‘The Bad Seed’: Evil under the Scuppernong Arbor

Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed:  'I've got the loveliest mother . . . '

Pippi Wrongstocking: Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed. ‘Mother, when we move into our house, can we have a scuppernong arbor? They’re so shady and pretty . . .’ Say what?

It’s hard to imagine it, but Maxwell Anderson’s wonderfully foolish horror melodrama, “The Bad Seed,” was taken seriously when it was first presented on Broadway in 1954.  Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times wrote a favorable notice and singled out Nancy Kelly’s performance as being exceptionally fine.  “Miss Kelly acts it magnificently — beautiful and cool in the beginning, but gradually succumbing to a harrowing ordeal that tragically destroys her.  Miss Kelly’s performance is one of ordered tumult.”

One of the chief pleasures of the Warner Bros. picture (1956) is the spectacle of what mid-20th century theatrical acting looked like before the Actors Studio and “The Method” (Lee Strasberg’s variation — many would say violation — of Stanislavski’s approach to acting) came into vogue and swept away the older style that had been in place since the early part of the century.

Eileen Heckart goes at it hard and heavy as the wretched Mrs Daigle:  Ham on wry.

Eileen Heckart goes at it hard and heavy as the wretched Mrs Daigle: Ham on wry, Rye in ham.

For the picture, director Mervyn LeRoy retained most of the original Broadway cast; the picture was shot in a hurry and on the cheap (it’s one of the few post-1953 big studio pictures to be shot in square, rather than rectangular, format).

Round up the usual suspects.  The original Broadway cast:  Henry Jones, Evelyn Varden, Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack.

Round up the usual suspects. The original Broadway cast: Henry Jones, Evelyn Varden, Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack.

After a successful year-long run on Broadway, “The Bad Seed” had a successful year-long national tour, also with the same cast.  So by the time the picture was made, the principals had given nearly a thousand performances — and all of them played to the last row of the second balcony.  One thousand repetitions of a poorly written role can do terrible things to an actor’s performance.  LeRoy did nothing to tone down the theatricality of the acting.  In the picture, what Nancy Kelly does can hardly be called “ordered tumult”:   she’s certainly tumultuous, but “orderly” doesn’t come close to describing the tricks she gets up to.  Her acting is so mannered that it’s almost kabuki, and her vocal cords sound as if they have been tempest-tossed for years upon the billowy main of gin, under lowering clouds of tobacco.  It’s a husky voice that sounds best in its lowest register, but Kelly favors her upper register, which produces an asthmatic rasp, like the last few drops of bathwater being squeezed out of a rubber duck.

I have to say I love what she does with the role, but mostly for all the wrong reasons — except for one:  I’m interested in it as an historical curiosity.  Kelly won the Tony for this performance and was nominated for an Oscar (Heckart and McCormack were also nominated).  So this was what “great acting” looked like in the mid-50s.  Her Broadway co-stars (McCormack, Heckart, Varden and Jones) all give similarly theatrical performances — all absolutely artificial and tremendous fun to watch.  On Broadway in 1954 and in movie theatres in 1956, all of these big, hammy theatrical performances were highly celebrated and almost universally admired.  Within five years, this style was over.  Ever since 1960, “The Bad Seed” has been considered camp.  And so it is.

Henry Jones as the conniving, doomed handyman, LeRoy.  'Now I got yer number, miss!  I bin hearin' things about you that ain't nice . . . !'

Henry Jones as the conniving, doomed handyman, Leroy. ‘Now I got yer number, miss! I bin hearin’ things about you that ain’t nice . . . !’

