In the cool, crisp autumn of 1956, moviegoers were introduced to one of the screen’s most shocking and influential psychopaths: Rhoda Penmark, a precocious, perpetually smiling eight-year-old girl who secretly plots and executes the murders of anyone who stands in her way, regardless of age. The film went on to rack up three Oscar acting nominations for its cast, all carried over from the popular Broadway version: Patty McCormack as Rhoda; Nancy Kelly as her distraught mother, Christine; and Eileen Heckart (who went on to win in 1973 for Butterflies Are Free) as Hortense Daigle, the shattered mother of Rhoda’s first victim and the deliverer of the film’s most harrowing monologue. The film went on to become a horror classic, cited as one of the twenty scariest films of all time by Stephen King in his watershed book, Danse Macabre and remade for television twice. It also inspired decades of underage serial killers in such films as Devil Times Five (1974), The Omen (1976), Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), Halloween (1978), The Children (1980), Bloody Birthday (1981), Mikey (1992), The Good Son (1993), and a famous sci-fi variant, Village of the Damned (1960). McCormack would even turn the tables and play a crazed mother in the 1992 horror film, Mommy. However, only those who had seen the Broadway play written by Maxwell Anderson or read its 1954 source novel by William March realized how much of an overhaul had been done to make it acceptable for the big screen.
Horror films had long been difficult to get through Hollywood’s Production Code (also known as the Hayes Code), which was instituted in 1930 but was only enforced with fervor in the middle of 1934 due to public pressure. The Production Code Administration, or PCA, was the office founded to supervise each film from script stage to theatrical release, with studios sending in changes to each draft for approval along the way. Even major literary properties like East of Eden had to be toned down for adaptation, and it wasn’t difficult to notice that this particular art form was put under much heavier restrictions than any of the others. Among the taboo lines no film could cross were letting criminals go unpunished, disrespect for the law, blatant sexuality (especially prostitution or homosexuality), and drug use. The Code has since garnered a reputation as a stodgy set of handcuffs placed on artists for decades, though the truth of the matter is a bit more complicated; it wasn’t that these themes were taboo per se, but they had to be handled in a manner that was discreet enough to be within the parameters of what would be considered good taste. Therefore, you still had films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Strangers on a Train (1951) filled with edgy behavior, but it was just understated enough to fly through for general audiences.
This disconnect between cinema and the other arts was especially evident when The Bad Seed hit Broadway in 1954 mere months after the novel’s publication, and the production was cited as another in a line of “amoral” productions like The Children’s Hour. The play caused a stir with its firm stance on the impact of heredity versus environment, opining that the former is a much stronger influence – especially if you have a secret serial killer lurking in your bloodline. From this point out it’s impossible to avoid spoilers for this and a semi-famous mystery novel, so turn back now and see the film if you haven’t already.
The novel, play, and film all share the same plotline and many identical passages of dialogue. Rhoda Penmark lives happily with her mother, Christine, but her father is often away on business. When a classmate of Rhoda’s, Claude, is found drowned near school, Christine notes that the dead boy had won a penmanship medal that Rhoda had desired with a feverish intensity. When Christine discovers the medal in Rhoda’s possession, she begins to worry that her daughter may be responsible for other deaths and could be capable of more, especially when maintenance man Le’Roy Jessup repeatedly provokes Rhoda about her role in Claude’s death. When Le’Roy ends up burning alive on his bed made of excelsior and Christine learns that her real biological mother was actually an executed murderer, she takes the only action she can rationalize: dosing Rhoda with a fatal amount of sleeping pills and then shooting herself.
Both the novel and play end with an outrageous stinger, the latter so potent on stage that it had audiences gasping and howling. Christine succeeded in her suicide attempt, but as her neighbors and husband discuss the tragedy, there’s one bit of comfort: “At least you still have Rhoda!” The little maniac comes skipping out on stage, having survived the attempted poisoning and now free to continue her mayhem right under her father’s nose.
Despite the story’s immense shock value, it’s worth noting that Rhoda wasn’t literature’s first underage modern murderer; in 1949, Agatha Christie had crossed that dangerous line with her 1949 novel, Crooked House, whose killer is revealed to be a spoiled 12-year-old girl whose homicidal tendencies erupt when she’s denied ballet lessons. Though acclaimed, the novel was considered too hot to touch until the current millennium when it finally became a 2008 radio production and a 2017 feature film starring Glenn Close (with its disturbing ending intact).
The rocky path of the film version of The Bad Seed began on 9th December 1954 when Warner Bros. rep Finlay McDermid sent a synopsis of the play to the PCA’s usual studio contact, Geoffrey Shurlock, advising thoughts on its content. A handwritten internal note from “Murf” at the PCA quickly opined that the story “is unacceptable on the grounds that it is subject matter which can do younger people in our audience positive harm. The identification of youngsters with Rhoda, the eight year old, will be very complete. They will understand her effective killing of three persons who stood in her way, while at the same time, since Rhoda is a poised, charming child, they will completely miss her psychotic and tragic nature. To my mind this is a very dangerous combination.”
