"ATOMIC FLASH": The Birth of Bert
One of the conditions the government placed on "Civil Defense for Schools" was that it be blessed by the National Education Administration (NEA). This step was most likely taken as a precaution to indemnify itself against criticism from the educational community. As Langlois put it: "Well, the NEA (requirement) was merely the civil defense administration protecting their rear end and making sure that they had endorsement from the union." Whatever the reason, on May 21 and 22nd, 1951, Langlois and Mauer sat in a large conference room at NEA headquarters in Washington surrounded by FCDA and NEA officials and 20 or more teachers from around the country. As ideas were batted around on the best way to convey the lesson of civil defense to children, Mauer took notes for the outline of his script.
The conference did not really catch fire until a woman with a proper British accent named Helen Seth-Smith spoke up and volunteered: "We have duck and cover drills in our school." The phrase "duck and cover" caught the ear of Mauer and Langlois as well as the FCDA's Howard R.H. Johnson who seized on it as the focus for the film. One typically hyperbolic press account of the scene described the term striking the convened conference participants like an "atomic flash." Seth-Smith, a footnote to history if ever there was one, was the assistant headmistress of The Potomac School in McLean, VA. The English transplant whose nickname was "Stalkie" started with the school in 1938 and introduced scouting to the then all-girl institution in 1939. Miss Seth-Smith remained with the school until 1961 when she retired. She passed away long before she or anyone who knew her realized her singular contribution to American popular culture.
While Mauer punched out the first draft of what was now known as the DUCK AND COVER script (at the same time, Mauer also worked on the script for the "clunker" OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT), Langlois hired a young director by the name of Anthony Rizzo to direct the two films. Rizzo had come to New York from Chicago with a reference from a suspense novel writer named Bill Ballenger who had previously worked with both Langlois and Mauer at Campbell-Ewald. Rizzo had directed a television drama series for the Chicago ABC affiliate from scripts written by Ballenger. Langlois recalled Rizzo was also hired on the basis of his confidence in being able to bring even more business to Archer.
Mauer's first draft of DUCK AND COVER introduced the concept of Bert the Turtle, though not yet in an animated form. Mauer recounted for CONELRAD how he came up with the idea for a turtle protagonist: "I just thought of some way to illustrate that (the duck and cover exercise) to kids. Little kids, big kids. I guess it worked." As for the reptile hero's name: "I wanted a short and hopefully memorable name, so I resorted to euphony. BERT rhymed with TURT(le) which might have made Shakespeare retch, but what the hell, it worked."
A subsequent draft of Mauer's script called for animating Bert which brought Lars Calonius into the creative mix. Langlois recalled: "…After that (the second draft) was accepted Lars came up with little sketches and presented them." The FCDA was "was very pleased and very happy" with the progress of the work according to Langlois. However there was a revision from the second draft to the final draft that struck CONELRAD as curious. Bert's original tormenter was a skunk, not the now familiar firecracker-wielding monkey.
Mauer provided a characteristically sarcastic explanation for the species change: "Sorry, I just don't remember. Maybe in those days, Sen. McCarthy's inquisition gave skunks an inferiority complex, rendering the little animals too bland for stardom." When pressed Mauer offered, "The skunk appealed to boy students, but girls had daintier tastes. Apparently everyone prefers our simian relatives."
All three versions of Mauer's script snuck in the names of his children: Tony (the boy who jumps from his bicycle following an atomic flash), Paul and Patty (the two children who bid their mother goodbye with a kiss and then walk down the steps of their house).
INTERMISSION: "Our Terrible Mistake"
In October of 1951, approximately a month before DUCK AND COVER was shot, Langlois was elected president of Archer. At the time, Calonius wanted a respite from the administrative headaches of running a successful production house. Langlois remembered Calonius confiding: "This is not for me, I'm an artist... I'd rather just be doing the (art) work."
One of Langlois's first acts as Archer's new president was securing a commitment of financing from a group of Wall Street investors led by Donald S. Stralem of Hallgarten & Co. Stralem raised $350,000 for Archer's goal of transitioning into television series production. One of the conditions of the first installment ($90,000) paid out to Archer was that the company secure its own soundstage space and stop renting the expensive Fox Movietone studios for its commercial shoots.
With the regret still evident in his voice, Langlois recalled that Archer's move to a former Moose Lodge in Long Island City was "our terrible mistake." As Langlois explained it, prospective clients were reluctant to come to Long Island City for meetings and that the time and money that was spent on the facility, including $25,000 to soundproof it, could have been used more effectively on other things. Archer did maintain its W. 53rd address during this period as a sales office. Though not entirely apparent at the time, in retrospect Langlois saw the move as the beginning of the end for Archer.
After the FCDA signed off on the script and some demonstration sketches of Bert the Turtle, Archer commenced with the approximately two-week shoot of DUCK AND COVER. The superintendent of the New York City public school system chose P.S. 152 in Astoria, Queens as the main school location for Archer's shoot. Several teachers, including Mr. Vincent Bohan, and a number of students were used in the film as "actors." With the exception of Bohan, all of these "stars" remain unknown. Cameraman Drummond Drury used a single 35mm Mitchell silent (dialog is heard only in the animation portion of the film) camera for the live action photography.
There are two notable "cameos" that Drury's camera captured for posterity in DUCK AND COVER and they both occur in the same scene. As mentioned earlier, a boy named after Ray Mauer's son, "Tony," jumps from a bike following a bright flash. "Tony" was played by none other than Leo Langlois son, Leo "Hitch" Langlois III. "We used my son for budgetary reasons," Langlois laughed, "He was the right age and had a bicycle and it didn't cost anything and he wanted to do it." By all accounts "Hitch" remains very proud of his film debut.
The civil defense official who helps "Tony" up from the gutter is Mauer who derided his performance thusly: "Yes, it seems to me I was an air raid warden with his hands jammed in his pockets. Never could have been an actor."
OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT was shot a little after DUCK AND COVER, but the film has always played second fiddle to its more famous twin. Even the people who produced it have trouble recollecting much about it other than the difficulty in making it. All Mauer would say about the movie was "We worked harder than hell on (it), but it never came to life." Any contemporary viewer of OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT will concur with Mauer's assessment. It is a lumbering film with two actors, one of whom is chain smoking a pipe. Both actors parrot back civil defense dogma to one another on a cheap looking set. Interspersed between the characters' leaden dialog is stock footage of traffic. Suffice it to say that any comparison between DUCK AND COVER and OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT is always going to favor the former title, not the latter. Harkening back to the primary analogy of this feature, if DUCK AND COVER is the CITIZEN KANE of civil defense, then OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT is THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS of the genre. The chief difference being that the stature of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS has improved with age, while OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT's stature, if that is even the correct word, keeps diminishing.