"THE COMMUNIST PARTY LINE": Critics of Bert and the Fall of Archer
Despite all of its well-documented public acclaim, DUCK AND COVER was not universally adored. There were certain groups like the Levittown (NY) Educational Association (LEA) and the Members of the Committee for the Study of War Tensions in Children that branded Bert's cinematic vehicle as presenting "terrifying concepts" and as being an "actual disservice" to children. But the government's preemptive strategy of obtaining the endorsement of the NEA mostly inoculated DUCK AND COVER from the slings and arrows of such organizations.
In the case of the LEA, McCarthyism was employed to diffuse their criticisms. In his defense of the film Forrest Corson, a civil defense spokesman for Nassau County stated: "It is unfortunate that the critics of 'Duck and Cover,' in their misapprehension over the psychological effect of the film on school children, are unwittingly following the Communist party line laid down in their official publications. It is the Communist policy to deride Civil Defense wherever possible, to question and ridicule its necessity, and to 'abhor' the effect of ‘air raid drills on tender impressionable young minds.' (Quotes are from the DAILY WORKER). I am sure that all thinking parents want their children to be prepared for catastrophe. It is exactly what Civil Defense is trying to do."
Another example of Bert's Midas touch wearing off was DUCK AND COVER's snub at the 5th Annual Cleveland Film Festival, a festival devoted to excellence in instructional films. On June 12, 1952 DUCK AND COVER lost the "Oscar" (The now defunct festival's award) in the category of Best Civil Defense Film to a British short subject entitled WAKING POINT. And who among us remembers WAKING POINT?
If Bert was losing some of his luster during this period, Archer was in even worse shape. In May of 1952 Langlois's dream of making Archer a player in network television programming went up in smoke in the law offices of the prominent Manhattan attorney Sol A. Rosenblatt. Everyone involved with Archer's first major television production, AMERICAN ALMANAC, a half-hour anthology series intended for CBS, had gathered for a contract signing session. This was supposed to be a formality because other cast members had already been signed, expensive sets had been built and scripts had been written by Ray Mauer who by this time had come to work for Archer full time. The one person who was not present was Raymond Massey, the star CBS had assumed was already locked in.
As Langlois recalled, one of the lawyers went to call Massey and "returned with a long face." It was then revealed that the actor, on the advice of his wife (who was notorious for loathing television) had decided to tour the country with his Broadway hit JOHN BROWN'S BODY. This was very upsetting news to the Wall Street investors who were also present for the signing. Langlois remembered Donald Stralem saying "I think we're going to have to forget about the rest of the money."
The Massey debacle spelled the end for Archer. A lot of Archer's cash flow had been diverted toward the goal of becoming a major league television series production house while their bread and butter commercial production had been neglected. Vendors including film development labs began filing claims against the studio for unpaid bills. Everything finally came to a head in July of 1952. With the scene seemingly still fresh in his memory, Ray Mauer recalled the end: "I was there when the sheriff came in and chewed everybody out." Shortly thereafter Archer was dissolved with assets sold off at auction to satisfy their debts.
"Those were cloudy days, Langlois said, "They were very tearful days because I had high hopes for that outfit. I had to lay everybody off. He (Anthony Rizzo) was one of the first people I had to lay off."
At some point soon after Archer's demise Langlois was notified by his attorney that the government wanted to buy back DUCK AND COVER and OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT. A sale was negotiated for $13,000. Once again the government came out ahead in its dealings with Archer. The combined cost that Archer had fronted (and never recovered) for both films had been approximately $25,000.
Archer's failure was no doubt a deeply depressing event in the lives of the talented men who had built it from the ground up, but nearly everyone associated with the studio went on to have extremely productive careers. None more so than Leo Langlois who continued to work both in advertising (during which time he wrote a 1964 campaign song for LBJ and later met the President to preview the tune) and in Hollywood as an assistant director on such television shows as ONE STEP BEYOND, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE MONKEES, AND I DREAM OF JEANNIE. Was there ever any discussion of DUCK AND COVER with the PreFab Four (some of whom may have actually seen it as children)? "The Monkees were beautiful little people, Langlois sighed, "but they were interested in the Monkees. They could care less about me."
Sharp and productive until the day he died on April 17, 2003, Leo M. Langlois was a flesh and blood example of the "can do" spirit of the World War II generation. And despite all of the accomplishments that this man achieved in his life, from rubbing elbows with presidents to rubbing elbows with Monkees, it should surprise no one to learn that at his wake the Langlois family replayed on the VCR what they consider to be his "greatest hit," DUCK AND COVER.
Ray J. Mauer continued a distinguished career in advertising and to this day threatens to finish his novel that he has in a drawer somewhere in his house. Mauer summed up his feelings about civil defense in the 1950's and DUCK AND COVER in general with his trademark bluntness: "I thought it (civil defense) was a good thing. I didn't know how effective it would be. I thought it was wise to make whatever preparations could be devised by the best minds. I had no idea whether that was happening or not. But you know I was just a writer for hire. Hell, I would have written almost anything. It was fun and if it did some good that would make me feel good. And I guess it did. Thank heaven nobody ever had to put it into practice."
Anthony Rizzo continued directing and working in advertising for many years after Archer. He even worked with Mauer again at the Geyer, Morey, Ballard, Inc. advertising agency in New York. Rizzo later shifted careers and got into the real estate business. He passed away on February 12, 2004.
Lars E. Calonius left Archer shortly before its unfortunate end. He set up Lars Calonius Productions in New York and worked in animation until 1980. During his retirement the artist pursued his passion for portrait and still life painting until his death in 1995. His paintings continue to hang in his home.
The fates of Drummond Drury and Milt Mohr, the cameraman and publicity man for DUCK AND COVER, respectively, remain unknown to CONELRAD.
And, finally, Bert the Turtle's pop culture reincarnation came courtesy Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty whose brilliant 1982 documentary THE ATOMIC CAFE effectively re-purposed Bert for the Reagan era. Instead of being a sincere advocate for civil defense, the new model Bert was an ironic tool used to highlight the lunacy of the Reagan administration's neo-survival doctrine. [ See the ]
By the time George W. Bush took office, DUCK AND COVER and Bert the Turtle were in danger of becoming permanent relics of the Cold War. Public fallout shelters from the 1960's had been de-stocked under President Clinton, nuclear missile silos were being dismantled and retrofitted into cheap housing for mid-west eccentrics and the Soviet Union was fast becoming a distant memory. But then 9/11 happened and the comparisons between the panic of the 1950's and the new fear for the new millennium began appearing in the media like an echo. With uncertain times ahead and increasingly bizarre government anti-terrorism plans no doubt on the horizon, Bert the Turtle and the phrase "duck and cover" are here to stay.
With Bert in full resurgence, it seems only appropriate to conclude this feature with a quote from publicity man Milt Mohr's in-house Archer newsletter, The Voice of the Turtle, dated January 15, 1952:
"As BERT grows in stature throughout the country we will faithfully record the events and inform his office fans. Meanwhile, remember...
'BERT is our baby—let's keep him growing.'"
And we shall.
* The complete list of nine civil defense films in the series:
1. DUCK AND COVER
2. OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT
3. SURVIVAL UNDER ATOMIC ATTACK
4. FIRE FIGHTING FOR HOUSEHOLDERS
5. WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT BIOLOGICAL WARFARE
6. WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT NERVE GAS
7. EMERGENCY ACTION TO SAVE LIVES
8. THIS IS CIVIL DEFENSE
9. CIVIL DEFENSE FOR INDUSTRY