In Our Opinion

WHEN THE WORLD ENDED: FILMS IN THE ATOMIC AGE

By • Jan 15th, 2009 • Pages: 1 2 3

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NOWHERE TO RUN
I want to be happy I want to be gay / I want to be normal in every way / But a mushroom cloud hangs over my dreams / It haunts my future and threatens my dreams
‘A Mushroom Cloud’ – Sammy Salvo (1961)

In 1942, Time Magazine announced that death rays “missed the bus for World War II,” and promised, “If a method is developed to concentrate nuclear radiations into a narrow beam, death rays may be available to enliven World War III.” [1] Scientists wished to achieve the degree of precision that would “kill small animals at 5,000 feet in three seconds,” but while these were still in the works [2] , salvation took the shape of a mushroom cloud.

Salvation quickly turned to threat when president Truman announced on September 23, 1949, that the Soviets detonated their own atom bomb. As the nations raced to create more destructive bombs, and with the rise of senator McCarthy and the House Committee of Un-American Activities, fear and paranoia were sifting through the cracks. WWIII, it seemed, would be the war to end all wars (literally, this time around). Annihilation, obliteration, eradication… nuclear bombs and radiation promised not just the end of life but the end of death.

Bert the Turtle is about to Duck and Cover

Susan Sontag recognized the trauma suffered by people in the mid-20th century: “it became clear that from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life not only under the threat of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost unsupportable psychologically – collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without any warning.” [3]

And it did seem like there was nowhere to run or nowhere to hide, the “lying, dirty, shrewd, godless, murderous, determined” [4] communists were able to destroy the United States either from above, in the form of a military attack, or from within, by infiltrating culture and government. A nuclear attack, according to the educational film, DUCK AND COVER, could take two forms: With Warning and Without Warning.

Kids and teenagers were exposed to an adult world of horrors. They watched the educational films, took part in emergency exercises at school, carried around metal identification tags (‘dog tags’) [5] , watched the McCarthy hearings on television, and listened to detonations of atom bombs on the radio. Lewis Frumkes, Director of the Writing Center at Marymount Manhattan College, recalls being horrified at the age of 13, in 1953, listening on the radio to the execution of Ethel Rosenberg, who was charged with espionage: “I remember to this day with horror as they described Ethel Rosenberg being strapped into the electric chair. They said after the voltage went through her, blue smoke arose from her head. And as the voltage went through her body she shook and convulsed… it was so horrifying.” [6]

In April, 1954, defense was proposed as a school subject in New York. In classes like Home Economics for example, emergency cooking in preparation for a possible disaster could be taught. “Only if our youth is made fully cognizant of its added responsibilities as citizens in the newly evolving atomic era can we be assured of the will of our people to resist aggression and the ability of our people to survive its disastrous effects.” [7]

Middle-class economy was flourishing in the 1950s and the decade saw a great boom in teenage culture. Young Americans enjoyed financial freedom as their average weekly income quadrupled between 1944 and 1958 [8], by which time teen spending reached an estimated $9.5 billion yearly. This newfound freedom, and the changing system of film exhibition, lead to the explosion of genre cinema, and in the heart of it…

…THE ATOMIC SPECTACLE

Lee Merlin, the Last 'Ms. Atom Bomb', 1957

Pop-culture adopted the ATOMIC idea. Everybody joined in the fun: Elvis was billed as ‘The Atomic Powered Singer’; Gene Vincent was ‘The Hottest Thing Since the Hydrogen Bomb’; Miss Atomic Bomb was crowned in Las Vegas; Atomic candy was sold to kids; and an Allied Artists ad proclaiming their ‘New Box Office Power’ had a mushroom cloud as its background. [9]

The ‘Paramount decision of 1948’ separated the film studios from their theaters, resulting in their loss of control over both exhibition and audiences in the United States. Drive-In cinemas popped up all over the country, catering mainly to teenagers. This brought a slew of low-budget science fiction, horror, juvenile delinquent and rocknroll films.

This type of ‘exploitation’ cinema was a new breed between the Poverty-Row ‘B’-movie and the ‘classic exploitation’ film – alternative independent productions that relied on forbidden spectacle, namely drugs, sex, and violence – to set them apart from Hollywood product. The new producers decided that instead of being a ‘B’ to a Hollywood ‘A’ movie, they could produce their own double features and gain more capital. Their product was so popular that many of the studios hopped on the genre bandwagon as well, either by producing their own or distributing independent productions.

Many of the productions revolved around atomic fear, the consequences of radiation, and alien invasion. They offered visions of space travel, radiation-induced-giant-insects, monsters, mind control and post-nuclear worlds: “SEE! The World Ended By Atomic Fury! SEE! Fantastic World of Death and Horror!” announced ads for Corman’s DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955). That film was so successful that after only two months in release it earned $400,000 on a budget of $65,000. [10] Susan Sontag theorizes that fantasy of destruction can normalize what is psychologically unbearable; it beautifies and neutralizes the world. [11]

Beverly Garland with a close personal friend of Lee Van Cleef's

The Alien-Invasion films often tapped into the Red-Scare, with aliens attacking earth from above but also undermining humankind from within. In Roger Corman’s IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956), Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef) is convinced that an alien invader (whom he calls “a personal friend of mine”) wants to help humans by eliminating their hate, bitterness, dreams and emotions. When the alien starts taking over the minds of the people, hysterical realists assess that they are “in the middle a communist uprising.” A logical assumption, as certain towns in the US performed security exercises that simulated a communist takeover of the town.

