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The Atomic Cafe

by Glenn Erickson Dec 15, 2018

Duck and Cover!  And while you’re down there, enjoy a Flaming Atomic Cocktail!  Loader, Rafferty & Rafferty’s influential documentary-satire uses authentic ’50s films and songs to illuminate the lies and myths about Cold War civil defense. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be like children in the face of a horror being characterized as an inconvenience to Americans insufficiently willing to Love the Bomb. And don’t forget to SING: “Nobody’s worried ’bout the day my Lord will come, When he’ll hit, great God a-mighty, like an atom bomb!”

The Atomic Cafe
Kino Classics
1982 / Color+B&W / 1:37 Academy / 88 min. / Street Date December 4, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, Lloyd Bentsen, Richard Nixon,
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Hugh Beaumont, James Gregory, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nelson Leigh.
Archival Research: Pierce Rafferty, Nan Allendorfer, Victoria Peterson, David Thaxton, Jon Else, Margaret Henry, Richard Prelinger
Film Editors: Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty
Music coordinator and consultants: Rick Eaker, David Dunaway, Dr. Charles Wolfe,
Richard Bass
Produced and Directed by
Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty


Four major atom-scare events have inspired the culture to come forth with renewed expressions of nuclear alarm. The initial knowledge of an ultimate weapon inspired soul-searching by writers such as James Agee in his August 20, 1945 essay in Time Magazine. The frightening news that the Soviet Union had the bomb as well brought Atom fear to a complacent America. The Cuban Missile Crisis was preceded by the nihilistic pessimism of Panic in Year Zero! and followed by the despairing black comedy of Doctor Strangelove. Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in March of 1983 sparked its own mini-storm of Atom nerves. Two controversial TV movies were produced in reaction, and both came out on Blu-ray this year: The Day After and Threads. The 2015 miniseries Deutschland 83 fictionalizes the panicked East German/Russian reaction to SDI, which Senator Ted Kennedy re-Christened ‘Star Wars.’

A third movie was given added relevance by the political climate of Reagan’s SDI. It was released by Libra Films, a small independent that had distributed movies by David Lynch, Carlos Saura and George Romero. Its popularity advanced a documentary style begun in the 1970s: films such as Brother Can You Spare a Dime  repurposed existing film material out of context for ironic or comic effect. The Atomic Cafe carries a kick similar to Dr. Strangelove: It’s undeniably hilarious, but the joke sticks in one’s throat.

The Atomic Cafe received a 20th Anniversary DVD in 2002. This new remastered version was publicized as a pointed response to present war worries, namely President Trump’s game of nuclear chicken with North Korea.

A time capsule of kitschy music and embarrassingly naive visual mementos, The Atomic Cafe brilliantly lampoons the lies and deceit of propaganda from the earlier years of the Cold War atomic standoff — 1945 through around 1959. To the tune of songs like ‘Atomic Cocktail’ we see America being taught that its prosperity is threatened and that preparation for massive retaliation is essential. The compilation of film clips reveals the cynical media manipulation of a nation gripped by fear and denial.

The movie is edited from repurposed ‘official’ film footage. Tasteless pop songs, declassified government and military training films, newsreels and civil defense educational films reveal Cold War attitudes toward the nuclear dilemma and the arms race. Official statements are contrasted with condescending public ‘information’ designed to assure the viewer that nuclear war is survivable and therefore nothing to worry about. As Bert the animated Turtle demonstrates for children, all one must do to walk away from an atomic attack is ‘duck and cover.’ The absurdly calming image of ‘Bert the Turtle’ was all that was needed to publicize The Atomic Cafe.

In the 1950s our government dealt approached the nuclear threat as if it were simply another public relations problem:  say anything that will keep the yahoos quiet and complacent. The Atomic Energy Commission was given a free hand plus the authority and secrecy of a top military project. Public concern was addressed with a blitz of officially sanctioned misinformation. The grim fun of The Atomic Cafe is seeing the out-of-control propaganda methods used to ‘sell’ nuclear complacency as if it were dish soap: misleading semantics (“85% of the fear comes from 15% of the threat”), dramatic animation (heroic USAF bombers wipe out scores of ‘hostile enemy cities’ in a single strike) and insulting reasoning (nuclear bombs are equated with humorous household accidents). We laugh at the nonsensical clips, but it’s a nervous laughter that contains the realization that they were made by a self-satisfied Authority convinced of its mandate to mislead the public. The films seem to be laughing at their susceptible ‘target’ audience, like smug Madison Avenue execs enjoying the effectiveness of their cheap hard-sell tactics.

Liberals with an agenda to promote will mistakenly label all of the original content of The Atomic Cafe as government propaganda, which it definitely is not. Once the ball of public sentiment gets rolling in a free society the flag is soon taken up by all sources of public information and popular entertainment. The menu at The Atomic Cafe didn’t come from some central Ministry of Propaganda. Not only that, but the gallery of interesting short subjects added as extras on this disc includes many that are honestly trying to inform, not deceive or warp public opinion.

