This week, Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal looks at a movie he recommends you check out on DVD.
Many film fans have at least a passing acquaintance with director Frank Perry’s first production, 1962’s bittersweet boy meets girl in a sanitarium drama David and Lisa. That film was the first commercially successful independent feature and made minor stars of Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin, whilst Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay seemingly assured Perry a bright future.
All but the hardest of hardcore cinephiles, however, have neither heard of nor seen Ladybug Ladybug, a project completed only a year later. Perry would later achieve a modicum of success with such films as Diary of a Mad Housewife, Play it as It Lays, and even Mommie Dearest, but his sophomore effort remains virtually impossible to see to this day.
Written by the director’s spouse and frequent collaborator Eleanor Perry, Ladybug Ladybug is one of the few American films to explore the theme of nuclear annihilation in a realistic, non-hyperbolic fashion. Based on a real life incident that occurred in Palos Verdes, California, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and released at Christmas 1963 in the immediate wake of the Kennedy assassination, the film predictably did not receive a warm welcome at the box office and has since been consigned to obscurity.
Set during an ordinary school day somewhere in rural America, the film begins with scenes straight from the Norman Rockwell collection. Troublemaker Joel (Miles Chapin) has been sent to the principal’s office for a minor infraction, lunch lady Miss Maxton (Jane Connell) is preparing the day’s meal, and the sixth graders are taking a test.
Suddenly, the school’s air raid warning alarm sounds, and school secretary Betty Forbes (Kathryn Hays) is not sure what to do. Suspecting a malfunction in the alarm system, she summons Principal Calkins (William Daniels, the voice of Knight Rider’s K.I.T.T.), who is assured by the phone company that ‘seven things would have to go wrong’ before the alarm could sound in error. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt: a nuclear strike is underway, and the school’s emergency protocols must go into effect.
The plans are simple: the children are to be escorted home by their teachers. The film follows one group of students in the care of librarian Mrs. Andrews (Nancy Marchand), who has unwisely worn heels to school that day. Amongst the group are sixth-grade opera fan Sarah (Marilyn Rogers) and all-American Steve (Christopher Howard), who quickly bond and become the moral foci of the film.
Steve and a group of younger children take cover in bossy Harriet’s (Alice Playten) family shelter, where they try their best to prepare themselves for the end of the world. The film concludes as Sarah makes a terrifying decision that seems both entirely logical and terrifyingly absurd in the circumstances, and as Gary tries to claw his way to safety beneath a slab of exposed concrete.
An aching sense of impending loss pervades Ladybug Ladybug. Bob Cobert’s minimalist score—which at times consists of little more than a handful of plucked notes on an acoustic guitar—offers brooding threat and pastoral repose in equal measure. Filmed during a sun-splashed late spring or early autumn brimming with fecundity, the children’s trek home takes them along winding tree-lined lanes and past bucolic farmland that offer stark contrast to the looming threat.
At one point, the children play a memory game, and in a scene snatched from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, are silhouetted against a huge sky as they hop and skip their way to oncoming oblivion. Once within Harriet’s shelter, questions arise about who will be admitted, whether orders are always to be obeyed, and who’s responsible for the war. The film suggests we are all no more than children being manipulated by powerful outside forces we don’t understand and can’t control.
Judging from the few extant reviews from the period, Ladybug Ladybug was no more a critical success than it was a commercial one. The film probably struck far too close to the bone at a time when America was desperately trying to forget the previous two traumatic years. Beatlemania was just around the corner, and there was little appetite for such grueling food for thought.
For one brief moment on September 7, 1964, however, an echo of Perry’s haunting film would sound out via an infamous 30-second ad featuring a little girl picking petals from a flower. Did Tony Schwartz, the ad man behind Lyndon Johnson’s infamous ‘Daisy Ad’, see Ladybug Ladybug in the months prior to the 1964 presidential election? We’ll probably never know, but it’s well past time for the rest of us to see it on DVD.
This article originally appeared in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope. John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.