Release Date(s)1963 (December 15, 2020)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Ladybug Ladybug is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Based on true incidents, the film is a stark look at the effects of panic and desperation on a group of children and adults who believe they are facing imminent doom.
In a rural elementary school, the automated early warning system goes off designating a yellow alert—“attack likely.” The alarm occurs earlier than the system’s scheduled daily test, so the principal, Mr. Calkins (William Daniels, 1776), tries to find out whether the alert is real or a false alarm. His phone calls, however, only meet with busy signals. He can’t get through to anyone. Out of caution, he orders a drill in which the teachers each walk their specified group of children home. The groups move out in various directions and the focus shifts to the group led by Mrs. Andrews (Nancy Marchand, The Sopranos).
With no means of communication, they can only speculate on what’s going on. Some of the children fear that a nuclear attack has been launched on the United States. Mrs. Andrews, increasingly exhausted in her high heels, refrains from sharing her growing concern with the kids lest she worry them further. Sixth-graders Steve (Christopher Howard) and Sarah (Marilyn Rogers), the oldest of the children, have a philosophical outlook on what is happening. There’s also a budding romance between them.
Teacher and children traipse down the dirt road and various children leave the group as it passes their home. Some discover that their parents don’t believe an attack will occur, others find no parents at home, one lures his elderly grandmother into the basement for protection with the promise of a game, one hides in an abandoned refrigerator, and a small group goes to one family’s fallout shelter. The latter sequence is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone episode The Shelter, in which a family must look out for itself when a nuclear attack is imminent, and The Lord of the Flies.
The film is a frightening scenario of the last hour before expected nuclear devastation, primarily from the point of view of children. It’s a wrenching look at the “What if…” of nuclear attack. Screenwriter Eleanor Perry paints a somber picture of how life will be disrupted, but keeps the focus local. We don’t see crowds panicking, people scrambling, or military response. The surreal notion of imminent death is balanced with familiar scenes of kids singing to make their trek home more fun and adults proceeding with cool heads, especially Mr. Calkins, who is the model of efficiency. Conscientious about her responsibility for the children, Mrs. Andrews perseveres despite worries about the fate of her own family.
Director Frank Perry establishes a pace that today’s audiences might find a bit slow, but that’s intentional in order to create a mounting feeling of doom. Director Perry lingers on shots, allowing us to contemplate how the characters must feel. He’s also good at judicious use of close-ups, reserving them for key expressions of emotion.
Featuring 1080p resolution, Ladybug Ladybug is presented by Kino Lorber Studio Classics in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The wide vistas are especially impressive as the teacher and her group of children trudge along a country road. The new 2K restoration offers rich contrast, sharp detail, and pleasing gradations of grey. Blacks are deep and velvety. The print shows no visible imperfections. Leonard Hirschfield’s cinematography captures the rural roads, fields, and modest homes with interesting patterns of light and shadow.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional English subtitles are available. Dialogue is crisp and clear. Daniels, in particular, speaks with authority, suiting his position as principal. Most of the actors are stage trained, so they are easy to understand. Marchand has little to say, but when she does speak, her manner devolves from authoritative to somewhat dazed. When the children assemble in the school yard, there is a hustle-bustle of chattering, which stops when Principal Calkins gives instructions. During their walk, there is little ambient noise. A tractor and a car are seen and heard in the distance. A high-flying airplane’s engine later in the film is ominous.
Bonus materials on the unrated, Region A Blu-ray release include an audio commentary, the theatrical teaser, and several trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historian Richard Harland Smith notes that on October 30, 1962, the alarm of an automated early warning system in an elementary school in California went off, indicating a yellow alert—“attack likely.” The next warning would be red—duck and cover. The students were sent home to their families to wait and hope for the best. This incident, which happened the week after the Cuban Missile Crisis, forms the basis for Ladybug Ladybug, which was shot in Gradyville, Pennsylvania. The backgrounds of the cast members are provided. Most had Broadway experience before doing the film and many were featured regularly on TV dramas. All the children in the film were professionals who weren’t aware of the paranoias and tense mood of the time period and were fascinated with the moviemaking process. The early warning system featured in the film is an actual Bell Laboratories model common in schools in the early 60s. Director Frank Perry uses silence effectively throughout the film and the musical score is used sparingly to enhance atmosphere. Frank and Eleanor Perry understood the lonely world of childhood and reflect this is several scenes. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US lagged behind the Soviet Union because of budget cuts and the American military’s focus on aircraft rather than missiles. It was believed that the American public had become soft and complacent. The government didn’t promote fallout shelters because it felt the American people would look weak. Instead, it instituted a Civil Defense program suggesting that Americans build their own fallout shelters. The Perrys made six films together, including Diary of a Mad Housewife.
Trailers – Four trailers are included: the theatrical teaser for Ladybug Ladybug, and three theatrical for Diary of a Mad Housewife, Doc, and Hello Again.
Regarded as an allegory today, Ladybug Ladybug reflects the feelings and fears that people in the early 60s at the height of the Cold War had to deal with every day. It’s a sobering look at how quickly life as we know it can change when ordinary people are faced with an unimaginable challenge. Not well known today, the film is well worth seeing as it was one of the first films about the threat of nuclear war. Other feature films, like Fail Safe, Dr. Strangelove, and The Day After, covered similar territory in broader strokes.
– Dennis Seuling