Maxwell Anderson
Writer (screenplay): John Lee Mahin
Director/Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Cinematographer: Harold Rosson
Starring: Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden, Henry Jones
Runtime: 129 minutes
I need to talk about the ending of this movie really quick.
The Bad Seed was released in 1956. It's an adaptation of a Broadway production of a popular novel of the same name. You can likely gather from the poster that it's about a creepy little girl who probably kills people. It's kind of like The Village of the Damned on a smaller scale (the similarities don't end there; both movies were subjected to hideous remakes), or perhaps The Good Son or Orphan. The movie was a big hit both critically and commercially for Warner Bros.; Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Eileen Heckart, and Harold Rosson were all nominated for Academy Awards.
I'll get to the plot in the second, but first a very brief review. The Bad Seed works largely because of excellent performances and strong characterization. It's refreshing to see a movie where everyone who appears is bringing their A-game, which is likely attributed to the shrewd decision to utilize the Broadway cast for the film; the chemistry is readily apparent, and the actresses almost seem to be competing with each other to give the most striking performance. Despite this, the movie never feels crowded by too many egos; all the performances play seamlessly off one another. It's not exactly an ensemble cast, but it's worth watching just for how they play off one another. The richly characterized roles are also critical to the movie's success. Names aren't important: the audience immediately identifies the sociopathic child, the hectically distraught mother, the doting nursemaid, the repellant caretaker, the drunkenly grieving mother, and the nervously suspicious teacher. Add that to a narrative that's allowed to twist when it wants to and the product is an effective thriller that holds up surprisingly well 65 years later.
Then the ending ruins everything.
Before I go any further, I will warn that from here on out The Bad Seed will be spoiled. I would contend that the movie is worth watching not only for the excellent performances, but also for the laughably inept ending. However, it's perfectly understandable if you don't feel like watching a two-plus hour black-and-white movie from the mid-50s.
There is an ending title card which reads:
I am going to divulge the unusual climax of this story.
So it's about a cute little girl (McCormack) who's initially presented as sweet and charming, if somewhat greedy. While on a school field trip to a nearby wharf, one of her classmates dies. The little girl has a motive (she wanted a medal that he had won — remember that, it comes back later), and she was the last person to see the dead classmate. Now, I know she did it, you know she did it, we all know she did it, it's called The Bad Seed, if she didn't do it then why the hell am I watching this? The writers knew this too, and so the suspense is broken when, approximately 80 minutes into the movie, she admits to her mother (Kelly) that she killed the boy — and has killed before that as well.
That is not the unusual climax of this story. The Bad Seed is 129 minutes long, so there's a lot more plot to get through.
That is not the unusual climax of the story. That would be a bit of a flat tire of an ending, a conclusion too abrupt for an audience to feel anything.
As it turns out, the mother was not adept at suicide. She somehow survives the gunshot to the head, while the little girl is miraculously saved by an emergency injection when the authorities come to investigate the gunshot. The mother is catatonic in the hospital, while the little girl lives. She is as sweet and charming as ever, but you know she will kill again. She will grow up and kill for as long as she can get away with it.
That is not the unusual climax of the story. It should be.
The mother wakes up in the hospital and telephones her husband. She says she'll be okay, everything will be okay now, they'll get by on love or something; she's sort of spouting vague platitudes like Gal Gadot at the end of Wonder Woman 1984. The little girl, however, has snuck out on this dark and stormy night, down to the wharf where she drowned her classmate, returning to the scene of the crime to search for the medal her mother discarded in disgust. Then, the almighty hand of God smites her with a bolt of lightning.
That is the unusual climax of the story.
I wish I was making that up. I wish I could come up with something that funny. You can practically hear the Goofy scream. I was cackling like a lunatic when it happened; it's like a Jackass stunt gone wrong. It's so abrupt that it looks like it was frantically spliced in by someone who was on a deadline and wasn't sure how to end the movie. Then the camera pans up and the words THE END appear. That's it. No refunds.
(A brief aside: have you watched any 1950s monster movies? No? Just me? Alright, bear with me for a second: there was a moment in practically all 1950s monster movies — think of Them!, the one with the giant ants — where the beast is dispatched at the climax of the movie, the hero looks upon the burning carcass of the monstrosity, intones something like "What has God wrought?", RKO Pictures' fanfare blares, the words THE END appear, and the theater lights come on. I think producers didn't believe in denouements back then.)
Apparently in the original novel and the Broadway adaptation, people were furious that the little girl survived, while the mother perished. Hollywood had in place a halfwitted little set of guidelines called the Hays Code (which I've written about at length before); these guidelines ensured a depressingly effective way to neuter creative storytelling and keep artwork safe, inoffensive, and — most important — marketable. One of these guidelines forbade any criminal from "getting away with it." Instead of turning out a dark suspense thriller with an ending that would terrify audiences, Warner Bros. was forced to churn out yet another boring morality tale. Eat your heart out, Crypt Keeper.
It's particularly embarrassing because the ending where the little girl lives is a perfect place to end the movie. The longer it goes on, you keep wondering why the movie is still going. She's planning another murder, and it all feels a bit superfluous. We know what she is by this point; what more is there to say? What more is there to do? When the mother wakes up and calls her husband, it is perfectly natural for the audience to expect that she will warn the little girl's father that she's a sociopathic murderer and that the film will follow one of two directions: either the father will dismiss the mother's warnings as coma-induced hysteria, or he'll heed her call and prevent yet another murder. Instead, we witness perhaps the funniest child-explosion scene in movie history (there aren't very many of these, to be fair). The movie immediately ends, the cast is reintroduced, and the "mother" confronts the "daughter" and spanks her.
That is not the unusual climax of the story. It's a cathartic scene that was hastily stapled to the end of the Broadway play after audiences became outraged that the little girl survived. So instead of getting to go home with a laugh despite the fact that a psychopathic murderer walks the streets, you get to go home with a laugh after a little girl was blown to smithereens like Wile E. Coyote.
|They just don't make 'em like they used to.|