A Short Vision: Ed Sullivan and The Nuclear Apocalypse Cartoon
Halloween’s come and gone, but before we fall down the rabbit hole that is the Holiday Season, I’d like to share something truly frightening, quite unbelievable, and one of the strangest events in television history. It’s a story about the atomic bomb, an animated film, and the King of Television.
It’s 1956. America is well into the Eisenhower era. The Cold War is in full effect, and television is rapidly becoming the entertainment medium of the masses. One of the early masters of television was Ed Sullivan, whose self-titled variety show would go on to become the most popular show in the early decades of TV, running from 1948 to 1971. Ed Sullivan gave America Elvis Presley. He gave us The Beatles. He gave us Topo Gigio and Senor Wences. On Sunday evenings, The Ed Sullivan Show was ‘Must See TV’ before it had a name. And in 1956, he gave us a face-melting film about nuclear armageddon.
During this period,’The Bomb’ was on everybody’s mind. In 1952, the U.S. detonated the world’s first hydrogen bomb in the South Pacific, a 10.4 megaton monster over 450 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that exploded over Nagasaki, Japan. A year later, the Soviets successfully tested their first hydrogen device, and the race to Armageddon was on. Four years later, on May 20, 1956, the first U.S. airdrop of a hydrogen bomb occurred over Namu Island in the Bikini Atoll. Detonating at 10,000 feet, the bomb exploded with a frightening force equal to 15 million tons of TNT, creating a 4-mile wide fireball brighter than 500 suns.
One week later, on May 27, 1956, Ed Sullivan gave an unsuspecting nation a chilling and disturbing view of this new era of nuclear annihilation in the form of a seven minute short animated film called ‘A Short Vision.’ It scared the hell out of an American public already on the edge in the era of nuclear one-upsmanship with the Soviet Union.
The possibility of the nuclear destruction of the world was on everybody’s minds, including British artists Peter Foldes and his wife Joan, who began work on their short film, to be titled ‘A Short Vision.’
The Foldes’ short film debuted at the National Film Theatre in London in early 1956. The London Times review the following day had this to say about the film, calling it ‘The Cartoon of the End of the World”:
A SHORT VISION, made by Joan and Peter Foldes, has little animation. It is rather a series of powerful, static drawings dissolving to show the death and consumption of all living things at the explosion that brings about the end of the world; it is a work of sombre imagination.”
But for his millions of unsuspecting viewers, including many impressionable young children, Sullivan’s plea for peace was more like what some described as “seven minutes of terror.” The film aired during an otherwise typical Ed Sullivan Show which included acts Senor Wences the ventriloquist and “the winners of the Harvest Moon dance contest and the Hasleves acrobats.”
Towards the end of the nights’ broadcast, Mr. Sullivan announced the film, and gave a brief warning to younger viewers. And then, 14 million Americans were introduced to the end of the world. His introduction:
Just last week you read about the H-bomb being dropped. Now two great English writers, two very imaginative writers – I’m gonna tell you if you have youngsters in the living room tell them not to be alarmed at this ‘cause it’s a fantasy, the whole thing is animated – but two English writers, Joan and Peter Foldes, wrote a thing which they called A Short Vision in which they wondered what might happen to the animal population of the world if an H-bomb were dropped. It’s produced by George K. Arthur and I’d like you to see it. It is grim, but I think we can all stand it to realize that in war there is no winner.”
Watching A Short Vision nearly 60 years later, it isn’t hard to imagine the terror it must have struck in the hearts of the television audience of 1956. The reaction was, as you can imagine, overwhelming. The headline in the New York World Telegram and Sun read “Shock Wave From A-Bomb Film Rocks Nation’s TV Audience.” Their article describes both the film and its effect on Sullivan’s viewers:
Such was the reaction of millions of viewers last night to a chilling cartoon film depicting the destruction of the world by atomic warfare. But almost all agreed that they sat shocked and spellbound as people were disintegrated before their eyes. It was shown on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town on CBS television [editor’s note: Sullivan changed the name of his program from Toast of the Town to The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955].
He said several people on his show warned him that it was “too grim” for TV consumption before the film was run last night. But, he explained, he considered it a powerful plea for peace and “I figured with the H-bomb just being let go of last week it was apropos.”
The toastmaster said he saw the film in England where it received rave notices from such papers as the London Times and Manchester Guardian. He resolved to give it an American premiere. It was made by a young husband and wife team, Peter and Joan Foldes, who won first prize at the Cannes Film Festival for their first cartoon, “Animated Genesis,” a history of evolution.
The austerely drawn film is narrated in a calm British voice. The voice tells of a “Thing which, as it flies overhead, burns everything living into a skeleton and at last destroys itself.”
As the Thing comes swiftly, noiselessly, irresistibly, animals, who see it first, are so terrified (or compassionate) that they release their captives. The owl looks up and the rat runs free from its clutching claws. The deer darts free from the leopard’s grasp.
Then the bomb explodes in midair.
The people are asleep and faces of children and adults are shown in repose. In stages the faces change to skeletons. “Their leaders looked up and their wise men looked up, but it was too late.”
All who saw it, the people and the animals, were destroyed. “When it was over, there was nothing left but a small flame. The mountains, the fields, the city and the earth had all disappeared, and it was cold, except for the small flame.”
Spines tingle for a moment as the eerie flame glows—“and then I saw it, still flying around the flame. And now it looked like a moth and it, too, was destroyed, and the flame died.”
Mr. Sullivan said he deliberately showed the eerie cartoon just before sign-off “figuring that youngsters should have been asleep anyway,” but he warned that it “wasn’t for youngsters.” Many small fry, of course, took a peak anyway and the MC braced himself for a barrage of squawks from mothers about the gruesome “bedtime story.” As one father said, “Sullivan’s always billing ‘something for the kids.’ This was kind of rough.”
He said wires and phone calls take the turn either “Thanks for having the guts to run it” or “It was a terrifying thing to do.” The show’s rating was 37.2 against NBC’s 7.2…
…The critic of the London Times said of it “In five minutes I was more persuaded than in ten years since Hiroshima.”
To me, A Short Vision, and its airing on The Ed Sullivan Show, is a perfect example of the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War era. The film disappeared from memory over the years, but I think it’s important sometimes to dig back into the hidden annals of history; most of us weren’t around during the height of the Cold War tensions, and those who were have largely forgotten the toll it took on the psyches of Americans (and Soviets, I’m sure.)
As for Ed Sullivan? Ever the showman and never one to back down from a ratings bonanza, just two weeks later on June 10, 1956…he aired the film again.
From 1956, by Joan and Peter Foldes, their short vision of the end of the world. Are you ready?
Read more at CONELRAD.