PUTTING THE JINGLE IN BERT: Post Production
Once the principle photography of DUCK AND COVER was completed, character actor and Archer regular Robert Middleton was chosen to narrate the movie. Middleton's pitch perfect "mental hygiene" film voice is one of the key elements that make DUCK AND COVER the classic that it is. Another character actor and Archer mainstay, Carl Ritchey, was used for Bert's one line of dialog in the film ("Remember what to do, friends. Now tell me right out loud. What are you supposed to do when you see the flash?")
The universally recognized "Duck and Cover" theme song was written by the commercial jingle team of (Leo) Carr and (Leon) Corday with Leo Langlois, though Carr and Corday are the credited songwriters of record. Carr and Corday and Langlois had previously collaborated on the famous car commercial jingle "See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet," another song that is credited solely to Carr and Corday. The fact that the same jingle team that helped sell Chevys wrote Bert's theme song begs the question: Could there be a better example of the intersection between American business and civil defense?
Langlois recalled his directions to the team: "I told them, basically, I said we have to write a song for Bert the Turtle. Here's the opening and closing. Here's what it does and this is what the lyrics will be about. And that was about the size of it. They were jotting down notes while I was talking."
Archer's main music arranger, a jazz singer by the name of Dave Lambert recorded the song as it is heard in the film. He used a demo version recorded by Langlois as his guide for his arrangement. Mauer remembered Lambert as a "bopster who was a very good choral arranger."
A subsequent attempt by Archer to release the tune in conjunction with the film with the government assisting was not well received according to Langlois. However, another version of the song was eventually released as a Coral Records B-side to a children's 78 record with Chicago kiddie show host Dick "Two Ton" Baker singing it. It is interesting to note that the label of the record includes Langlois's name along with Carr and Corday as the songwriters.
BERT'S PREMIERE: "The Darling of the FCDA Boys"
Almost as soon as Archer had put the finishing touches on its masterpiece, the government wanted it delivered. "They (the FCDA) were pretty gung ho with speed," Langlois remembered, "they wanted to get it out there." And Archer was ready. Milt Mohr, Archer's publicity man, did a spectacular job of spreading the word about the film and ensuring that Archer's name was linked to its product. In an internal "gag" newsletter that Mohr produced under the title "The Voice of the Turtle" the publicity guru referred to Bert as "our baby" and noted "Bert" was "the Darling of the FCDA Boys." The newsletter also jokingly suggested that Bert "may soon supplant such stars as Donald Duck, Pluto and others of that stripe who are getting bags under their eyes and rapidly showing signs of senility." Was this merely a PR man being clever for the amusement of his co-workers or did Archer harbor some hope of Bert breaking out of his civil defense typecasting to become a mainstream animated star?
It is a testament to Mohr's publicity skills that the other non-Archer films in the civil defense series were known simply as anonymous government films with no associated production brand. To track their PR successes Archer employed Burelle's clip service to identify any reference to DUCK AND COVER that appeared in numerous daily newspapers or trade publications published throughout the country. Langlois recalled that every day for weeks there would be a bag of clips waiting for him in the Archer offices. Fifty-odd years later, Langlois's big black DUCK AND COVER scrap book is overflowing with these now brittle, yellow notices.
Preceding Bert's film debut were his other government endorsed artistic endeavors: A 14 minute radio version of DUCK AND COVER that was produced by the FCDA Audio Visual Department and a 16 page color booklet of Bert's civil defense admonitions that was drawn by Lars Calonius. This booklet was published by the Government Printing Office with three million copies distributed to schools. There was also a newspaper serialization of Bert's adventures that appeared in hundreds of newspapers across the country. The radio show, which had no Archer involvement, is but a cheap, pale imitation of the movie. Instead of a song, slide whistles and cheesy organ notes are used to punctuate Bert's message. The government's perfunctory attempt to duplicate the Archer magic for the DUCK AND COVER radio knock-off speaks volumes about the creative effort that Langlois and company had invested in their original version.
