It seems that every time the Department of Homeland Security's Threat Level changes colors, legions of not-so-clever newspaper headline writers seize the opportunity to trot out another variation of the phrase "Duck and Cover." One prominent example of this journalistic laziness followed the infamous government endorsement of duct tape and plastic sheeting as a means of preparedness for chemical and biological attack. Never mind that this advisory was quickly retracted by then Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the headline "DUCT AND COVER" appeared for weeks afterward.
Just how did the term "Duck and Cover" become universal shorthand for the paranoid excesses of the Cold War and for every geo-political panic attack since? How did the image of a pith-helmet-wearing cartoon turtle named Bert become as lasting a symbol of this dark era as the yellow and black fallout shelter signs that still adorn many buildings around the United States?
Nearly everyone with even the slightest sense of irony appreciates the inherent camp value of Bert and his titular mantra to terrified or just plain confused 1950's school children. But few if any know anything at all about the origin of this turtle and how he became so famous. The film (there was also a radio program and a government pamphlet) DUCK AND COVER is, after all, the CITIZEN KANE of American civil defense motion pictures. Clips from this movie are used almost every time a news piece is produced on the 1950's or the Cold War. DUCK AND COVER, which is a public domain film, has also been slapped on numerous VHS and DVD video compilations with little regard for its true legacy. It struck CONELRAD as odd that so little was known about the origins of a work that has had such a reverberating impact on the culture. Indeed, in an age where film scholars study Tom Cruise movies, the lack of basic information on how DUCK AND COVER came to be seemed like a gross historical omission—one that cried out for correction.
In an effort to preserve the rich story behind this landmark film, CONELRAD has spent the last two years thoroughly researching DUCK AND COVER's production history as well as its initial public reception in 1952. Interviews were conducted with living participants involved in the making of the film as well as surviving family members of those key players who had passed away. In the course of our research, CONELRAD also uncovered a wealth of archival material that leaves no doubt that a tremendous amount of thought went into the making of this nine minute motion picture that has been the subject of so much dismissive ridicule over the years. And while there's no denying that DUCK AND COVER is a hilariously naïve work, one must consider the times in which it was made and compare it to other civil defense films made around the same time to appreciate its unique creativity.
BEFORE BERT: Dog Tags vs. Tattoos
In many ways DUCK AND COVER is the perfect synthesis of the competing themes of the 1950's: Fear and prosperity. In the context of the Cold War's epic struggle between communism and capitalism, it seems oddly appropriate that the American government turned to private industry to help sell survival to an anxious population. And make no mistake—the government knew it was getting a good deal. Indeed, in a March 28, 1951 internal White House memorandum Special Assistant to the Assistant of the President of United States, Dallas Halverstadt practically brags "Arrangements have been completed for production and distribution of nine official Federal Civil Defense motion pictures*…The pictures will be made and distributed through normal channels of trade by private capital, and the venture is without cost to the government."
The government's "arrangement" with private industry to produce civil defense films was ultimately the result of a growing panic over the perception that not enough was being done to secure the American people following the detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949. In reaction to this public unease President Harry S Truman empowered the National Security Resources Board (NSRB) with civil defense responsibilities for the United States. The NSRB's civil defense oversight did not last very long as the new Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) was established on January 12, 1951 and essentially took over the daunting task of educating the country on how to protect itself in the event of an enemy attack. The FCDA then could be considered the great, great grandfather to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the latest model in civil defense agencies. And like its distant successor agency, the FCDA's overriding purpose was to demonstrate to the citizenry that something was being done to protect the republic.
One of the key studies that accompanied the bureaucratic construction of America's post-atomic civil defense infrastructure was "Project East River." "East River" was a government sponsored research project undertaken by a consortium of Ivy League universities known as "Associated Universities, Inc." The resulting report from this project became a blueprint for civil defense "emotion management" for the early Cold War. And while Project East River didn't conclude its study until well after DUCK AND COVER was produced, the tenets of emotion management were already being put into practice by the FCDA.
The FCDA was never afforded a large budget to pursue its education mandate so it used whatever avenues it could to cheaply maximize the distribution of the civil defense message. Two of these avenues were the public school system and the educational film market. Public school administrators were cooperative, even eager, to embody President Truman's slogan "Education is our first line of defense." Toward that end and beginning in 1950, public (and many private) schools—particularly in obvious target cities—began regular air raid drills sometimes known as "cover" or "sneak attack" drills. In such exercises the teacher would, without warning, yell "Drop!" and the students would kneel next to or under their desks with their hands clutched around the back of their necks. These drills were undertaken as a token of East River's soon to be documented gospel of emotion management. If children were "prepared" on what to do in the event of an "atom raid," the theory was that they would be less worried about the potential of such an event.
Another step many school districts took during this period was to provide identification tags (i.e. dog tags) to school children to wear so that in the event of an attack their bodies could be identified more easily. Dog tags were the preferred method of identifying pupils because the other ID options that were considered like tattooing had negative connotations or, in the case of fingerprinting, elicited privacy concerns. Moreover, metal tags were thought to be the smarter alternative because metal was decidedly more "permanent" than human flesh. With such bizarre debates and practices shaping the childhood memories of the baby boomer generation is it any wonder there was a counter culture in the 1960's?
