January 18, 2010
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Ray Milland (wearing fedora) and Family Gaze in Disbelief at Mushroom Cloud Over L.A.

UPON FURTHER REVIEW, by Brad Eastland, A.F.D. 

(that’s short for ‘Doctor of Ancient Filmology’) 







       Recently one of my publishers, the redoubtable Colleen Bennett, suggested (which is to say insisted) that I commence a column specializing in the review of movies.   More specifically, the review of old movies.

      Interesting idea, I thought.  

      Anyone who knows me knows that if I haven’t seen more movies than any man alive, surely I’ve at least seen more quirky old movies multiple times than any man alive.   It is further known amongst family and close friends that I not only consider old movies generally better than modern movies, but that I harbor, by and large, an ongoing and palpable contempt for the latter.

      The problem, I told Colleen, is how do we see to it that LaVerne OnLine subscribers can actually see these dusty old film-gems?   Do they wait for them to suddenly appear on AMC or TCM?   Do they go to their local video store and browse optimistically through the “classics” section?   Do they seek to order them online?   Does any of that matter?   Or do we just hope that the same witty prose and historical insights I seek to invest my “Sports Philosopher” column with will be entertaining enough, without the reader ever having a chance to actually view the subject?  

      I guess the only answer that makes sense is; any and all of the above.   Fortunately, I have discovered that our first film to be here and now reviewed can by rented on Amazon dot com for only $2.99, or purchased for not much more than that.   And I wholeheartedly recommend you do one or the other.  

      It’s called PANIC IN YEAR ZERO!

      And no, the exclamation point is no misprint.   It’s part of the title.   When was the last time you saw a movie with an exclamation point in the title?   Pretty cool.

      And make no mistake, this is a pretty cool little movie.

      Panic In Year Zero! was released in July of 1962.   It stars the great Ray Milland.   It is also directed by the great Ray Milland.   It is in fact the very first film ever to be directed by this aging superstar of the silver screen, the great Ray Milland.  (I wonder how many of you kind readers have not even heard of Ray Milland….he was big a half century ago.   Starred in such timeless classics as The Lost Weekend and Dial ‘M’ For Murder.   He was big.)

      Anyway, Panic In Year Zero! deals head-on with a subject that concerns—or should concern—every American, namely what to do to survive and then endure the aftermath of a nuclear attack.   Milland plays Harry Baldwin, a mild-mannered husband and father of two teenagers, who are all headed up to a cabin in the mountains above Los Angeles for a relaxing weekend of fresh air and fishing.   With the kids asleep in the back seat Milland and his wife (played by Jean Hagen of Make Room For Daddy fame) see a great flash of light in the sky, assuming, at first, that they have merely driven into a mountain thunderstorm.   But when they park and then the whole family steps to the edge of a turn-out vista, staring silently out and down at the ominous mushroom cloud rising high above Los Angeles (see picture), they know the truth.   “We’ve had it, haven’t we dad,” drones Milland’s teenage son.   Without reply, the Baldwin family immediately heads further up into the mountains to escape the crush of frantic refugees now pouring out of L.A.

      (That teenage son, by the way, is played by the then white-hot teen idol Frankie Avalon.   It’s a bit unsettling to know that just before frolicking on the beach with Annette Funicello, Avalon was busy dealing with nuclear brinksmanship with Ray Milland.)

      Almost immediately, Milland’s character is transformed from mild-mannered and law-abiding to a coldly calculating and deadly deliberate agent of post-nuclear survival.   Conversely, Hagen’s character elects to employ the ostrich approach, burying her head in the sand in the name of civilized gentility and politeness.   For the first half of the movie she is frightened into near-total denial, refusing to face the fact that her mother back in Los Angeles is probably dead, at times barely acknowledging that A-bombs have been dropped at all.   Their scared-stiff daughter sides with Hagen, while the hero-worshipping Avalon allies himself with Milland.

