COMMUNITY SHELTER PLANNING: 'LOST' GENE HACKMAN FILM UNEARTHED
A couple of years after his scene stealing performance as the piggish Norman in Robert Rossen's LILITH (1964) and mere months before his first Academy Award-nominated role as Buck Barrow in Arthur Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), Gene Hackman brought his considerable, Broadway-honed acting skills to a 16mm, 22 minute U.S. government Civil Defense instructional film dynamically entitled COMMUNITY SHELTER PLANNING (1966). When CONELRAD first learned of the existence of this film in 2000, we launched a no-holds-barred effort to locate it. After a six year search in which we annoyed scores of government archivists, public librarians and private film collectors, we are very pleased to announce that we have finally obtained a print of this elusive motion picture.
Unfortunately, our efforts to secure an interview with the film's star were unsuccessful. Mr. Hackman's agent at Creative Artists Agency, Fred Specktor, dismissed our formal request for such an opportunity by stating the following in a telephone call to Editor Bill Geerhart: "Gene really doesn't have time for this. It was a long time ago and it doesn't really matter to him anymore. Thanks for your interest."
Regardless of whether Mr. Specktor's comments reflect the true sentiments of his client, we here at CONELRAD beg to differ with the assessment that this movie "doesn't really matter." Indeed, the film does matter and is an important work in two respects: It is a forgotten* snapshot from the formative years of a two-time Academy Award winning star widely considered to be one of the best actors of his generation. It is also a snapshot from the middle period of the Cold War illustrating the U.S. government's strategy of protecting its citizenry from fallout after a nuclear attack. Each is a fascinating and critical historical record in its own unique way.
COMMUNITY SHELTER PLANNING is atypical among most government films in that it appears that a significant amount of time, thought and care went into its creation. This effort is attributable to its writer-director: veteran instructional filmmaker, Mark Isaacs. Isaacs, at the time, a resident of Bucks County, PA where Community Shelter Planning was shot, was not shy about proclaiming his love for his second career profession: "Life for me began at 38," he said in a 1966 newspaper interview. He had previously worked the copy desk at Women's Wear Daily magazine and in the field of advertising as a copy chief and account executive. Live commercial production eventually led to Isaacs being offered his first training film contract in 1952. "I figured, I might as well," recalled the filmmaker in the same newspaper article. "As long as I'm making movies, I'm happy. You create a world of your own and while you are making the film, you live in it." Of COMMUNITY SHELTER PLANNING, Isaacs claimed "I've rarely had so much fun making a training film."
Interestingly, the filmmaker even subscribed to the "auteur theory." "I have a feeling there is too much division in filmmaking: too many cooks. I think one person should control a film, even on an information or training picture." But this Hitchcock of Atomic Hygiene also gave credit to his actors and his crew: "With actors like (Paul) McGrath and (Arnold) Moss, I don't have to do all the inventing myself... Also I've the best cameraman I've ever had. George Howells really loves this business. Robert Lee, my sound man, a collector of old films is equally dedicated."
Isaacs had done approximately 75 films for the armed forces when he tackled the challenge of crafting a vehicle for the complicated information that is conveyed in COMMUNITY SHELTER PLANNING. The screenplay adopts the tried and true instructional formula of having an ostensible "skeptic" character being won over by the enthusiasm and logic of the "common sense" characters who sell the lesson of the film. In this case, Shakespearean actor (who was also a radio, television and film performer) Arnold Moss (who is unseen throughout the film) voices the role of the windbag cynic, the "senior elected official" or "Commissioner" who is also referred to by one of the other characters as "John." Moss's character, according to contemporaneous local newspaper accounts, was based on J. Justus Bodley who was the Chairman of the Bucks County Board of Commissioners at the time of the film production.
Because the Commissioner's point of view is used throughout most of the film, the "common sense" characters spend most of their screen time "selling" their lines directly to the camera. Thus, in addition to persuading the fictional Commissioner, the Office of Civil Defense hoped these characters were also persuading the film's intended audience, the real elected officials of the towns where the film was likely to be distributed.