The other avenue available to the FCDA was the educational film market. It was an ideal vehicle for the lessons of civil defense that utilized the genre of the training film that was perfected and widely used during World War II. Following the war this format found new peacetime applications in school systems, government and private industry. Companies including Coronet, Centron and Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, produced these so-called "Mental hygiene" films. Early titles included "Dating: Do's and Don'ts" and "Are You Popular?" It was only a matter of time before the worlds of civil defense and mental hygiene converged.
BIDDING ON BERT: "A Little Sales Job"
In the beginning there were to be nine civil defense films that covered a wide variety of survival issues. The quantity of nine was arrived at based on the number of subjects the FCDA wished to have addressed on film. Some of these subjects were nothing but thematic shells (e.g. "civil defense for schools" and "the dangers of evacuating a target city") and others were ideas that had already been published as pamphlets by the Government Printing Office on behalf of the FCDA (e.g. "Survival Under Atomic Attack," "Fire Fighting for Householders"). Negotiations for the production and distribution of the nine films were conducted by the White House's Halverstadt and the FCDA's motion picture branch chief, Howard R.H. Johnson. Halverstadt and Johnson made a deal with one or more motion picture distributors (Castle Films being the major distributor) to get these films made quickly and with minimal government direction. The enticement for the distributor was that it would retain the majority of the profit while the studio producing the film would receive a small royalty for each print sold.
James M. Franey who was then president of United World Films, Inc., the company that owned Castle Films, wasted no time in contacting Leo M. Langlois, vice president of Archer Productions, Inc., a powerhouse ad agency that, at its peak, had 32 full-time employees and 70% of the broadcast advertising business in New York City. Langlois recalled in an interview with CONELRAD the circumstances of Archer being drawn into the bidding for work on the civil defense films: "(James M. Franey) suggested I look into it, that it might be something I'd be interested in and, you know, did a little job on me, a little sales job on me." Langlois had told Franey on previous occasions that Archer was interested in doing work other than commercials. Indeed, Archer had approached the Department of Defense for training film work the previous year.
Archer had begun life as a sales "front" for Langlois's brother-in-law, a shy animator originally from Helsinki who had previously worked for Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles. With the encouragement of Langlois, Calonius had moved to New York following World War II to get in on the ground floor of the expected boom in television advertising. At the time, the late 1940's, Langlois was an executive with the prestigious ad agency of Campbell-Ewald (and shortly thereafter Cecil Presbury). He advised Calonious on business matters ranging from naming the agency ("Lars asked what would be a good name and I happened to think of Archer Productions. I said it's very visual and what have you and Lars thought it was a good idea so that's how it came into being.") to staffing it. One such staff recommendation, Universal's Thomas C. Craven who came aboard as Director of Production, subsequently urged Langlois to join the upstart studio. Langlois finally jumped ship at Cecil Presbury in February of 1951 and started at Archer's 35 W. 53rd Street offices as vice president and executive producer.
Langlois had not been at Archer for very long before he received Franey's friendly tip on the potential government work. As Archer's official representative he took a business trip to investigate the opportunity. "I went down to Washington, D.C.," Langlois recounted, "I called the guy he (Franey) suggested I get in contact with. I went down and got all the facts and I came back and I reported to a little executive meeting at Archer and I told them about it and Tom (Craven) loved it. Lars was kind of non-committal at first, but then he kind of warmed up to it, too."
What was conveyed by Langlois at his executive meeting was only the basic gist of the project: "The concept was just merely civil defense for the schools and how the kids could protect themselves and things like that…What to do when you see the big flash… Elliminate any panic possibilities."
With the Archer executives in agreement, the studio took a chance and successfully won the opportunity to produce two of the nine civil defense motion pictures, though they only really wanted one. As screenwriter Ray J. Mauer recalled in an interview with CONELRAD: "I think we took the clunker in order to get ‘Civil Defense for Schools' (the working title for DUCK AND COVER). The "clunker" turned out to be the film based on the theme of the dangers of abandoning an A-bombed city to the enemy (which eventually became titled OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT).
Archer didn't enter into the government arrangement with any monetary illusions: "The only ones who had a win-win situation, said Langlois, "was the distributor, Castle."
But as Langlois recalled, the initial motives for Archer to get involved with the project were not just financial: "(Having the film distributed through) the whole school system throughout the United States. That excited me. I saw it not only as a good citizen and doing something for your country but also as a possibility of making some money at the same time."
Upon securing the contract to produce the two films, Langlois turned to his old friend from Campbell-Ewald, copy writer extraordinaire Ray J. Mauer to write the scripts. Mauer, a sardonic scribe who hailed from Detroit was excited by the prospect of writing a pair of dramatic scripts, something he had never done before, but not before he got permission to do so: "I got clearance from my agency to write the films because I didn't want to have any trouble and at the time I wasn't thinking of coming to work for Leo… In fact I had to take time off to go to Washington."