Monday, July 17, 2017


Playing less like a movie and more like a long episode of The Twilight Zone with better cinematography, Ladybug Ladybug was one of many high-anxiety movies of the '50s and early '60s tackling the possibility of nuclear war -- Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, Panic in the Year Zero!, On the Beach, etc.

The difference here is that Ladybug Ladybug focuses on the effect that nukes has on children. As if they really matter.

"Y" is for "Yes, your ass is cooked."

The classes at a rural elementary school are  rudely interrupted one morning by the ugly sound of an air raid buzzer. When it doesn't appear to be a drill -- and nobody can get through the authorities to glean the veracity of the warning -- the principal reluctantly orders the schoolkids to go home. Let's see... school -- or possible annihilation? What to choose?

While many travel on a bus, the rest are walked home, in two different groups, by their teachers. They need to arrive within an hour before the bombs are likely to drop. Now you tell us!
Don't get too comfortable, kids.

Their journey -- played out more or less in real time -- explores the kids' reaction to what initially seems like just a strange drill. Moments of peace are fleeting -- a boy named Gary reassuring his younger brother while finding a connection with a girl, Jill, he never spoke to before -- as fear and paranoia spreads among the rest. Girls in my school were filled with fear and paranoia when I spoke to them.

Well, this doesn't look encouraging.
Each kid arrives home hoping for some kind of solace, but finds only parents too busy to calm them, grandparents on the verge of dementia, or empty houses. The hard-headed Harriet invites the remaining kids to join her in her family's bomb shelter while she waits for her parents to arrive. Party!

Harriet the Autocrat.
Well, not exactly. Instead of feeling safer, the kids feel their angst shoot up to 11 when Harriet starts barking out orders like martinet (or, being a girl, would that make her a martinette?). Apparently brainwashed by her equally-dominant parents, she quickly hands out schedules to eat, drink, and sleep -- no questions allowed. Did I call her a martinet? Make that a wife.

Harriet soon shows her true colors when Jill, having returned to an empty house, tries desperately to join the others in the shelter. Explaining that there won't be
No room at the nuclear inn.
enough room, Harriet refuses to let the distraught girl inside. Moments later, Gary tries to find Jill, not realizing that, in trying to find her own safe space, she has literally sealed her own doom. The other kids are left to panic on their own.

But guess what -- nobody realizes is that the air raid warning was an accident. Hah! Joke's on them!

From Ladybug Ladybug's opening moments -- a freeze frame of a hand holding a stopwatch, stark credits accompanied by a simple flute and harp score -- we know we're watching an "important" early '60s drama. In keeping with the mood, much of the dialogue is a little overripe for schoolkids, while most of the adults are ineffectual at best, and uncaring at worst. And the freeze frame on Gary in its closing seconds, while probably chillingly effective at the time, further dates the movie.

However, props must be given to the writing/directing team of Frank and Eleanor Perry for making kids, rather than politicians or generals, the stars of Ladybug Ladybug. Also nice is the ambiguous climax where, despite the earlier explanation of a short circuit, it's unclear whether the sounds of planes approaching and bombs dropping are real or a figure of Gary's fearful, overworked imagination.

And what would an early '60s movies be without soon-to-be famous actors -- in this case, William Daniels, Nancy Marchand and Estelle Parsons. Coincidence alert: Jill, the doomed girl, describes herself as a soprano, while her teacher, Marchand, played the matriarch on The Sopranos! What do I win?

Movies like Ladybug Ladybug have to be seen in the context of their time. Everything is hit on the nose a little too hard; there's a definite feeling of wanting to get across an idea that had never been before expressed cinematically. Yet these detriments accurately evoke the era (both in terms of cinema and life itself) for today's audiences too young to have experienced it, and revives it for those of us who are, shall we say, somewhat evergreen in our years.

Yes, there was a time when fear could be gotten across in a simple, two-instrument score, no special effects, and in black and white. Audiences in 1963 would have found Ladybug Ladybug far scarier than any Transformers movie. And considering what's happening in the world today, so should we.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A favorite film. Your review nailed it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about it with us.