Dr. Toon recounts how terrifying a toon can be when one is young and impressionable, as he harkens back to when he first saw Duck and Cover, now ensconced in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
In my time, I have seen some tremendous animation given seven lifetimes, I could never aspire to that level of creativity. I have seen prodigious amounts of mediocre animation that comprise the very definition of time-filler. I have seen my share of bad animation. Some of these regrettable artifacts were incomprehensible, poorly made independent films accessible to no one but the creator. Others were (and are) soulless corporate products seemingly designed to sully viewing screens both large and small.
Still, even the worst animated dross has something uplifting about it. The fact that any animation exists is still a tribute to human cognition and creativity, however skewed or flawed it may be. There really was a time when an entire network somehow believed that Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch was a terrific concept. Thus, I can never bring myself to the point of actual hatred for any piece of animation. With one exception.
The toon I despise beyond all was actually ensconced in the Library of Congresss National Film Registry on Dec. 8, 2004. Despite this singular honor, it is doubtful that many of you have actually seen him. Better known to historians than animation fans, Bert the Turtle was the star of perhaps the most unsettling film I saw in my childhood, a nine-minute civil defense film called Duck and Cover. This film, produced in order to teach schoolchildren the basics of civil defense in the atomic age, terrified me to the point of nightmares, sparked apocalyptic daydreams and caused me to pummel my parents with anguished questions that no young kid should have been asking.
Sometime during 1948, ex-Disney animator Lars E. Calonius formed an advertising agency called Archer Productions Inc. in New York City. By May 1950, the new studio was a successful venture, and Colonius brother-in-law, Leo Langlois, joined Archer as exec producer/vp. Langlois, already an experienced advertising exec, was on board when the studio made the decision to bid on civil defense motion pictures in 1951. The Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) granted the studio two films in April.
The following month, Langlois and a screenwriter named Ray Mauer met with officials of the National Education Administration to discuss the topic of civil defense for schools. There they met up with an assistant headmistress from Virginia by the name of Helen Seth-Smith, who spoke of the duck and cover drills conducted at her school. Langlois and Mauer now had a theme.
In October, Langlois became president of Archer, and pre-production of the film Duck and Cover was underway. Mauer decided that since the audience was composed of children, the film might have greater appeal if some of it were animated. Lars Colonius set to work designing Bert the Turtle and his antagonist, a skunk. Veteran Hollywood animator Emery Hawkins was on hand to assist Colonius. At roughly the same time physicist Edwin Teller and crew, with the blessing of President Truman, were designing a thermonuclear fusion weapon called the Super the hydrogen bomb.
Live-action for Duck and Cover was shot at PS 152 in Astoria Queens and nearby areas in November. The crew captured the entire footage on a single 35mm silent camera. A monkey replaced Berts nemesis, the skunk. Anthony Rizzo directed, with narration provided by Robert Middleton, and Carl Ritchey spoke Berts only line. The songwriting team of Carr and Corday, specialists in commercial jingles, composed Berts merry theme:
On Dec. 1, 1951, the FDCA prepared 300,000 Bert the turtle booklets for distribution to schools. Seventeen days later, there was an advance screening of Duck and Cover held in Washington. When February of 1952 arrived, Bert was already a star, posing (as a cardboard cutout) with seven year-old Mia Farrow. It was not until March that any schoolchildren actually viewed the film. Duck and Cover, a film produced for less than $20,000, received accolades from most but not from all. By May of 1952, the Levittown Education Assoc. reported countless complaints from parents. Some children who saw Duck and Cover were beset with nightmares about bright lights, nuclear attacks and fantasies of death and doom.
I know. I was one of those kids.
In July of 1959, the Office of Civil Defense declared Duck and Cover obsolete. The OCD was, in truth, seven years too late. If one read in between the lines of the official pronouncement, one could see the shadow of the hydrogen bomb. The U.S. first exploded one on Eniwetok on November 1, 1952, and the Soviets successfully tested theirs on August 12 the next year. This weapon was at least 150 times more powerful than the bomb that atomized Hiroshima. No turtle, however prepared, could survive such a blast. Bert would be broiled in his shell a nanosecond before being reduced to his basic molecules, borne high and fast on a nuclear monsoon of fallout and radiation. The same for anything he was ducking and covering behind.
I hated Bert the Turtle in part for frightening me. I have to admit that some of the cheesy science-fiction movies I watched on our tiny black-and-white TV occasionally attained the same result. However, there was a difference. Caltiki, the Crab Monsters and the Fiend Without a Face were just scary monsters; despite his harmless appearance, Bert was far, far worse. He was a damned liar, and even when most of the kids in my class knew he was lying, he continued to spout his dishonest prevarications and his mendacious jingle in the face of our fear. We can live through a nuclear attack, or so Bert said. When you see the atomic flash, just duck and cover. Bert never said a thing about dying in nuclear agony, even though it was by far the greater possibility.
I was still too young to be in school when Duck and Cover was in use, and I was only a tot when the film was deemed obsolete. However, I was in class during the terrible days of the Cuban missile crisis, a tension-wracked time when President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev pushed their hydrogen-powered chips to the center of the table. I remember my young female teacher breaking down in front of the class before our shocked and unbelieving eyes; some of the small girls wept in fear when this happened. Civil Defense had us all on alert constantly during that fateful week, and someone remembered that our school had a copy of Duck and Cover sitting on some shelf. It is very possible that no one even knew it had been outdated. So, for the first time, I was introduced to the most terrifying cartoon character I would ever see.