COMMUNITY SHELTER PLANNING opens with slightly ominous public domain music over a pan of idyllic Pennsylvania countryside with Moss's stentorian, questioning voiceover: "Nuclear attack? Here? Not these farms and forests and small towns? Surely not split level sub-divisions and shopping centers? That's most of my county. But no man is an island. No place is completely isolated." Suddenly an animated target forms over the foliage-draped scenery and the audience knows it is in for an education.
Soon the Commissioner proudly introduces the Civil Defense Director as this character strides across a municipal building lobby looking at his watch (because he's about to meet another character!): "... a first rate appointment if I do say so myself. Retired bird colonel, fine record." The Civil Defense Director (aka "Bill) is played by another veteran of the stage and screen, Paul McGrath, who brings a sense of kindly urgency to his role. McGrath, an older actor, maintains a level of dignity throughout the movie even when seen hopping on a bicycle to demonstrate to the Commissioner how one can re-filter air in a fallout shelter without benefit of electricity. This character is said to have been based on another local official: Colonel Lewis R. Stretch (Ret.) who was Bucks County's Civil Defense Director in 1966.
Next we meet Mr. Hackman who, the observant viewer will note, is briefly seen awkwardly waiting to hit his mark in the glass doorway of the front entrance of the municipal building. The Commissioner pompously announces Hackman's character, Donald Ross, by intoning: "The younger man meeting him (the CD Director), the one who looks like an expert, is an expert, from the Regional Office of Civil Defense."
We meet the third protagonist or "skeptic persuader" inside the Commissioner's office. He has the deceptively hip character name of "Charlie Parker" (played by Charles Mountain) and he is first spotted brandishing a pipe and admiring a hopelessly large and complicated chart that Civil Defense has produced detailing the six steps of Community Shelter Planning (1. Shelter Allocation 2. Information 3. Shelter Deficit 4. Shelter Development 5. Directives 6. Adoption). When the Commissioner calls his name, the momentarily chart-blinded Parker smiles and apologizes to the camera: "Oh, I'm sorry, I get my kicks out of these things."
The Commissioner's cynicism comes into full bloom when he challenges the trio with this opening salvo on the subject of sheltering his constituents: "What's the story? Every man for himself? Head for the hills? ...You people are always working out plans. What else do you do?"
Holding up his plan book, Hackman's earnest bureaucrat offers: "This is brand new, Commissioner. Thoroughly tested, completely developed program and its purpose is to be specific about the exact thing you're talking about."
The Commissioner casually disregards Hackman and launches into another crotchety rant about fallout shelter surveyors: "Bill, when was it? Two, three years ago—those bright young men with their slide rules and clipboards... you had them going through basements and attics all over the county. Two of them walked in here one day, stood looking at my window. Didn't say much, they just stood there. Very glum. Then they walked out again shaking their heads and muttering to themselves. Now what was that all about? Wasn't it part of a plan?"
Hackman's character interjects a reply to the Commissioner's dripping sarcasm with a steely and verbose resolve: "No, sir, it was a survey. The National Fallout Shelter Survey which is currently being updated. OCD (Office of Civil Defense) is supplementing the National Fallout Shelter Survey with the Smaller Structure Survey and the techniques for evaluating fallout protection in smaller houses. But we're talking about a Community Shelter Program."
The Commissioner probably spoke for a lot of confused viewers past and present when, in response to the young Regional Field Officer's patter, he exhales "Holy cow."
It is only after Hackman's character offers 100% federal funding for the Community Shelter Planning program that the Commissioner finally comes around. He is also concerned by the statistic offered by the Civil Defense Director that more than half his voters, er, citizens, would have no place to go in the event of a nuclear attack. The unspoken subtext here is that the surviving voters may not be very forgiving to the elected official who did nothing to prepare for that fateful "A-day." Who says these kitschy instructional films have no relevance in the post-9/11 / Katrina world? It is amusing to consider that Mr. Hackman's presumed "method" preparation for his role as a Civil Defense official is probably more disaster preparedness training than Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, "Brownie", et al ever had.