      Fortunately for the Baldwin family, Milland’s strength of personality and iron will carry the day.   He anticipates the inevitable breakdown of traditional values and civilized behavior, and is able to apply a certain degree of, shall we say, moral flexibility to each and every situation.   A gas station attendant tries to raise the price of gas from 34 cents to three dollars a gallon.   Milland decks him.   A hardware store owner tries to invoke the prevailing standard 3-day waiting period for the sale and possession transfer of firearms to out-of-towners.   Milland brawls with him, then Avalon grabs a pistol and the store owner backs off.   Milland grabs several guns, including a shotgun.   But at the same time Milland stays true to himself, paying both merchants the previous going price for their product.   He also insists that his brood observe certain institutional routines for the sake of preserving perspective and a basic sanity.   For instance, he declares that the men will continue to shave every day, or, in the case of his young son, he adds wryly, “maybe every other day”.   He is head of the family, and determined to act the part.   Avalon smiles, happy to be grouped in any way or measure with his suddenly dynamic old man…. 

      Soon the Baldwin family encounters three lawless hoodlums in their early 20s, and are in imminent danger of being robbed or even killed until Avalon—firing from inside their camper—wounds one of them in the shoulder with the shotgun.   The three young toughs are chased away by Milland, who is then horrified to learn that Avalon almost missed hitting his target altogether because Hagen shoved him as he was firing.   She is almost proud of her shortsighted behavior, and definitely aghast that her son is becoming like Milland, who, she now claims, she doesn’t even recognize.   Milland, becoming more and more frustrated with his wife’s inability to see that law and order have temporarily been banished from their planet, counters with an even greater anger, trying as hard as he can to explain to all of them that the old rules don’t apply any more, that survival is all that counts.   When his increasingly annoying wife opines that Milland has turned his back on all manner of civility, Milland replies, portentously and contemptuously, “I’ll return when civilization becomes civilized again.”

      (Speaking of annoying, it should be noted at this point that earlier in her career Hagen so annoyed Danny Thomas that he killed her off of Make Room For Daddy, her character, Thomas’s T.V.wife, thus becoming the first character ever killed off of a family sitcom.  I just thought I’d mention it.)

      This dynamic—the inner war between Milland’s approach to the tangible fact of nuclear war and Hagen’s —is the essential tension and unspoken battleground of the film.   And there is no clear-cut winner.   For instance, despite his resourcefulness and his successfully making sure his family has survived all initial obstacles, Milland soon becomes horrified at what he himself has become, when, after learning that two of the three toughs have come back to brutally assault and rape his daughter, Milland hunts them down and blows them away with his shotgun.   In cold blood.   Ironically Hagen, coming to grips with her own frailties and demons, is quick to comfort him.   Without saying so, each has embraced a portion of the other’s point of view.

      Panic In Year Zero! quickly became an anthem for the Cold War upon its July 1962 release, with no less of an authority than New York’s The Village Voice calling it “maybe the most expressive on-the-ground nightmare” of that era.   It’s relevance and popularity soared to even greater heights three months hence, when JFK took a deep breath and told the Russians to get their damn nuclear missiles the hell out of Cuba.   But I submit that the questions Panic In Year Zero! raises are no less relevant today.   Are we not still living under the threat-cloud of nuclear war?   Aren’t religious extremists still a threat to knock down our buildings and blow up our planes?   Haiti just had a big earthquake; couldn’t an even bigger one potentially shatter quake-prone Los Angeles?

      I wonder how we would, or will, respond.   My late mother always told me that the one thing I needed to do to deal with “the disasters” was to make sure I had a couple gallons of distilled water stored in my garage.   I know she meant well, but I’m not sure how much good a couple gallons of distilled water would do.  (I mean what if I couldn’t even get to the garage to take that drink?  LOL)     

      Seriously, though.   Perhaps the two salient questions to be asked of oneself are, if disaster does strike, will you be a Ray Milland or a Jean Hagen?   And which one do you want to be?



The redoubtable Brad Eastland

Brad Eastland, our Dr. of Ancient Filmology, is a movie buff and film historian, as long as the film was made before 1985 or so. (If you want to hear about new-release films, pick up a Times.) Special effects and gratuitous anything have no place in his celluloid world. Primarily a fiction writer, Brad has written four novels and more than 20 short stories.








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