John Waters refers to this movie as being one of his early, artistic, negative influences and mentions these three characters as being his holy trinity: the Wicked Witch of the East, Captain Hook, and Rhoda Penmark.
If you don’t know or remember Rhoda, it’s time to watch this film. Considered a shocker in its day, the movie is an early entry in the creepy-kids-in-movies genre (followed by “Village of the Damned,” “The Omen,” “Children of the Corn,” etc., right up to 2011's “We Need to Talk About Kevin”).
Little Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is a picture perfect, adorable girl with doting parents. Her teacher and school chums don’t feel quite the same way, and the mentally-challenged and somewhat sinister handyman (Henry Jones as Leroy Jessup) thinks he’s onto her real personality.
The story slowly unfolds and we’re following along with Rhoda’s mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly) as various clues are dropped. Kelly’s acting is over the top and histrionic; at one point she pommels her abdomen when she suspects her heredity and increasingly fears her progeny. (Interestingly, she won a Tony for her Broadway performance and was nominated for an Oscar for the movie role.)
The landlady (Evelyn Varden as Monica Breedlove) is an affectionate, over-bearing woman, devoted to psychology, and to Rhoda. She heaps advice on Christine ("you need vitamins and sleeping pills") (“I know I shouldn’t take things into my own two capable hands but...”) and gifts on Rhoda while indulging her every whim. When Rhoda is chastised by her mother for being not just a little rude and greedy, Monica responds with “she knows what she wants and asks for it.”
Monica’s conversations are laced with psycho-babble, and the encounter of Monica, Christine, and Rhoda with Leroy on the sidewalk is a classic:
“I’ve thought of you as emotionally immature, torn by irrational rages and a bit on the psychopathic side. But after this demonstration (he sprayed Rhoda’s shoes with the hose - remember those shoes), I think my diagnosis was entirely too mild. You’re definitely a schizophrenic with paranoid overtones.”
Monica hosts a dinner party that includes Christine (whose military husband has been called out of town), Monica’s brother (Jesse White), and noted criminologist, Reggie Tasker (Gage Clarke). Earlier, when reminded of the dinner Christine asks: “What do you feed a criminologist?” Monica responds:
“Prussic acid, blue vitriol, and ground glass; hot weather things...; he thrives on buckets of blood and sudden death.” This response holds great promise for the upcoming dinner but it, and the later cocktail party, which brings back Reggie and introduces Christine’s father, an ex-crime reporter, serves up rather stilted discussions of child criminals, nature vs. nurture, and also some surprising plot twists.
Christine and her father (Paul Fix) are a little too weirdly affectionate and we sense there’s something unknown with that relationship; not sordid, just a little off. Rhoda is permitted to greet her grandfather but is then sent up to dine with Monica (when she leaves the room she flips her braid to her back and is in essence flipping off her mother and grandfather). Christine has an awkward talk with her father about her dreams/nightmares, which end up being her father’s secrets.
Jesse White’s role as Monica’s brother and as one inhabitant of the apartment building is very small but he has the honor of spewing out one of the weirdest lines of the movie: “Well, I’ll be a middle-aged mongoloid from Memphis.” We don’t see him again until someone is being burned up in the basement.
Eileen Heckart, playing the mother of a son who drowned at a school picnic, has two scenes, and she steals them both, earning her a nomination for Best Supporting actress. “I’m drunk and unfortunate.” She also introduces the theme of underclass vs. upperclass, and calls out the snobbery of the school teacher, “Miss-butter-wouldn’t-melt-Fern.”
The aforementioned handyman, Leroy, has been kept on by Monica because he has a family and although everyone mistrusts him, only he and Rhoda eventually see each other’s true identities. At one point, Leroy is watching Rhoda, and muttering about her, repeating the butter-wouldn’t-melt-theme. ”Lookin’ cute and innocent; lookin’ like she wouldn’t melt better; she’s that cool.”
Leroy later tries to scare Rhoda with the threat of the electric chair: “They got a little blue chair for little boys and a little pink chair for little girls.” That leads into the Rhoda’s true colors scene: “Give me those shoes! Give me back my shoes!”
Just when you think you’ve arrived at the ending, there’s a surprise twist at a hospital and justice is subsequently meted out by the heavens (changing the plot of the novel and play). The players then appear for their credits (as they would on the stage), and a ridiculous spanking scene finally ensues that dissipates all of the drama. The film ends with this statement:
One can’t leave this movie without mentioning the musical theme of “Au claire de la lune” by Jean-Baptiste Lully. It’s played on the piano by Rhoda, whistled by handyman Leroy, and featured prominently in the musical score by Alex North.
The scene at the end by the water nicely dovetails with the opening credits, and the cinematography by Harold Rosson was Oscar-nominated. The entire film feels like a stage play but I love a movie that uses the word “specious,” twice, and made me look up “excelsior.” While the studio could have made the ending so much better, Patty McCormack rules in the child-horror movie genre, and if she asks you for her shoes, you'd be well-advised to give them to her.
“Now and then we get a twisted brain chemistry born to healthy, enlightened parents, but that’s one in a million.”
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