A few days later on 14th December, Shurlock formally replied directly to studio head Jack L. Warner:
“We regret to report that we believe this material to be in violation both of the spirit and of the letter of the Code. It seems to be specifically in violation of Section 12 of the Special Regulations on Crime, reading: “Pictures dealing with criminal activities, in which minors participate, or to which minors are related, shall not be approved if they incite demoralizing imitation on the part of youth.
In addition to this specific objection, it seems to us that this type of material would be enormously dangerous as a basis for a motion picture to be played before mass audiences generally. The portrayal of an eight year old murderess with no conception whatever of right and wrong, and who in the course of the story, would be shown successfully and with impunity first drowning one of her schoolmates and later burning a man to death, could hardly escape having a very powerful effect on impressionable children who might see it.
Furthermore, we cannot envision any treatment of this story which would make it acceptable under the Code. It seems to us impossible to remove the pervasively evil flavor of the play, and it would be difficult if not impossible to thin up any punishment for an eight year old murderess that would adequately counteract the obnoxious influence of the story on susceptible children.”
At the same time, writer-director Billy Wilder was considering buying the property himself to produce as an independent film (amusingly, he had directed the 1934 feature Mauvaise Graine, or “Bad Seed”) and asked for the PCA’s opinion on the project. Also pursuing the rights was MGM, who submitted a copy of the play to the PCA with a suggestion by the studio’s Robert Vogel for an alternate ending: “I think it will be apparent to you as you read this, that – if only for dramatic reasons – we would not for a moment consider the possibility of showing the murders on the screen. I believe you will also recognize that Rhoda is obviously a monster, not a character for whom audience sympathy is created. Furthermore, I do believe it would be very simple to change the ending so that Rhoda gets a view of an insane asylum instead of a basket of kisses.” 20th Century Fox was also seriously courting the play and submitted it third to the PCA, receiving a nearly identical response.
The growing number of queries about The Bad Seed spurred Shurlock to pen a lengthy January 15, 1955 memo following an in-person meeting with Billy Wilder and agent Irving Lazar, determining that “even if an acceptable Code treatment could be devised, we still felt that this property presented a serious matter of industry policy. This feeling lay in the possibility that a picture dealing with a child murderess, no matter how treated, might prove so repulsive to the type of audience to which motion pictures appeal, that serious injury might be done to our business in possibly discouraging people from seeing movies with their families in the future.” Ultimately the PCA made a firm decision that any story dealing with a child murderess would not be approved under any circumstances. Period, end of story.
Or so it seemed. Warner Bros. pressed ahead and snapped up the rights away with writing and directing duties handed over to Mervyn LeRoy, a prestige filmmaker for the studio who had started out with unflinching Pre-Code favorites like Three on a Match (1932) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) before moving on to major films like Anthony Adverse (1936), Random Harvest (1942), and Madame Curie (1943). He had just done a major service for the studio by translating the famously salty play Mister Roberts into an acceptable 1955 film, so why not let him have a go at this, the most notorious and seemingly unadaptable stage hit around?
LeRoy was intimately familiar with the guardrails of the Code, and he seized upon a novel solution. The murders in the film are already depicted offscreen, but Le’Roy’s demise is still heard in horrific detail with his screams erupting in counterpoint to Rhoda’s piano playing. Obviously, there was no way to tone down her activities any further without making the story completely incomprehensible, so he seized upon the ending instead, an aspect the PCA’s correspondence had never explicitly addressed. Christine still gives Rhoda the pills and shoots herself, with the girl surviving. The Code demanded that murderers had to be punished, but how do you properly deliver comeuppance against an eight-year-old child without sending everyone in the audience into therapy? Simple: let God do it by sending down a bolt of lightning to strike her dead on the spot when she goes to retrieve the medal back from the water after it’s been thrown away. Meanwhile Christine (rather implausibly) survives her self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head and gets to live happily with her returned husband, probably with no more children in their future. To remind everyone that it’s all fiction and nothing to be imitated, LeRoy even added a curtain call for all the players complete with Christine scolding, “And as for you…” to Rhoda and giving her a firm spanking, both smiling happily for the camera.
Then the miraculous happened. On 8th August 1955, the PCA formally approved the screenplay by LeRoy submitted by Warner Bros. with no changes required. The rival suitors were immediately ruffled by the announcement, with Fox’s Buddy Adler quickly penning an irate letter to Shurlock:
“Can this be possible? Back in January of this year, I had the inside track on this property and was very eager to purchase it and produce it for Twentieth Century Fox… You advised me that you could not envision any treatment of this story which would make it acceptable under the Code.
