Ladybug Ladybug (1963)
THE DOMESTIC LUNACIES of the Cold War era have long been a source of retrospective hilarity - filmmakers, cartoonists and comics spent decades making hay out of the official programs of duck-&-cover, of bomb shelter preparedness, of generally maintaining vigilance about a nuclear attack as though it were, when it comes, merely a really bad snowstorm. We were lied to, obviously enough. If you're of a certain age, old enough, say, to know who Frank and Eleanor Perry were, then you probably have memories of wondering, even as you crouched your ten-year-old self in a school hall huddle during an air raid drill, what in the hell this was all supposed to prove. We know now that the propaganda program issued by the government was simply that - at least, an act of attempted mollification for a populace left legitimately helpless in case of a genuine atomic exchange, so they have a sense of safety and autonomy, and would let the military spending continue to ramp up year after year.
How could we have been so naive? So of course, the school-kid training films and cheery PSAs all seems funny and kitschy as we look back on them, and of course what's forgotten is how much it wasn't funny at all at the time. The only film that seriously explores the anxious American mindset amid that flurry of news-driven paranoia and plainly untruthful public messaging, released just over a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, was Frank Perry's Ladybug Ladybug (1963). It's been all but forgotten, too, a chilly, creepy sleepwalk through Nuclear Era dread that's never been released on home video, or even much mentioned in the few appreciations the Perrys have garnered since their heyday.
The Perrys, Frank directing, Eleanor screenwriting, were pioneers of what was becoming the American art films of the '60s, providing a homegrown answer to the psychological gravitas and thematic ambiguities of European heavyweights like Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. (This is where film culture was pointing: between 1958 and 1968, more foreign films were released onto U.S. screens than domestic ones, sometimes at a ratio of more than two to one.) The Perrys started with the gritty, intimate David and Lisa (1962), about the institutional romance between two disturbed teenagers, and both got Oscar-nominated for their trouble. Their agenda for the next decade or so focused on parables of hip-modern existentialism, from The Swimmer (1968) to Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), Doc (1971), and the Joan Didion adaptation [i]Play It As It Lays[/i] (1972).
Ladybug Ladybug fits into this of-the-moment art-film arc tonally, but at the same time seems a beast apart. For one thing, it focuses on children - specifically, a class of rural elementary-school students who, when the air-raid alarm goes off, are abruptly sent home. No one knows in fact if the alarm is a malfunction or if a nuclear attack is imminent "within the hour." The walkers - which seems to encompass anyone living within a five-mile radius of the school, younger kids paired with older as per the school's emergency protocol - are chaperoned on the country-road journey by a teacher (Nancy Marchand), who had the misfortune to have worn heels that day. Other staff back at the school, including William Daniels' mild-mannered principal and Kathryn Hays as a pregnant kindergarten teacher, react in their own helpless ways - much of the film is taken up with the stunned, paralytic gaps between confronting a possible catastrophe and then realizing there's nothing you can do to stop it.
Silent dread of atomic hellfire is built into every detail, even before the kids start getting hysterical on their long march down the Pennsylvania byroads and across the fields. The story was adapted from a piece in McCall's by Lois Dickert, which recounted a true story of a panicked set of students during the Missile Crisis, and how one girl was inadvertently killed as a result. We can see it coming; given the film's small-boned framework and Rod Serling-esque feeling of creeping qualm, we know something bad is coming, even if it's not a nuclear attack. When a large chunk of the kids branch off and take to hiding out in one family's fully-appointed underground bomb shelter, the scenario's fangs come out, as power is struggled over, class differences are exploited, kids are played off each other, and, finally, unlucky urchins are sacrificed for the self-preservation of others. The Perrys were attacking nuclear arms for the emotional boot prints it had made on the culture, for what fools, hysterics and monsters it made of us.
Ladybug Ladybug can be heavy-handed - the moment when Hays' shocky teacher, lost in her classroom alone, impulsively buries a toy cannon in the sandbox, in close-up, is nothing but an overstatement. But much of the film feels iconic - the Perrys knew how much the image of a band of wandering children, who think but don't know that adults are actually about to destroy the world, silhouetted against American bucolia, resonates in its innocence. (Some shots deliberately echo the famous image of the figures on the hill, led by Death, at the end of Bergman's The Seventh Seal, released stateside five years earlier.) The kids' acting is predictably uneven, but we're still talking about the '60s, with its post-Actor's Studio commitment to passion and veracity, and the film is littered with moments that make you hold your breath. I'm thinking particularly of little Linda Meyer, who is hauntingly committed as a crazed girl who makes it home but can't convince her hayseed parents that anything's happening, and in tears hides (with her fish bowl) under her bed. As one farmhouse mom instantly triggered into terrified mania, praying like a penitent on her knees, Elena Karam is positively electric. Marchand, for her part, holds the film together, limping on a broken heel, passing into a kind of exhausted catatonia on the roadside, as the kids on her watch leave one by one.
Prominent amid the movie's opening credits is a contractor company acknowledged as "civil defense consultants," but there's little in Ladybug Ladybug that any of us who lived through the '60s couldn't have told you about ourselves. The film's ghostly disappearance from the moviescape these last three decades or so probably has everything to do with run-of-the-mill licensing issues and the like, but it's an integral piece in the puzzle of Cold War Americana, and a glimpse from a bad-dream history that hasn't quite left us yet.
By Michael Atkinson
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