The next segment of the film is a still-image montage where Charlie Parker, the chart enthusiast, is sent out of state for an intensive course in Community Shelter Planning (or "CSP"). He is seen dutifully boarding an airplane, participating in class and cramming for finals in his motel room. Just the sort of diligence one would expect from a pipe smoker easily mesmerized by government documents. Charlie returns several months later with "a bagful of new skills, practical stuff, the nuts and bolts of matching people with shelter."
Most of the rest of the film is spent illustrating Charlie's "bagful" of new skills and how the team goes about implementing some of the tenets of shelter planning and education. These scenes include the establishment of a civil defense "citizens committee" (with the requisite police-businessman-clergy representation), the recruitment of grizzled newsmen in the dissemination of shelter information and, lastly, a proto-Soccer Mom receiving Civil Defense family fallout shelter junk mail.
Lip service is paid to the subject of home shelters (such shelters went out of fashion after the well publicized moral debate over killing neighborly trespassers shamed the Kennedy Administration into the National Fallout Shelter program) in a couple of laughable scenes where basement junk piles are presented as adequate improvised fallout barrier protection.
The movie achieves a panicky edge near the end when the bureaucrats collectively realize that the community has—in terms of fallout protection—poorly constructed schools, shopping centers and other buildings. The Civil Defense Director points out with props how hollow building blocks can be cheaply enhanced with sand or gravel to afford more protection. He also demonstrates with a chart how a "baffled entrance" to a building can "impede the flow of fallout." Hackman's character hammers the point home with a deliberate calm: "We've developed dozens of these techniques and most are inexpensive provided they're incorporated at the drawing board stage."
This last comment leads the team, now completely unified, to propose an ordinance to the County Board requiring fallout protection be considered in the design and construction of all new buildings, especially schools.
The film concludes at the Board meeting with the Commissioner gaveling the session to order with civil defense literature at his side that reads "Where You Go, What you Do." In stark contrast to his earlier dismissive sarcasm, a now confident and resolute voiceover is heard: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a PLAN." Inspiring public domain music closes the film with credits that thank the officials of Bucks County. These same officials probably applauded themselves when the film had its "premiere" at the Bucks County Courthouse on June 6, 1967.
The present day viewer comes away from COMMUNITY SHELTER PLANNING with a perplexing respect for the film. Sure its premise of fallout shelter gap analysis is, from today's vantage point, ridiculous, but the story somehow manages to work in its own little bureaucratic universe. And what makes this alternate reality believable? The credit would have to go to the actors who chose not to simply take the government's scale wages and phone in their performances. But perhaps Mr. Hackman and his colleagues knew that if civilization managed to survive the Cold War their work would someday be seen beyond the confines of classrooms and Rotary clubs. CONELRAD is proud to have been able to start the ball rolling in this direction by publishing this appreciation and by donating a copy of the film to the fine citizens at the Bucks County Historical Society in Doylestown, PA.
And whatever became of the auteur behind COMMUNITY SHELTER PLANNING? Not much is known about the post-1966 career of Mark Isaacs. He did state in that long ago newspaper interview that he would "love to do theatrical pictures, but no one's ever asked me." Unfortunately, it does not appear that the writer-director was ever afforded the opportunity to work on a Hollywood project. If Isaacs—who would be in his nineties now—is still among the living, he no doubt relishes the fact that he is among the many gifted directors, including Arthur Penn, Francis Ford Coppola and Wes Anderson, with whom Gene Hackman has worked.
CONELRAD wishes to thank Sam Moyers without whom this feature would not have been possible.
Two video clips from COMMUNITY SHELTER PLANNING are available for viewing at our YouTube page or via the following links: Clip 1 -01:59, Clip 2 - 3:40
* Biographical works related to Mr. Hackman reviewed by CONELRAD, including books, magazine articles, and press releases do not include any reference to COMMUNITY SHELTER PLANNING.
Graphics Note: While COMMUNITY SHELTER PLANNING was shot in color, CONELRAD has made the artistic choice to present still images from the film in black and white.
A compilation of four, count 'em, FOUR Civil Defense shorts including the ubiquitous DUCK AND COVER.
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