Not satisfied that this advice constituted a final rejection, I held a conference in my office with you, Frank [McCarthy], and three or four members of your staff. At this conference you stated that you would not grant the Seal to any picture in which a child committed a murder, regardless of motivation, compensating moral values, or labeling the act for the evil that it constitutes. You said that this was your positive and final opinion… In view of these facts, I cannot believe that another company has now been granted permission to make a film in which a child commits a murder.”
Shurlock’s immediate response about the surprising about face excused the Code’s initial decree as “a generalization, made in good faith, which we had to retract when Mervyn LeRoy came up with a treatment which seemed to do exactly what we had originally thought impossible… I can only adduce in our defense the fact that that even the U.S. Supreme Court has been known to take the same action in the face of new evidence.” Unsatisfied, Adler replied that “I feel the Code was applied to the advantage of one company over another in this highly competitive situation.” The reversal was also another slight for Wilder, who had already undergone extensive Code interference with The Seven Year Itch and would begin chipping away at it with a string of films from Some Like It Hot (1959) through Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).
Perhaps distracted by all of the focus on homicide committed by a juvenile, the PCA never objected to the play or film’s marathon consumption of hard alcohol from start to finish, with a liquor cart in constant play throughout the house and several characters (particularly Heckert) medicating themselves into complete intoxication. The Code may have declared that the “use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot for proper characterization, will not be shown,” but the film’s background focus on imbibing ultimately puts The Lost Weekend (1945) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962) to shame. The liquor consumption is a vital part of the story, showing how a supposedly prosperous and happy America in the wake of World War II was still wounded and in pain at its core, nursing its wounds and doing its best to medicate the traumas both in its recent past and still to come.
On 30th December 1955, The Bad Seed was officially issued a certificate of approval by the PCA and free to go skipping on its merry way in front of the cameras and then on to movie theaters around the world. Even the Catholic Legion of Decency, which was more of a stickler for motion picture content and could slaughter a film’s box office chances with a “Condemned” rating, let this one pass with an “A-2” designation (“strictly for adults”). The film wasn’t entirely unscathed globally; for example, in Australia it suffered three brief cuts including Rhoda’s line, “I kept some matches and lit the excelsior and locked the door.” The film went on to become a major success, with both McCormack and Kelly presenting awards at the 1957 Academy Awards (and the former getting to play up her Rhoda persona with host Jerry Lewis).
Despite a legion of imitators, The Bad Seed didn’t get a remake until 1985 when it appeared as a made-for-TV movie directed by Paul Wendkos and starring Blair Brown and Carrie Wells, with Rhoda’s name changed to Rachel (presumably to prevent viewers from thinking of Valerie Harper’s beloved sitcom character). This remains the only screen version to retain the original ending from the novel and play, factors that make it worth viewing even if the execution pales in comparison to the 1956 original. Eli Roth announced plans to do a big screen remake in 2012 with Rhoda turned into more of a conventional slasher with a higher body count, but that never came to pass. Instead Lifetime aired a second made-for-TV version in 2018 directed by and starring Rob Lowe, who’s cast as David, now the widowed father of the evil little girl (now named Emma). So many changes are made that it could have easily been called something else, particularly the final third set in a cabin that cribs its climax from The Omen instead. Perhaps most notably, the film features McCormack in what amounts to an extended cameo as a child psychologist.
Over six decades since its release, the 1956 version of The Bad Seed is not only a major entry in the history of Hollywood studio horror but a fascinating case study in how censorship guidelines can fundamentally alter the course of a film before it’s even shot. The alternations to the ending may seem outrageous today compared to the acidic simplicity of how the characters ended up on Broadway, but in a way the doctored ending has become easier to digest over time. Its winking curtain call is a playful meta touch long before such things became commonplace in genre cinema, while the divine lightning bolt of justice is an over-the-top touch that now fits more comfortably in a world long accustomed to the likes of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and the films of John Waters. This may be the only version that stops Rhoda dead in her tracks, but that bit of fancy footwork to get the film past the PCA gatekeepers did little to reduce the inherent power of a groundbreaking film that forever changed the way we saw murderous madness, and even little children, up on the big screen.
Special thanks to the Margaret Herrick Library for access to the Production Code Administration files.
Nathaniel Thompson is a writer, author and home video producer in Los Angeles. He is the author/editor of the four-volume DVD Delirium book series and can be read regularly at Turner Classic Movies. Since 1998 he has maintained the cult film review site Mondo Digital and can be heard on over 150 audio commentaries on Blu-ray and DVD. He also produced many genre film releases for Image Entertainment, can be seen in several documentaries and featurettes including 2018’s King Cohen, and is full of stories about working at the Oscars.