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Frank Perry’s Ladybug Ladybug feels dated in many ways, and not just because it is in black & white; it is a quintessential Cold War paranoia movie, from the era of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the only film of its era to make the threat of nuclear annihilation the subject of comedy. While those films are revered to this day, Ladybug Ladybug has fallen unfairly by the wayside, though its unique approach and hypnotic style are definitely worthy of viewing by a modern audience.
Written by Perry’s wife and frequent collaborator, Eleanor Perry, from a story by Lois Dickert, Ladybug Ladybug‘s title comes from the children’s rhyme, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home / Your house is on fire and your children are gone.” Based on a real incident, the film examines the course of events following a nuclear attack alarm at a small town elementary school. The alarm is a “code yellow,” which translates to “nuclear attack imminent within an hour.” After some panicked deliberation, the school’s principal, Mr. Calkins (William Daniels), decides to heed the alarm and send the children home. After this, the film follows one particular group of children as they are escorted home along a country road by a teacher, Mrs. Andrews (Nancy Marchand, best known as Tony’s vindictive mother, Livia, on The Sopranos).
We also see several of the schoolchildren camped out in the bomb shelter owned by one of their families, playing the waiting game and gradually evolving into their own small version of society. The way in which they instinctively form hierarchies and begin to govern themselves when left to their own devices recalls William Golding’s brilliant 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, though the savagery portrayed in that book is given far less time to flourish here. Instead of hunting and killing one another, these children discuss their situation with a rationality nowhere to be found in the adult world of Strangelove, for example. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the children take a vote on whether or not war should be allowed; they all vote against it before concluding that nobody will listen to children.
It’s not all polite discussion, though, as the inherent selfishness of human nature comes out in the children’s refusal to allow their fellow student, Sarah (Marilyn Rogers), into the bomb shelter, claiming there is simply not enough room. The result of this, though ambiguous, implies great tragedy for Sarah, and this tragic ambiguity extends to the film’s ending. Though its political import is a bit heavy-handed, as a narrative conclusion it is striking, poignant and memorable, all adjectives that could be applied to the film as a whole.