The source films: 
Actual military training and debriefing films. This declassified material, such as films used to prep soldiers for live nuclear bomb combat drills, tends to be straightforward and informational. There’s no ironic manipulation; the awful truth is that the people exposed to the test were bluntly misinformed about the dangers of radiation. Soldiers are told that all will be fine as long as they don’t swallow or breath dirt during the explosion, and then the blast blows a pressure wave of contaminated dust into every pore in their bodies.

Other films clinically document tests with shop manikins and live pigs. We see the pigs hit by direct blast effects, and then loaded onto trucks while still alive and suffering traumatic burns and injuries. After some brief photos of Hiroshima victims, this is the film’s most graphic material. Yet an ‘amusing’ sign calling the target pigpen ‘Pork City’ makes the soldiers on screen look like callous torturers. Another film excerpt plays as if it were commissioned as damage control for an AEC goof. An entire population of docile and agreeable Polynesians had to be removed from their accidentally irradiated island. The lack of guile on the part of the AEC filmmakers is evident in the fact that they were unaware of their own incredibly condescending attitude toward the natives, who are presumed ‘primitive’ and thus irrelevant. One voiceover bite suggests that a smiling local woman will enjoy the company of her handsome soldier protectors. Like WW2 Nazis filming their own war crimes without concern for their possible later use as evidence, a hidden factor in these films is that the government filmmakers sincerely believed that they were doing the right thing.

Newsreels. Accompanied by loaded headlines that presume the unimpeachable rightness of our side and the abject Evil of our enemies, these dramatic short subjects were made by the newsreel departments of movie studios that already functioned as message carriers for the government. The no-holds-barred technique of Frank Capra’s WW2 Why We Fight propaganda films is used to sell the concept of separate ‘free’ and ‘slave’ worlds, and to impress with fearful animations of nuclear strikes. Publicity stunts, like one town’s pretending to be overthrown by Communists, are seized upon as spontaneous demonstrations by a right-thinking public.

Educational and Public Service Informational Films. Often funded by uncredited government agencies, these independent film productions by companies large and small naturally competed to find effective ways to present a predetermined message. Technically speaking this is real propaganda: sophisticated media techniques are employed to indoctrinate viewers. Madison Avenue cleverness meets ex-Signal Corps resourcefulness, as Andy Hardy-like families withstand direct attack with little distress. Atomic attacks are repeatedly portrayed by flashes of white light that warn people of impending danger instead of being deadly in themselves. Pulling a picnic blanket over one’s head or climbing under a desk enables people to escape blast effects that level buildings. These films sell the Big Lie. Audiences believed because they wanted to believe, or because they trusted the government and had no other sources of information.

Kids easily recognize paternal dishonesty. It would seem logical that these films promoted disaffection and alienation among the youth of the fifties. Their yardstick for truth was the liberal satire of Mad Magazine. The Junior High creeps spoiling the screenings with their snickering and jeers knew when they were being lied to. Many subconsciously rejected other social lessons, good and bad. If these propaganda pictures were seen in a fair context they’d have been rejected in the ’50s in the same way we laugh at them now. But they were often shown to captive audiences — schoolchildren, people in work gatherings — with the implication that teachers or employers expected passive acceptance of their content. So it didn’t matter if a show were insultingly fake or if it starred a familiar actor like Hugh Beaumont pretending to be an Army General.

TV and Radio Entertainment. The Atomic Cafe doesn’t employ any Hollywood film clips, no doubt due to high licensing costs. But several talk show excerpts demonstrate that extremism was welcome on the airwaves. Congressmen and ‘experts’ seem all too eager to exterminate millions in an atom war. A clergyman practically foams at the mouth while anticipating the ‘regrettable’ need to use deadly force to defend one’s fallout shelter against one’s own neighbors.

The dozen or so amusing novelty songs on the soundtrack are about romance heightened by atomic lust, or promises of desire in the fallout bunker. A bunch of these mostly painful pop tunes are country or rockabilly regional efforts. One rock song riffs off the lyric, ‘Fire, heat & lighting.’ Since arcane tunes were written to exploit every subject under the sun, it’s not known whether a song urging MacArthur to nuke Korea was heard by millions, or released only to a select market.

