If the threat of nuclear war has you feeling blue, there is something you can do to ease your concerns. Paint your house. The exterior, not the interior… and for the love of god, clean up a little.
There are two versions of ‘The House in the Middle’, both available in the Public Domain and at the Library of Congress. The first, came out in 1953 and was a six and a half minute black and white documentary short film. The second version from 1954 was a full color, twelve minute, advertisement for paint. I watched them both.
Nothing Beats the Original
In the 1953 version, brought to you by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, it starts off like a classic Cary Grant feature film, down to the stylized font and orchestral music. The announcer and host hands a paper to his attentive secretary and turns to face the camera. The look on his face lets you know that he has some heavy news to share.
“Today, you will see for the first time; effects of atomic heat on homes, perhaps like yours in your own home town.”
*Side Note* Atomic Heat was the name of my high school disco cover band.
The footage for the documentary was recorded during the ‘Upshot-Knothole Encore’ test at the Nevada Test Site on May 8, 1953. The Mk-6D bomb was airdropped from 19,000 feet by a B-50 Superfortress. The bomb detonated at 2,423 feet and yielded twenty-seven kilotons.
*Side Note* Upshot-Knothole was the name of my high school black metal band.
You should also know that, in the middle of the desert there aren’t a whole lot of trees, so the United States Forest Service delivered 145 Ponderosa pines from a nearby canyon and cemented them into the ground. Fences in various stages of disrepair were constructed along with a total of five tiny homes.
At the 1:36 Mark the Bomb is Dropped
The host tells the operator to start and the film cuts to a long distance shot of five fences. He explains that the three fences in the middle are made of decayed wood. They are also littered with trash and burned out grass, “like you would find in some alley ways and slum areas.” He assures the audience that the fences are all equidistant to the explosion. The bomb hit fifteen feet west and nine hundred and thirty seven feet south of the intended mark, so take that with a grain of salt.
“The light flash and the heat or thermal wave, then the blast wave.”
This was the moment that the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association realized they needed to carve themselves out a piece of the atomic advertising pie. The fences are hit with the heat first and the blast a moment later. The three in the middle, as predicted go up pretty quickly, while the other two are ‘slower to ignite.’ It’s the first real hint that people who take pride in their surroundings have less to worry about when it comes to nuclear war.
Next up we see two miniature homes built side by side. The host goes on to explain that each is decorated differently on the inside. The home on the right has newspaper strewn about, Venetian blinds with wood slats (gasp) and a shirt hanging in the corner. The house on the left (where the people who Jesus likes better live), has metal Venetian blinds, plastic covered chairs and thankfully, no clutter.
Once again we have the light flash, the heat or thermal wave and then the blast wave. The roofs are rather impressively torn off of each house. The house on the right, where bad people live, goes up in a blaze of glory and is reduced to ash in seconds. The house on the left had nothing more than one little fire, easily extinguished. By who? You may be asking. I can’t be certain, but I do know that some poor soul had to run out there seconds after an atomic bomb went off and put the fire out.
“Three identical framed miniature houses.”
At this point, the host isn’t messing around, he immediately jumps into test three. This is the test that the movie is named after. Unlike the homes in test number two, this demonstration focuses on the exterior of the home. The house on the right is called an “eyesore,” with clothes drying on the line, trash, leaves and untreated wood siding. The house on the left is described as “typical of many wood homes across the nation.” Our host calls it “run down,” which apparently is at least a step up from ‘eyesore’.
Then we have the house in the middle. This house is the favorite child with its fancy uncluttered yard and light painted surfaces to reflect heat. It screams, ‘not today nuclear bomb.’ Cut to the explosion with added stop motion effects for dramatic value. As was the case in the first two tests, The clean, painted model is the one left standing.
Bring out the Gimp
To prove its stability, someone is sent out to pound their fist against the siding a couple of times. He is protected by a baseball cap, a pair of reading glasses and some overalls. Perhaps it’s the same guy who put out the fire earlier. Hopefully he was heavily compensated.