Even that genre was inseparable from a notion of atomic threat. Roy Frumkes, the editor of Films In Review, remembers: “The fact that they were all set in the desert really worked on my subconscious, because that was where I had heard all the bomb tests were. So when I saw a Sci-Fi film like IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, it wasn’t about atomic war but it was set in the desert and it added this extra chill.” [12]

Aliens sometimes could cause destruction by taking over the minds of atomic scientists and researchers to use our own power against us. The Kronos (KRONOS, 1957), an alien machine described by one reviewer as “a cross between a futuristic skyscraper and a present-day kitchen appliance,” [13] sets itself on Earth and grows as it absorbs atomic energy. With every H-Bomb the government launches at it, Kronos causes more and more destruction.

Roger Corman is one of the most prolific producers and directors of these genres, and his vision, as would be discussed later in the article, is unique. Among his nuclear-related films: NOT OF THIS EARTH (1957), ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957), TEENAGE CAVEMAN (1958), and LAST WOMAN ON EARTH (1960). In 1945, Corman himself was training to participate in the invasion of Japan, when the bomb went off: “I’m part of that group that said, “Thank god for the atomic bomb.” It very possibly saved my life. But at the same time, I also had to say, “My God, what a monstrous, terrible thing!” [14]

“THE MAINSPRING OF CIVIL DEFENSE”: FAMILIES AND SHELTERS

“The family is the mainspring of Civil Defense. Get your family to work as a team in preparing for emergencies,” instructed a 1955 leaflet by the Federal Civil Defense Administration. [15] On July 25, 1961, President Kennedy said in a televised address: “In the event of an attack, the lives of those families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved – if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available. We owe that kind of insurance to our families – and to our country.”

PANIC IN YEAR ZERO (1960), directed by Ray Milland for American International Pictures, offers the best portrayal of defined roles in the family unit in the midst of a nuclear crisis. While on a family trip, Henry Baldwin (Ray Milland) and his family find out that their home, Los Angeles, has been wiped out by a nuclear attack. Immediately all hell breaks loose, California turns into a Wild West where law is meaningless and people have to defend themselves in its absence.

Henry knows just what to do. He equips his family with enough food to last them a few months and weapons for self defense. His son, Rick (Frankie Avalon), learns from his father about protecting the family, in preparation for his role as a future patriarch, “I want you to use that gun,” says Henry, “But I want you to hate it.” When the family functions in the normal world at the beginning they are defined by age: the kids, Rick and Karen (Mary Mitchel), are in the back seat while the parents are in the front. After the bomb drops and danger arises, the mother, Ann (Jean Hagen) moves to the back and Rick sits in the front with his father, separating roles by gender.

Henry shelters his family in a mountain cave and it is a classic fallout shelter in many ways, having enough products to last them for a long time underground while being surrounded by the immediate family. The men must hunt and the women take care of their needs, reverting to an old way of living, typical of the American Western. Although Henry’s views of society are grim to say the least (“Our country is still full with thieving, murdering patriots”), the reaffirmation that “there must be no end – only new beginnings,” prevails.

Milland and Avalon: I want you to use the gun, but I want you to hate it.

Family and shelters are inseparable and stress the importance of being informed, especially by the head of the family. When a number of individuals who don’t form a family occupy a shelter, distress and conflict arise. In DAY THE WORLD ENDED the father secures his house, measures radiation, and is handy with a gun, for the protection of his daughter. A group of strangers invade their shelter, causing violent conflict in which the only survivors are members of the existing family or soon-to-be family (the daughter’s future husband); Roger Corman’s LAST WOMAN ON EARTH (1960) suggests deep sea as a shelter but the 3 who survive the blast, a dysfunctional husband and wife and their friend, end up in a deadly conflict in which only the married couple prevails.

A police officer forms an unnatural community out of a group of strangers in THIS IS NOT A TEST (1962). Warned of a coming attack, he stops a number of cars and forces everyone to take shelter in the back of a truck, which leads to their descent into madness, murder, suicide, animal cruelty and terrible paranoia over the futile situation and the useless role of the law in the wake of a nuclear attack. When the bomb drops, the truck and everything around it is instantly wiped away.

In 1959, a contest set by Bomb Shelters, Inc. prompted newlyweds Melvin and Maria Mininson of Miami, Florida to spend a two-week honeymoon in a fallout shelter, for which they were rewarded with a real honeymoon. The Parkers of southern California did the same later that year and nine months later had a child conceived in the shelter. [16] The shelter was culturally tied to the concept of family, encouraging conformism for the sake of protection.

Bomb shelter construction must have been a mighty profitable business, but since the products were never put to the test, their real value is questionable. This is parodied in hindsight by the Happy Days episode, ‘Be the First on Your Block’ (original airdate 5/7/1974) in which Howard Cunningham buys into the pitch of a sleazy salesman and announces the building of a shelter for his family. Soon the whole neighborhood is trying to secure a spot inside it in case of an attack. In Joe Dante’s MATINEE (1993), exploitation film producer Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), cracks open the door to a fallout shelter using a crowbar and jokes, “boy, am I in the wrong business?” comparing the cheapness of his productions to the cheapness of the shelter product.

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