The Editorial Reorganization of Found Footage: 
The makers of The Atomic Cafe channel their source material in creative directions. But they’re careful to leave the clips essentially untransformed. When we see Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover posing with a strip of microfilm, we know we’re watching a newsreel. The content isn’t cheated. Except in wrapup montages, narration from one source isn’t used over another. When raw footage is available, candid moments catch speechmakers unaware that cameras are rolling, including President Truman. Caught laughing incongruously before a solemn report on an atom threat, Truman comes off as callously flip — reminding us of Ronald Reagan’s cheap joke about nuking Russians, that was accidentally broadcast in the 1980s. Those biased against Reagan may think this is evidence of a dangerous man, but that’s not fair — a joke is a joke. Maybe an aide had just said something funny to Truman, to get him to lighten up. ‘Editorial Reorganization’ can of course be used to distort and propagandize too.

But the film’s basic tool is honest enough: the juxtaposition of contradictory information. Soldiers admitting they got mouthfuls of irradiated dirt are intercut with clinical footage explaining that any entrance of nuclear contaminants into the body can be deadly. Examples of people using worthless civil defense techniques to survive atomic attack are countered by bomb tests and docu footage of Hiroshima. Government spokesmen are caught in outright lies about supposedly insignificant atom mishaps in the South Seas. We’re also confronted with evidence of massive human suffering. The atomic disaster in Japan, after irradiated fish were distributed from a tuna boat that ventured too near a nuclear test, is answered with yet another government spokesman spinning the facts by claiming that the boat was far away from danger.

The film has an attitude of fairness. Richard Nixon comes off as patiently civilized next to a blustering, bullying Nikita Khruschev. Democrat Dukakis’ running mate Lloyd Bentsen, urging voters to petition congress to nuke Northern Korea, is just as bomb-crazy as any Republican. Hiroshima pilot Paul Tibbets is allowed to make his full ‘Enola Gay’ speech and express his contradictory emotions. In other documentaries Tibbets’ interview is usually edited much more selectively, to support either a pro- or anti- nuke message. Depending on what’s shown, Tibbets comes off as responsible and thoughtful, or as a vicious maniac.

The film also offers some moving audio-visual poetry. In one deeply affecting passage President Eisenhower talks about the vague, troubling unease our affluent society is experiencing in 1954. As a lonely car moves down a dark highway, we hear quietly disturbing Miklos Rosza soundtrack music from the film noir classic The Killers. Eisenhower calmly states that mankind is too primitive to manage its own technological terrors. It’s a great speech from a President not remembered for great speeches. The Atomic Cafe uses it to merge philosophical reflection with Noir unease. Both Eisenhower and writer A.I. Bezzerides were clued-in to a radical truth of our atomic world: the villain of Kiss Me Deadly, the noir touchstone of the atomic age, uses classical allusions to characterize our world as becoming more primitive with every scientific advance.

The joke’s on us: the bigger truth of The Atomic Cafe
Thanks to the ludicrous footage provided by the ‘wacky’ atom films of the fifties, The Atomic Cafe  falls into the ‘Is this for real?’ genre of subversive humor. The satiric content is built-in. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency with liberal satire to feel smugly empowered by a truth that only You, the hip liberal viewer, shares with the clever satirist. Satire is supposed to air those truths polite society doesn’t want to hear. But the mechanics of comedy in our culture have evolved to a point where content is disposable and an irreverent attitude is everything. Also, most all entertainment and even the news tries to reach a maximum-saturation entertainment mix of information and ‘tude. “Everything is interesting, but nothing matters.”   The situation wasn’t so bad in 1982, before the Internet and before the explosion of cable channels.

The Atomic Cafe is a good example of entertaining ‘irreverence’ used to bring home a political message, but defeatists can easily argue that it preaches only to the choir of the converted. Looking at the show now, it’s far too easy to falsely conclude that, “Gee, people sure were dumb back in the ‘fifties. We’d never fall for such ridiculous nonsense now.” Comparing the relative sanity of this entertaining documentary to present-day reality evokes a feeling of despair … today, terms like Terror and Evil are used as weapons to stifle the truth. People don’t want Truth or Justice, they want to drive new cars, win the ball game, and be assured that God belongs to them alone.

The Kino Classics Blu-ray of The Atomic Cafe is a restored and remastered improvement on the 2002 DVD. That encoding was likely from a master used for VHS tapes and cable television. Still in its correct 1:37 aspect ratio, the show can’t shake the variable quality of some of its sources. But all are optimized — I don’t think I saw any frame lines intruding into the image this time. Kinescopes from the early days of television still look marginal, of course, but almost everything else looks better. The new disc lists a stereo soundtrack (2.0) which is what the DVD called out. But the music sounds stronger on the new disc.

The original DVD had no extras. At that time I caught up with some Atomic-Era government films and short subjects on the DVDs for Invasion U.S.A. and Atomic War Bride/This is Not a Test. This HD reissue gives us an interesting assortment from the Prelinger Archives: several are very educational. Only a couple can be said to dispense intentional misinformation. The ones concentrating on feeble civil defense preparation made sense in the days prior to thermonuclear Hydrogen bombs, which are exponentially more powerful. The last I heard, my major city might be hit with twenty such bombs in a ‘routine’ nuclear exchange with Russia.

