The Bad Seed's Comically Bad Ending


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.

The suspense is now changed significantly; we no longer are waiting to see if the mother will find out her daughter is a murderer, but are rather waiting to see what lengths the mother will go to in order to cover it up. Indeed, the mother knows her daughter is a killer, but wants to protect her little girl from harm. Remember Alfred Hitchcock's underrated 1948 movie Rope? The fun of that movie is that you know who killed whom, you know where it was done, you know how it was done, you know why it was done, you know where the body is hidden, and you know all of it in the first five minutes. The fun of Rope is waiting to see if Jimmy Stewart can figure it out. In The Bad Seed, the mother is the audience, and she's waiting to see if anyone else will discover her daughter's terrifying secret. However, when the little girl kills a caretaker who discovered her homicidal tendencies and threatened to report her to the police, the mother knows that her daughter will never stop. The little girl doesn't even care that three lives have been lost; she wants that medal. The mother feeds her own daughter a lethal dose of sleeping pills and shoots herself in the head with a revolver offscreen.

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.


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  12. Just saw this on TCM this morning. Great movie, but the ending was sudden and weird. I think it would have been better if the girl walked to the hospital and killed the mother as the final scene. It would show how heartless the girl was and she would have a clear motive since the mother is the only one that knows shes a killer.

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  14. "Its more cutting edge if the villains win!!" No its not. Its become a tired trope. In 2023 I can't believe people are still making fun of endings where the bad person gets what they deserve.

    1. But we're not talking about 2023, are we? 50+ yrs after the Hays Code was blown away and Michael Corleone goes unpunished both the annihilation of his foes in one film but fratricide in the next (Pt III never happened, as far as I'm concerned). We're talking about 1956, where the film ending with even the mother surviving but surprised that her daughter also did and is unable to bring herself to tell anyone what happened cos she's looked at as having a complete breakdown (and probably does when she sees Rhoda standing there, wondering when he daughter's going to kill her). This would have blown Psycho off the map, 4 yrs hence, if they'd had THAT ending. Letting the bad guy get away with it didn't happen anywhere, cept literature and plays, cos it wasn't readily available to young people. Putting a 21st C view upon this is not unlike a bizarro 'We hate Woody Allen's Manhattan now cos it's PC to say so' statement. 66 yrs ago, such an ending would've been, as I said, more shocking and disturbing than any slasher film of the late 60s or 70s. Context. I wish ppl would use that even with recent media like Mad Men or Sopranos, instead of wanting to censor it like the Moral Majority wanted to censor Prince and Dungeons and Dragons.

  15. Explore The Bad Seed's comically bad ending and join the discussion! Uncover the hilariously disappointing conclusion of this memorable tale, and share your thoughts with fellow fans. Dive into the laughter.

  16. I agree that the Production (Hayes) Code is the only reasonable explanation for the deus ex machina ending of this movie. In the book it ended with her going to live with her next victim.

    Night of the Hunter, an otherwise terrific movie, also has a Code compliant ending stuck on it.

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