Bert is seen, all told, for less than two minutes in Duck and Cover. He opens the film, skipping down a lane to his theme song. Bert is a goggle-eyed turtle dressed in a pith helmet, collar and bowtie. When a generic monkey (not the Red Bear) dangles a firecracker from a pole, Bert immediately drops and ducks into his shell upon seeing the flash. The scene is replayed over the opening narration, and the narrator coaxes Bert to come out and meet us.Bert shows again up at the end of the film, to remind us what to do in case Ivan sent nuclear hell streaking over the Arctic Circle. Bert was not particularly scary at all, but he became conflated in my mind with the rest of the film. Little wonder, considering that the live-action segments consisted of ominous threats combined with earnest-sounding lies.
Duck and Cover repeatedly made proclamations such as, We all know that the atomic bomb is very dangerous. Since it may be used against us at any time, we must get ready for it, just as we are ready for many other dangers that are around us all the time. Personally, my young mind could not conceive of anything worse.
Sometimes, intoned Mr. Middleton, And this is very, very, important the bomb may explode with no warning! Tony, a young boy shown riding his bike knows that, the bomb can explode any time of the year, day or night. The film is a litany of terrifying messages, far too many to throw at kids in just nine minutes: The atomic bomb flash could burn you, worse than a terrible sunburn. Always remember, the flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, no matter where you may be. Then, the most blood-chilling message of all: There might not be any grown-ups around when the bomb explodes. Then, youre on your own.
On our own indeed. We, the children, were now mere afterthoughts in the minds of political leaders who had gone insane. Thermonuclear gunslingers were playing brinksmanship with the world, and we had cap guns, stuffed animals, and pull-string talking dolls.Our childhoods were going up in a fireball along with our homes, moms, dads and teachers. What did we kids do to deserve this? What could we do but listen to Bert? However, Bert was as crazy as Khrushchev, Castro or any of the other frightening names coming out of our TV sets and transistor radios. He was lying to us, and we knew it.
We were children, but we were not stupid. We had grown up with drills, Civil Defense and CONELRAD (our purported early warning system). Duck and Cover portrayed kids rolling themselves up against walls, ducking under desks, and cowering beneath their seats in a school bus that was unfortunate enough to be on the road when Armageddon began. A family having an outing ducks and covers using a newspaper and the picnic blanket.
Sure. We knew that the bomb would turn Boston into a radioactive crater, and that no kid could run fast or far enough to get away in time. If Kennedy and Khrushchev pushed it far enough, we were going to die before Wagon Train came on the next week. We werent going to make it to rock and roll, Chevys, or our first kisses. Put your crew-cut head between your chubby legs and kiss your little butt goodbye they have angels up there just for us younguns, and they are rehearsing their lines right now.
My mouth was dry a lot of the time after I saw Duck and Cover. My hands shook, and I felt like I wanted to cry. When my concerned father asked me what was wrong, he was unprepared for the panicked rush of words that I finally released. He told me not to worry, but what else was there to say? The next day the Soviets caved, and the fingers under the ignition switches relaxed. I didnt. For the rest of my childhood I, and many of my friends, lived under the reality that the bomb was no longer an abstract threat.
For a long time, there were recurring nightmares. I had seen a TV documentary on atomic bombs and radiation. Some scientist mentioned that fish caught near nuclear test sites proved to be so radioactive that, when placed on x-ray plates, they literally took their own pictures. In my dreams, a ghostly, skeletal turtle slowly swam around in a tank of weird-looking fluid. I would watch it in horror until it swung around to look me directly in the face. My screams woke the household.
Twenty years later, President Reagan and the Soviets tossed bellicose statements back and forth across the seas during the final stages of the Cold War. This time the populace reacted with rage as well as trepidation. Anti-nuke protesters took to the streets; books, TV shows and movies decried nuclear war. Learned authors such as Jonathan Schell jostled with semi-learned celebrities for attention. One representative film, The Atomic Café (1983), featured Bert the Turtle along with considerable footage from Duck and Cover. The makers of this documentary intercut Duck and Cover with films of actual nuclear explosions and the spectacular carnage that resulted.
It was clear that survival was simply not possible. The message we knew even as children was made explicit Civil Defense was kidding no one. Their true agenda may have been the avoidance of panic, and reassurance that life could, and would, go on. Perhaps our government simply wished to inure us to the idea that radioactive slugfests were inevitable.
In the end, we are no safer now than we were when Bert was just a sketch on a storyboard. Ultimate destruction is still possible. The difference is the bombs are bigger, the club has more members and some of the latest aspirants are dedicated fanatics. Unless we dedicate ourselves to changing it, such is the world we must now accept. Still, I have to ask why did it have to be a toon, a perversion of all that is innocent and fun about being a kid, who first riveted those dire facts into my head? I dont care if you are in the National Film Registry, Bert. You lied to me with a smile, and I hate you to this day. If you must duck and cover, do so out of shame; a hundred megatons is too good for you.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.