Thursday, May 5, 2011
In May of 1954, The Motorola Television Hour presented an episode entitled Atomic Attack (AA) as the last episode of its season. It was a dramatization of a suburban family coping in the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the United States. The teleplay tried to walk a fine line between frightening audiences with the horrors of nuclear war AND reassuring them that they'd be okay if they follow Civil Defense directions. Notes of optimism were Intermixed were hawkish elements too, framed to justify Cold War (mutual destruction) logic. Most of the actors are lesser names in the television realm, except Walter Mathau plays a bit part as Dr. Spinelli.
Quick Plot Synopsis
The Mitchell family are enjoying a cheerful breakfast in their upper middle class Westchester home. Dad takes the girls to school before taking the train into New York City. Mom waves goodbye. While she's doing laundry in the basement, there is a bright flash, then an earth-shaking rumble. Air raid sirens blare. Phone lines are jammed. The radio reports an H-bomb was dropped on New York City. Massive damage and loss of life. Barbara and Ginny, her daughters, come home from school. They're warned to stay indoors, as rain will carry heavy fallout. Ginny's stuffed horse is outside getting rained on. Dr. Lee, Barbara's science teacher comes to see if they made it home okay. Jim the gas station attendant is now the Civil Defense warden for the area. Dr. Spinelli checks out Barbara with a geiger counter. She's okay. Dr. Lee hides in the cellar. The back story is that he used to work in atomic research but quit for pacifist reasons. He now thinks the authorities are after him because of his anti-nuke sentiments. Jim brings some refugees, assigned to board in the Mitchell house. Mr. Flood is upbeat. Mrs. Moore is an alcoholic pessimist. Mrs. Harvey is stunned silent in mourning. Mrs. Mitchell entertains hopes that her husband was not in the city when the bomb fell. Three looters try to get in via the kitchen door. Dr. Lee fires at them with Mr. Mitchell's shotgun. He is aghast at his own behavior. When Jim comes around to check out the gunshot, Barb gives Dr. Lee a fake name to protect him. On the sixth day, the phones are working again. Mrs. Mitchell gets a call. Her husband was in the city when the bomb fell. She is distraught. The radio tells how our planes are devastating the enemy's cities. Ginny not feeling well. Her hair is falling out too. Dr. Spinelli tests her. High doses of radiation, which she got from her irradiated stuffed horse. Dr. Lee is discovered, but it turns out he's wanted for research, not jail. Mrs. Moore goes to the hospital, deciding to face her fate with dignity. Ginny does too. Dr. Spinelli says she'll need a lot of care for a long time, but should recover. They take Ginny home to care for her there. The radio tells of American air superiority over the enemy land. Mom assures Ginny that they're winning. The End.
For all of its doom and gloom about the aftermath of a nuclear strike, AA is essentially an optimistic story. Despite the death and destruction, people would survive. America (as we knew it) would survive -- especially if we obey our Civil Defense authorities.
Impact on Sci-fi
America having to work through a massive atomic attack formed the framework of many sci-fi films. People watching their TVs in May of '54, had seen George Pal's War of the Worlds just six months earlier. America under unstoppable attack. Even the peculiar Robot Monster from earlier in '53, dealt with a family coping in the post armageddon world. Coming up soon would be Them! a month later, with giant radioactive ants as metaphors. Target Earth a few months later, would follow survivors in a city made desolate by alien invader robots. AA was the non-metaphor version of America under attack.
Based on the Book -- Judith Merrill wrote the novel "Shadow on the Hearth" in 1950. David Davidson adapted it to a teleplay. Merrill's story was essentially the same (attack on NYC, the Mitchell family in the suburbs), but with some notable differences. In her novel, Jim the Civil Defense Warden turns out to be a little creepy (in his interest in the widow Mitchell) and becomes corrupted by his power in the chaotic times. Merrill was a sci-fi writer and co-wrote a novel entitled Outpost Mars, which was itself a tale of a man abusing his power over peaceful folks, but set on Mars.
Pro-Bomb Spin -- Davidson's teleplay glossed over (or ignored) the leftist/pacifist elements in Merrill's story. Instead, he cranked up the establishment talking points that America needed its bombs to protect the nation from the enemy. Even though radiation sickness was acknowledged as bad (and perhaps fatal), it was glossed over as something one recovers from or faces with a stiff upper lip. Ginny, who has radiation in her bones, is said will get better in time as the radiation "burns itself out." In the end, when the radio reports that America is winning, there is a note of vengeful triumph.
Trust Your Authorities -- A not-so-subtle message in AA is that authority would remain. Many Civil Defense films of the early 50s sold the same message, The voices on the radio are calm and trusted. Jim, the local CD Warden is the face of the new authority. In Davidson's teleplay, the clear message is: do as you're told, and you'll be okay. Jim in the teleplay is squeaky clean and trustworthy. The authorities dispense advice, and eventually restore utilities to the suburban island of normalcy: the Mitchell's home.
Peacenik Bashing -- Somewhat ironically, where Merrill's novel had anti-nuclear anti-establishment undertones, Davidson's teleplay of her novel, had anti-peacenik undertones. The plot takes aim at pacifist thinking by making America's A-bombs a practical necessity. Dr. Lee is the symbolic peacnik. He is religious and deplores all killing. Yet, when push comes to shove, he fires a gun at the looters trying to get into the house. "I would have done it. I would have shot to kill..." he reflects. The pragmatic kill-to-protect thinking trumps the "sentimental luxury" of pacifism. America needs its nukes like he needed that shotgun. Take that, you anti-nuke peaceniks!
Bottom line? AA was the mid 50s' scary atomic scenario movie. It was akin to a later generation's version: The Day After (1983). Production quality in AA is scant, as it's a television production. Most action is described rather than shown. But, AA is a good dose of the fear that people in the 50s lived with. They felt that any day could become that shown in AA. Little wonder that sci-fi movies about alien invasions or giant bugs ravaging New York found such resonance in audiences.