#358) The House in the Middle (1954)

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#358) The House in the Middle (1954)

Produced by The National Clean Up – Paint Up – Fix Up Bureau with the cooperation of The Federal Civil Defense Administration

Class of 2001

The Plot: Nothing says a 1950s short like Atomic Age paranoia, and “The House in the Middle” is no exception. Brought to you by the National Clean Up – Paint Up – Fix Up Bureau (the NCUPUFUB for short) and the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), the house in question is one of three standing as part of a nuclear bomb test in Yucca Flat, Nevada. Footage from the Upshot-Knothole Encore of 1953 shows that the houses on either side – untidy and deteriorating – immediately catch fire following a nuclear explosion, while the house in the middle – well-kept with a fresh coat of paint – survives. What can we as terrified Americans do? Why, keep our neighborhoods clean and our houses painted, of course! What an agenda!

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “curiosity of the Cold War era” and then discusses the conspicuous participation of the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association (NPVLA) in the making of this film. There’s also an essay by Kelly Chisholm, possibly the only Library of Congress employee with a degree in Chemistry.

But Does It Really?: America’s Atomic period needs to be preserved (and more importantly, remembered for fear of repeating), and “The House in the Middle” is a natural choice to represent the era. My one question: How did this make the NFR before the definitive Cold War short, “Duck and Cover”?

Somebody Gets One: This is another NFR film with no official credits, other than the organizations responsible for it. I just want to know who the narrator is. Did he work for the FCDA? And why is he so condescending towards my housekeeping skills? How’s your sterile SRO looking, buddy?

Wow, That’s Dated: Once more for the people in the back: this movie suggests that we will survive the next atomic bomb if we clean our yards and paint our walls. There is something simultaneously wholesome and terrifying about that message.

Seriously, Oscars?: Unsurprisingly, there was no Oscar love for “The House in the Middle”. For the record: 1954’s Best Documentary Short winner was “Thursday’s Children”, a Richard Burton-narrated film that taught the basics of lip reading.

Other notes

  • After WWII, America lost interest in its civil defense programs because, ya know, we won. This attitude continued until 1949 when the Soviet Union had their first atomic bomb detonation, and then all of a sudden President Truman felt the need to create the Federal Civil Defense Administration. One of the FCDA’s main objectives: all the propaganda all the time! One of their first films was the aforementioned “Duck and Cover”. At least that one had a catchy jingle.
  • I cannot find any information about the National Clean Up – Paint Up – Fix Up Bureau, other than its connection to this film. It’s almost like the NCUPUFUB was concocted by the FCDA to help the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association sell paint! Follow the money!
  • Interestingly enough, this is a revised version of a 1953 television short also called “The House in the Middle”. As best I can tell the 1953 version is shorter, in black-and-white, and, according to Kelly Chisholm, “disconcertingly straightforward”. The 1954 revision was co-sponsored by the NCUPUFUB, and is one of the rare propaganda shorts of the era in color.
  • Once again, I do not care for this narrator’s holier-than-thou attitude regarding the condition of these houses. If only they were made of glass so he would think twice before throwing stones.
  • There are a few instant replays of the blasts using “stop-motion”. Don’t they mean “slow-motion”?
  • This short bemoans one house’s “lack of wire-safe housekeeping”. And that’s why we insulate our walls, people! I didn’t realize all that HGTV has been preparing me to survive World War III.
  • “The House in the Middle” should not be confused with the NFR short “The House I Live In” starring Frank Sinatra. Though now I’m curious if Ol’ Blue Eyes could have survived a nuclear attack. Let’s see your mob connections help you now, Francis!
  • Please narrator, continue to emphasize that the house in the middle is a “clean, white house”. Did we need to bring institutional racism into this?
  • When all is said and done, this a weird remake of “The Three Little Pigs”.

Legacy

  • The FCDA was not long for this world, merging with the Office of Defense Mobilization in 1958 to become the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization. As the threat of nuclear war diminished, these and similar civil defense agencies were absolved. The remnants of these organizations can be found in today’s Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (aka FEMA). Anyone who lived through the George W. Bush presidency knows that these groups are doing a heckuva job.
  • The National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association has changed its name over the years, but it’s still going strong as the American Coatings Association. Here’s their website, with a comprehensive history of paint in America (it goes back to 1700!).
  • I’m pretty confident one of the mushroom cloud shots from this movie reappears in “Dr. Strangelove”.

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