Thirty years ago, when The Method was still the pre-eminent acting style, Kelly’s old-fashioned, declamatory acting looked not merely artificial, but also crazy.  But acting styles go out of fashion, just like everything else.  Nowadays, the supposed realism that Strasberg’s Method actors brought to their roles looks as artificial as the style it replaced.  To be sure, Nancy Kelly luxuriates in bathos (which I’ve heard described as being “pathos after three martinis”), but as artificial as she is, she means every word that she exaggerates, and she keeps the train on schedule.  Kelly delivers long expository speeches at a stunning breakneck pace; she’s as fast as John Moschitta, the guy who used to do the rapid-fire patter on the early FedEx commercials — and you never lose a word.  Taken purely as a technical achievement, her speed and precision are amazing.  She’s as funny as Ethel Merman was when she sang “I Got Rhythm” to Johnny Carson and clearly enunciated every word while her mouth was full of peanut brittle.  One could reasonably argue that such speeches aren’t intended to be funny, but I don’t see it that way.  The writing is terrible — really unbelievably lazy.  Here’s a passage that gives Kelly an intense workout in high-speed elocution.  On the DVD, Kelly’s express train pulls out of the station at 51:40.

Rhoda . . . when we lived in Wichita, Rhoda, there was an old lady who lived upstairs, Mrs Clara Post.  She liked you very much.

Yes.

And every afternoon you used to go upstairs and visit the old lady and she used to show you all her treasures.  And the one you admired most was a . . . a . . . a crystal ball in which a little fish floated.  And old Mrs Post promised this to you when she died.  [Pause] And then one afternoon when her daughter was out shopping at the supermarket and you were alone with the old lady, she managed somehow to fall down the spiral backstairs and break her neck.  You said she heard a kitten meowing outside and went to see what was the trouble, and accidentally missed her footing and fell five flights to the courtyard below . . .

Yes, it’s true.

And then later you, you asked her daughter for the crystal ball and she gave it to you and it’s still sitting on the top of your treasure chest.

Yes, mother.

Rhoda, did you have anything . . . I don’t care how small it was . . . did you have anything to do with the way he got drowned?

What makes you ask that, mother?

Now look me in the eye and tell the truth, because I must know!

This whole passage takes just under a minute, and the intrepid Miss Kelly rattles off the long speech about Mrs Clara Post’s “accident” in exactly twenty-five seconds — complete with a pause and some stammering to “indicate” thought . . . and she acts up a storm all through it . . . and all the while, she’s on her knees.  (Nobody but actresses of the old school ever kneels in real life, except in church.  But old fashioned actresses did it all the time — especially if their knees cracked on the descent.)  You don’t believe a word of it, but she does . . . and she’s giving the folks a good show.

Yet for all the bravura phoniness of Kelly’s hamming, James Dean’s performances are more mannered and silly looking today than hers.  The difference is she’s far more accomplished — and  she’s much more fun to watch.

Nancy Kelly:  Sturm und Drang . . . und gin.

Nancy Kelly: Sturm und Drang . . . und gin.

Below is a montage clip from YouTube that gives a clear sense of the lunacy that goes on in this picture.  Alex North’s score is hilarious . . . Variations on “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (a/k/a “Au clair de la lune”) . . . I love the Halloween orchestration.

11 thoughts on “‘The Bad Seed’: Evil under the Scuppernong Arbor

  1. Michael Pollak

    Great piece. But I’m unclear on one point. If this was the ideal of great acting in 1953, how do we account for the truly great performances before this which were very different and contemporaneously acclaimed? Does it have something to do with the distinction between (and relations between) film and theatre acting? Or something else?

    Reply
    1. TR Post author

      Actually, I think it comes down to a matter of taste. Both the old Grand Style (that Nancy Kelly employs) & a more natural — but not Method — style co-existed for years. When Brando suddenly took the theatre world by storm, it didn’t make Olivier’s style outdated. But Olivier worked like a fiend to prevent himself being branded as old hat. To that end, he struck gold with his Archie Rice in “The Entertainer,” in which he gave what looked to audiences to be a “Method” performance. It wasn’t. But then, Brando was never a Method actor, either. He studied with Stella. It was assumed, because of his rebellious nature, that he was of the Method, but he actually had little use for Strasberg. Brando had little use for anyone. Interestingly enough, when Brando worked with Gielgud in “Julius Caesar,” Brando respected Sir John both as an actor & as a man. At one point, he turned admiringly to a friend & said of Sir John, “Ya see? That cat is DOWN!”

