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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Duck and Cover

After the autumn of 1949, when the Soviet Union had "The Bomb" too, anxiety grew in the American public. Hometown America was in danger like never before. New York, San Francisco or Chicago, all could become Nagasaki. Mostly to quell the rising public anxiety, the federal government commissioned a series of educational films intended to show the public that there was something they could do. The most famous of these informational films was Duck and Cover (D&C). Millions of school children in the 50s were shown this film, as part of the usual "mental hygene" film cycle. The practical value of the films' advice was questionable, but then, the intent was not so much training in proven techniques (as there was little real-world testing of civilians and bombs). The primary goal seems to have been to reduce the growing sense of helplessness and doom.

Quick Plot Synopsis
You can watch this film itself. It's only 9 minutes long. A copy is at the Internet Archives. In lieu of that, here's how it goes: The film opens with animated Bert the Turtle ambling along a tree-lined lane. A monkey dangles a lit stick of dynamite right behind his head. Bert gasps, and ducks into his shell, the monkey and tree are blown up. Bert is reluctant to emerge. The narrator tells us, over footage of a school class practicing duck and cover drills, that we must be prepared if the bomb falls nearby. At the sight of the flash, duck and cover. An animated farmhouse is wrecked by an offscreen blast. Bert is safe inside his shell. Over footage of a mom rubbing ointment on her son's back, we're told the radiation could give us a "really bad sunburn." Sometimes there will be a warning, sometimes not. Kids playing baseball, or in their yards, hear the air raid siren and flock indoors. Other kids doing what most kids do: walk to school, ride the bus, ride their bikes, see the unannounced flash. They all huddle on the ground near a wall. Even a poor farmhand, at the sight of the flash, cowers under his manure spreader. The film concludes with more animated footage of Bert. "Remember what to do, friends. Tell me right out loud. What are you supposed to do when you see the flash? (Kids in unison.) "Duck and Cover." Bert does. The End.

Apocalypse Survived
The government wanted head off a citizen to panic or a slip into nuke malaise. Aiding the government was human nature. People tend to want and look for positive possibilities too. The basic message in D&C was that through quick action and well-stocked shelters, the average Joe could survive the unthinkable. Whether realistic or not, the notion of making it through armageddon had its appeal.

Impact on Sci-fi
The notion of mankind surviving a nuclear war -- even if mutated or diminished, etc. -- shows up in a great many sci-fi plots. From Arch Oboler's Five ('51) to Planet of the Apes ('68) and beyond, there is the background optimism that despite the terrible destruction, somehow, a remnant of mankind would live through it all. Apocalypse Survived is one of the most common sci-fi themes. Yet, a parallel theme is that of imminent danger from the skies. Compare D&C's warnings with that of Scotty's in The Thing from Another World ('51) "Watch the skies. Keep watching the skies!". It's not hard to see the Cold War playing out in sci-fi.

Bert The Star -- Archer Productions had hoped that Bert the Turtle would catch on and become a famous cartoon character. This didn't happen, but then, having only one film appearance makes stardom tough. Archer Productions didn't last long enough to give Bert another film.

Mixed Signals -- While the intent of D&C (and other Civil Defense films) was to quell public worries by giving them something they could do, laced within the narration of D&C were phrases that stuck in kids' memories, fueling that sense of impending doom from unseen sources in the skies. In one scene, kids are playing baseball when siren sounds) "Remember, the flash of an atomic bomb can come at anytime, no matter where you may be." In another scene, Paul and Patty on their way to school. "They always try to remember what to do if the atom bomb explodes -right then-. (Flash!) "It's a bomb! Duck and cover!" In yet another scene, Tony is riding his bike to Cub Scouts. "He knows the bomb can explode any time of the year, day or night. He's ready for it. (Flash!) Duck and Cover." The lingering message? There were no save moments. Doom could strike anytime. Now, go on with your lives, citizens.

Early Ethnic Mixing -- Long before political correctness mandated that crowds of school kids must be ethnically diverse, the classrooms in D&C are racially mixed. Note the little black boy, often prominent in the center of the scene. An hispanic girl is there too, and a black girl further back. It was a classroom ahead of its time. School desegregation was yet many years in the future.

Cool Cars! -- Ok, aside from the sociological value, fans of old cars get quite an eye full of late 40s sedans, encrusted with chrome, and even a cool old fire truck! D&C is an inadvertent time capsule of postwar prosperity.

Bottom line? D&C is a cultural landmark of the 50s. Its subtle (and not so subtle) messages were fuel on the fires of American Atomic Angst. It's well worth the 19 minutes it takes to watch it, to get a feel for what was in audiences' heads as they watched sci-fi movies.

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