We’re brought back to the host’s office where he explains what these tests prove. There IS something you can do to prepare yourself for the possibility of the end of the world.
There’s a pamphlet offered, entitled ‘Atomic Blast Creates Fire’ as well as these parting words of wisdom. “Civil Defense house keeping saved the house in the middle.” After a quick zoom in on the aforementioned house in the middle, music fades out.
A Remake? So soon?
In the 1954 extended and colorized, director’s cut. Things get real, quickly. There’s a clock ticking followed by a man that uses his serious voice to count down from five to one. We see the three houses and then we see a mushroom cloud. This is off to a hot start with better production value and added sound effects. Then we’re offered some very serious music and a title screen that moves and comes at the viewer like something from a 3-D movie.
The next screen loads up and it says, “Produced by the National Clean Up, Paint Up, Fix Up Bureau.” Wait, what? Why?
“Stop priming that wall, I think we need a bureau.”
The National Clean Up, Paint Up, Fix Up Bureau was a “bureau” invented by the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association trade group.
“In every town, you’ll find houses like this. Rundown, neglected. Trash and litter disfigure the house and yard.” The announcer says.
To be honest, the place in question doesn’t actually look that bad. There’s a beer bottle on the lawn though and we all know that’s how you can tell that you’re in a rough part of the neighborhood. The voice continues.
“An eyesore? Yes, and as you’ll see, much more. A house that’s neglected is the house that may be doomed in the atomic age.”
For reference, doomed is pronounced with six or seven o’s.
“But did they hire back the secretary?”
The script is similar, but I think it’s a new host, or maybe it’s the same guy just in color. The secretary isn’t with him anymore and you’ll notice that the word ‘paint’ is included in more of the dialogue. He also seems a little more full of judgement and house upkeep shaming.
This version of the film features extra close ups of the yard examples in the third test. The camera zooms in on leaves and a doll in a toy stroller. This seems to suggest that anyone living in an area that experiences the Fall season or any household with children, are putting us all at risk. They also show a gentleman head out to the house on the left (the rundown one, but not the eyesore) with a tiny pocket knife. He uses the pocket knife to cut out a portion of the decaying wood.
Finally, our golden boy home is revealed. I’m not trying to be controversial here, but I wonder if I am the first person to notice that in the colorized remake, it almost looks like the painted house in the middle is sitting in a giant puddle of water. Scandalous. The announcer throws around the word ‘paint’ a few extra times and then it’s bombs away once again.
Now we see extra shots of the gentleman with no actual protective gear on. He’s sifting through the remains, picking things up with his bare hands.
A Call to Action
The 1954 version ends with the host answering all of your pressing, “What can I do to help?” questions. Well, the answer you seek is in the name of the bureau. You can start by getting off your posterior and participating in one of the nationwide ‘Clean up, Paint up, Fix up campaigns’ or ‘CUPU F.U.’ as some may call it. Then the film suggests that men do the hard labor and home repairs while your wife, who could be dressed for church she looks so pretty, daintily scrapes at dirt in the flower garden (probably running late to get the darned dinner on the table – she’ll hurry if she knows what’s good for her).
The final message is that it’s up to you what kind of house you live in. You must choose wisely and choose the white one in the middle, otherwise you may not survive. Dark, yet hopeful music rises up before it fades out over the message of joining your local Civil Defense organization and the film ends.
So what did I learn in those eighteen minutes of feeling self-conscious about my home seventy years after this was made? I learned that I will forever love and adore anything filmed in the 1950’s. Please understand that this review was written with a strong hint of sarcasm. However, I do find it nutty that someone was able to take the original video and turn it into an advertisement. Although, I guess we know that there’s an angle with everything in life. No matter the decade.
I also learned that cleanliness leads to survival. Forget to stain your fence? Dead. Leave your kid’s soccer net on the lawn? Dead. Throw away your newspapers when you’re done reading them and keep your pillows fluffed accordingly? Live forever.
THE HOUSE IN THE MIDDLE (1953)
THE HOUSE IN THE MIDDLE (1954)
‘Thoroughly enjoyed your film reviews – just snarky enough for my tastes!