The first public showing of DUCK AND COVER (and OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT) was at the Alert America Convoy launch in Washington, D.C. on January 7, 1952. The Alert America Convoy was the grand gesture of the new FCDA. The Convoy comprised three caravans of 10 large trucks and trailers that toured the country for nine months in 1952. Each vehicle contained various civil defense exhibitions including dioramas, posters, three dimensional models and movies. The theme of the convoy was to show what "might happen" and then provide education on what every citizen could do to "beat the bomb." The Advertising Council, working closely with the FCDA, promoted the Convoy like a Hollywood B-movie with screaming posters that read: "Don't miss it…it's the show that could save your life!"
If FCDA administrator Millard Caldwell's letter to Archer is to be believed, DUCK AND COVER performed like a box office champion during its debut: "The film was so well received at the Alert America Convoy Exhibit here in Washington last week," wrote Caldwell, "that it was shown continuously during the entire week." The letter added that the film would "of course" be on board for the entire tour. Gov. Caldwell was noticeably mute in his missive as to the public reception of OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT. According to the FCDA 1.1 million visitors eventually saw the convoy exhibits during its tour.
On January 24, 1952 DUCK AND COVER was unveiled to educators in a special screening at a preview theater in Manhattan minus the ballyhoo of the Ad Council. Following the movie, John C. Cocks, Board of Education representative on New York City's civil defense staff noted the importance of the film's "mental hygiene approach, its underlying qualities of cheerfulness and optimism." The same day, a charmingly over-the-top New York Post headline appeared on page 3 of the tabloid: "Pupils to See 'Bert Turtle' Duck A-Bomb"
Perhaps Milt Mohr's greatest PR achievement on behalf of his animated client was having a cardboard cut-out of Bert present at the Farrow family's Beverly Hills home during a special civil defense drill staged for the media to demonstrate how celebrities cope with the Cold War. In a photo that appeared in papers across the nation on February 6th and after, a 7-year-old Maria de Lourdes (aka Mia Farrow) stands next to Bert. Sitting a little further away, but still within Bert's gaze is Ms. Farrow's mother, Maureen "You Jane" O'Sullivan. It was the kind of exposure that most cartoon characters would kill for. [See ]
Adding to the media saturation of his film, radio and publishing appearances, Bert appeared on television for the first time in the New York City market on February 23, 1952. Additional broadcasts of DUCK AND COVER followed throughout the country with television listings labeling it as a "documentary." It is difficult to calculate just how many human beings saw DUCK AND COVER in the early 1950's, but it is certainly safe to say that figure is in the tens of millions.
On March 6, 1952 Bert returned to his schoolhouse roots for the first classroom showing of DUCK AND COVER in the New York City area. As reported in press accounts, the consensus of student viewers such as sixth graders Marine Yull and Betty Ann Stackhouse was that the film was "very instructive," "not too frightening for children," "interesting and funny in spots," and "not too babyish or "too grown up." The New York Herald Tribune trumpeted the positive reaction to the film in a March 7th headline: "10-Min. 'Duck and Cover' a Hit at Class Premiere; Every School to See It."
Accompanying the classroom rollout of DUCK AND COVER was a fascinating FCDA-issued teaching guide that states that the film "demonstrates for school children the basic principles of atomic self-protection." The document's promise of effectiveness on behalf of the movie is indicative of the naïve faith the FCDA placed in the film: "If DUCK AND COVER is carefully integrated with a study of civil defense, it can help your pupils acquire a quick and easy technique for self-protection from an atomic explosion as well as help them understand the need for civil defense."
The guide goes on to suggest to teachers what kinds of questions certain scenes from the film might spark: "Atomic flash may lead to questions about other effects of atomic explosions, additional uses of atomic energy." The guide, which functions as more of an advertisement for the film than as a useful educational tool, also asks teachers to "preview the film and analyze it" and consider "what scenes may arouse fear." While the guide doesn't provide any "guidance" on dealing with this potential issue, it does recommend that teachers shovel out more civil defense product: "Provide each pupil with a copy of ‘Bert the Turtle,' (a pamphlet available through your State civil defense office)."