TCMFF 2019: Patty McCormack on The Bad Seed

June 28, 2019

To this day, I can’t recall the reason my high school creative writing teacher screened The Bad Seed for our class. Maybe she was a classic movie fan too? After all, I don’t think a film about an 8-year-old murderer is a normal choice to watch in school. I also don’t remember my classmates’ reactions, save for one: my friend Christina. Christina and I became semi-obsessed with this campy movie in all its bizarre glory. We were so fascinated by it that Christina, who had long straight blonde hair, dressed as the main character, Rhoda, for Halloween, and I found a 50s-style dress to pass myself off as Rhoda’s mother. Yes, it was a weird costume choice, and yes, I was on brand even as a teenager. (I think I had a picture of this years ago, but sadly, I have no idea where it is.)

A huge thrill of TCMFF 2019 was talking to Rhoda herself, Patty McCormack, on the red carpet. As I related in my red carpet article, I excitedly shared my Halloween story with McCormack, and I must say, she got a bigger kick out of that than I anticipated. I certainly never thought I’d tell the star of a 63-year-old movie that a character she played was the basis for a friend’s Halloween costume—and there’s a good chance no one has ever told her that—but that’s the beauty of TCMFF.

 

I unfortunately didn’t make the poolside screening of The Bad Seed, but I did swing by for McCormack’s conversation with Eddie Muller beforehand. Below are some highlights from what I caught.

Rhoda (Patty McCormack) and her mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly), in The Bad Seed.

McCormack was close to Nancy Kelly, who played her mother, Christine, in the movie

Nancy Kelly appeared as McCormack’s mom in both the Broadway version and the film adaptation, so they spent a lot of time with each other. “She was like a mom to me,” McCormack said. She even added that some of her lingo and gestures were learned from Kelly. “That’s why I sounded so wonderfully upscale!”

Patty McCormack with Eddie Muller before a screening of The Bad Seed at TCMFF 2019.

Did McCormack feel “haunted” after playing Rhoda?

“People were afraid of me,” McCormack admitted, before adding: “I enjoyed it very much!” But character-wise, McCormack noted that none of the offers she received after this picture were on the same disturbing level or held the same weight as Rhoda and The Bad Seed. “So, it wasn’t that I was playing the same role over and over, because they weren’t there. It was a once in a lifetime part until maybe The Omen came along,” she mentioned. However, since she was still young at the time, the parts that came her way were children who were “cuter about being naughty,” which still posed some problems for her. For instance, she was cast in the sitcom Peck’s Bad Girl in 1959, which called for that adorable naughtiness. However, given the somberness of The Bad Seed, she realized she had to learn how to lighten up!

Rhoda up to no good...

Differences between the Broadway and film versions of The Bad Seed

McCormack talked a bit about this on the red carpet, but she went into more detail in this Q&A. To put it bluntly, in the stage version, Christine kills herself and Rhoda lives. In the final scene where Rhoda and her father are mourning Christine’s death, Rhoda walks to the edge of the stage and asks her dad: “What would you give me for a basket of kisses?” “I’ll give you a basket of hugs,” he replies. Then they embrace, and the show is over.

 

Well, the Broadway audience apparently was horrified at this ending, and a curtain call in which Rhoda receives a spanking from her mother was inserted to take some of the edge away and allow the audience to relax; otherwise, the conclusion was taken too seriously. When it came time for the movie adaptation, obviously the original finale wouldn’t fly, so there’s a completely different ending, one that McCormack didn’t want to spoil for those who hadn’t seen the film yet. But she said they loved the idea of the curtain call so much that it was kept intact for the film version.

 

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As Eddie Muller noted at the end of the Q&A, McCormack played one of the most wicked characters in the history of cinema—and she did it as a child star, to boot. It was a real pleasure seeing her looking so well and happy and hearing her share her memories all these years later.

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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