      Reply
  2. Michael Pollak

    Also I’d love to hear more someday about how you’d distinguish Stanislavski’s original ideas from Strasberg’s version.

    Reply
  3. DeeDee

    In middle school and high school, my (very patient, loving) parents paid for a drama coach. The main purpose was to learn to do one audition monologue that would work for everything (obviously, this was before I was clearly older than Rhoda Penmark). Not only did they have me read the play backwards and forwards about 50 times but I had “homework” to go home and write on the character’s motivations… which seem pretty simple – she wanted that goddamned medal. I remember having a really hard time pronouncing “a scuppernong arbor” let alone knowing what the hell it meant. The monologue was the one towards the end where she explains to her mother why she had to use the metal part of her shoes on him. I only saw the movie twice. After I was the hilarious montage you posted I definitely need to see it again with Rick. Great piece!

    Reply
    1. TR Post author

      Wish I could take credit for that montage . . . Some other clever person created it. It gets the zaniness of the entire picture across beautifully. I uploaded one scene from the DVD, which took forever (because I did it in HD, so it was a huge file), then had to take it right back down again because the suits Warner Media keep a tight rein on Warner Bros. property. That DVD costs about six cents to buy, but they don’t want anyone using clips from it, lest the suits get cheated out of their share of those six cents. Quite frustrating, esp. when one is only trying to do their advertising for them for free. “Scuppernong arbor” . . . ! I could hardly believe it when I first heard it. Maxwell Anderson wrote a lot of crummy stuff. As silly as “The Bad Seed” is, his plays in VERSE are a whole lot sillier . . . but no fun at all. The idea of trying to find Rhoda’s motivation made me laugh out loud: she HAS no motivation. That’s what makes the play so terrible . . . & so funny. But that idea of “the bad seed” was prevalent at the time. John Steinbeck used the same stupid idea as a major plot point in “East of Eden.” The movie version left it out, but it’s all over the book.

      Reply
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  5. Veronica

    I agree with most of what you say about the film’s crazy theatrics, but I think in the case of Patty McCormack, this style of acting actually suits her character quite well at times. Rhoda is deliberately acting the part of an adorable little girl. Her mother senses this and seems a little bit uneasy about Rhoda well before the death of Claude Daigle, even if Monica is completely taken in. You can actually see Rhoda’s act faltering a little when her father has to prompt her say goodbye to him before a long trip as she’s pounding away at “Au Clair de la Lune,” and she quickly says “of course” and shuts the piano.

    Anyway I enjoyed the write up, and I’m glad this over-the-top melodrama has a fan base. This is the best sort of camp–camp that has no idea it’s camp and thinks it’s serious important stuff, much like “The Black Swan” from a few years ago.

    Reply
  6. Fleur

    I am not replying to anyone’s comment in particular,I just wanted to give my opinion about this movie. I love this movie, primarily because of Nancy Kelly. She is one of those rare actresses that can convey what they feel through body movement and facial expression. I wish some things had been done differently in the movie, with her, especially the dad, and other scenes, but hindsight is 20/20. She does seem to overact at some points, but then in others she is PERFECT. Like this scene in the kitchen when she breaks down to cry. She sounds very natural. Again when she struggles with the kid to pry the shoes out of her hand-very natural. I have seen her in other things, and she is a very believable, natural, yet underused actress. Because of this movie, I have sought her out, and I wish she had been in other major movies.

    Reply
  7. Amadea Leonore

    JFYInformation: I am writing a book (autobiographical), which includes chapters about Jed Harris (director and producer). I will show the other side of the man. Every coin has two sides. It only depends who’s flipping it sometimes.

    Reply

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