The Prelinger short subjects included are:

Operation Crossroads (1946, Jam Handy), a Navy film about the Able Day and Baker Day Bikini Tests. It’s pretty obvious that the writer of Roger Corman’s The Day the World Ended were impressed by this movie.

Self-Preservation in an Atomic Attack (1950, Cascade Pictures) A sergeant offers good instructions on how to survive a Hiroshima- type attack. [Can anybody help me identify the actors? I recognize at least two of them but can’t place their names.]

Atomic Alert (1951, Encyclopedia Brittanica). This short aimed at teenagers explains that nuclear preparedness is ‘your job.’ A few hours after an attack, a brother and sister hiding in their cellar hear the doorbell and are visited by pleasant men with radiation detectors, who tell them that they’re clean and safe.

Duck and Cover (1952, Archer Productions), the familiar musical short subject with an animated turtle threatened by a monkey in a tree with a firecracker: “There once was a turtle by the name of Bert…” The narrator is Robert Middleton; it was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2004.

Survival Under Atomic Attack (1951, Castle Films) is narrated by Edward R. Murrow. A father reads a government manual describing various concerns during an atom attack. He prepares his house for the worst and all goes well. Some sources say that Walter Matthau can be spotted here but I believe that’s due to confusion with a 1954 ABC TV show called simply Atomic Attack.

A Is for Atom (1953, John Sutherland, General Electric) Directed by career animation specialist Carl Urbano, using very good animation that likely came from Disney. Atom power is likened to a giant genie. It’s way out of date but the basic information about physics, chemistry and nuclear fission is sound. The ‘unknown’ contents of the atom nucleus is described as “a kind of glue holding matter together,” just as we were told by Dr. Forrester.

The House in the Middle (1950, National Clean Up-Paint Up-Fix Up Bureau) This vile piece of salesmanship-through-fear entered the National Film Registry in 2001. Atomic tests ‘prove’ that untidy, unpainted buildings explode in flames during a nuclear attack more readily than those kept up and painted by patriotic Americans. So buy our paint, you disloyal cheapskates. It’s funny, but it gives Godless communists too much ammunition against our economic system.

About Fallout (1955, Wilding) The date seems to be wrong for this, as the cars shown are definitely from the early 1960s. The information is basically okay even if we’re told that particles of nuclear fallout that we might eat can’t hurt us much. Possible genetic damage or cancer will result but that’s apparently all right because they won’t show up for years.

Atomic Energy as a Force for Good (1955, The Christophers) is another well-made film from the company responsible for the ultra-patriotic You Can Change the World. It’s directed by Robert Stevenson, the one director who didn’t dodge the job to direct Howard Hughes’ I Married a Communist). The actors include stars Paul Kelly, Regis Toomey and Beverly Washburn (of Spider Baby).

Operation Cue (1955, Federal Civil Defense Administration) A tour of a Nevada test site shows us the elaborate mannequins, etc., set up to be photographed during an H-Bomb blast. But we don’t see Indiana Jones hiding in a refrigerator. The print is in great shape, but is a little dark.

A Day Called “X” (1957, CBS Public Affairs). Host Glenn Ford takes us through evacuation plans for a large city… Portland, Oregon. It’s an expensive and well-directed 60-minute ‘white paper’ TV document. The Portland authorities seemingly have unlimited time to set up preparations before a bomb hits.

The extras don’t stop there. Filmmaker Jayne Loader offers a set of audio excerpts from a CD-Rom she produced in 1995. This includes the entire April 5, 1954 Dwight Eisenhower speech excerpted in the film. Also present are some interviews taken from Nevadans living downwind of the atomic testing site; Richard Nixon’s 1952 ‘Checkers Speech’ (which really needs to be seen as well as heard) and ‘Subversive Activities,’ a 1946 radio play produced by the American Legion to promote ‘100% Americanism.’

Included as well is a radio interview with the filmmakers of The Atomic Cafe (date not given), and a trailer. This Blu-ray has removable subtitles, which the old DVD did not. What I’d like to see is a soundtrack album with the songs from the movie. One once existed on vinyl but it’s long OOP. I searched for an alternative compilation in 2002 and found nothing.

By the way, the iconic ‘Atomic Cafe’ that was once in downtown’s Little Tokyo was torn down in 2014. Its neon sign was not a match for the logo title for this film. When Steven Nielson and I ventured out on a 2 a.m. photography recon back in 1980, the impressive sign was an eerie sight in an otherwise dark and forbidding downtown Los Angeles.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Atomic Cafe
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Atom propaganda films; radio interview with the filmmakers; audio documents from Jayne Loader’s 1995 DVD-Rom; trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 14, 2018

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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