Monday, January 16, 2012

WARNING RED: Maryland’s Civil Defense Movie

Lo-Joseph Cunningham-Warning Red

“My shelter was just finished a couple of days ago. I thought people would laugh, so I kept it quiet.”

--Mrs. Gray, dowager / civil defense savior in the short film Warning Red

Warning Red (1956) portrays the atomic odyssey of suburbanite Martin Dale who, while on his way home from buying some ice cream, sees the bright flash of the Bomb. Once he gets up from the rubble and puts on his charred fedora, the thirteen-minute film moves forward with its agenda to convey all of the clichéd civil defense lessons about remaining in one’s shelter, avoiding contaminated food and staying tuned to CONELRAD. Of course, Mr. Dale ignores most of these rules (“It’s my life I’m risking, I don’t care!” he declares at one point to a tired survivor) by running through the fallout and fire-filled streets trying to find his family.

During Dale’s journey—that seems to take less than five minutes of dramatic time—he encounters a stunned family sitting at a table by candlelight, a man cooking milk on an open fire and a psychotic woman trying to give her baby away. He finds his beloved wife, Karen, and son, Davey, when his older neighbor, Mrs. Gray, appears out of nowhere and leads him and his radioactive clothes into her secret (and giant) bomb shelter. There the Dale family is happily reunited while Mrs. Gray cradles the crazy woman’s infant.

The official coda to the movie is that “You will have a greater chance of survival in an enemy attack or natural disaster if you know what to do…To learn how you can best protect yourself and your family in such an emergency, contact your nearest Civil Defense Office.” The unofficial coda to the movie is that these civil defense-loving survivors will soon be eating ice cream again (even if the scoop girl who so brazenly ignored the CONELRAD alert in the first minutes of the film is probably dead).

Although the very entertaining Warning Red was nationally distributed through the auspices of the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), it is a Maryland movie at its core. The production was filmed at the National Civil Defense Training Center in Olney and its cast—including lead Joseph Cunningham (as Martin Dale)—was made up of local actors from the Sandy Spring Theatre Group. When the movie was completed and ready to screen, it was feted with a Silver Spring premiere and the following press coverage in the Montgomery County Sentinel:

Lo-Sentinel Headline

CD Movie Made in Olney

Warning Red Stars Local Talent, Sites

Twenty Sandy Spring area residents will get a chance to see how they look in the movies tomorrow evening, when “Warning Red,” a Civil Defense Administration motion picture filmed in Montgomery County, has its national premiere at the Viers Mill Theater.

Most of the sequences in “Warning Red” were made at the Olney CD facility and the majority of the cast are members of the Sandy Spring Group, all amateur actors.

The premiere of the film at 8:30 tomorrow evening will have a dash of Hollywood—floodlights bathing the front of the theater, officials of local and Washington Civil Defense offices and the Sherwood High School band.

Joseph Cunningham, a Washington businessman who lives with his wife and three children at Spencerville, stars in the movie.

He appears as a typical suburban homeowner, searching for his family among the flames, smoke and debris that follow an enemy air attack. The film illustrates the things one should do and not do in such a situation.

Other members of the cast include Mrs. James Anderson, Phillip Boyd Martin, Mrs. Mildred Dowd, Mrs. Mary Reading Miller, Fred Joiner, James Sanders, Robert Miller, Rev. David L. Watterworth, Mrs. Marion Sanders, Melvin Scheidt, Mrs. Julia Bailey, Bonnie Bonifant, Elizabeth Cunningham, Richard Cunningham, Elizabeth Anderson, Sam Bailey, Bill Bailey, Sari Hines and Alan Johnston.

“Warning Red” was directed by Nicholas Webster of Manassas, Va., who has won several Hollywood awards for his direction of documentary films.

It was produced for the Civil Defense Administration by Phillip [sic] Martin, of Norwood Studios. Mr. Martin is a former associate producer and film editor for several major Hollywood studios. He won an Academy Award in 1947 for the year’s best short subject, “The House I Live In.”

F. William Hart was assistant producer, and the script was by Kirby Hawkes. The motion picture was produced with the facilities of Capital Film Studios of Washington.

Source: Montgomery County Sentinel, page C8, January 19, 1956


While most of the talent behind Warning Red faded into obscurity, the film’s auteur, Nicholas Webster (1912-2006), went on to launch the career of Pia Zadora by helming 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The director revisited the Red Planet in 1968 with Mission Mars without the assistance of Kris Kringle or Ms. Zadora. Webster spent most of the rest of his career working in episodic television including directing several episodes of the cult series The New People.

CONELRAD would love to talk to any of the surviving cast and crew members of Warning Red or their family members. If you fit this description, please contact us. If we hear from anyone, we will update this post.


Norwood Studios Presents
A Webster-Martin Production

Warning Red Titile 
Starring Joseph Cunningham as Martin Dale
Director: Nicholas Webster
Producer: Philip Martin
Assistant Producer: F. William Hart
Photographed by Bert Spielvogel
Script: Kirby Hawkes


Produced with the cooperation of The Federal Civil Defense Administration at the Capitol Film Studios
Washington, D.C.
Copyright 1956 Norwood Studios

Capitol Film Studios


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James L. said...

I grew up next door to Mr. Martin on Norwood Rd. His son Phil Jr. was (?) 2 or 3 years ahead of me at Sherwood. This is the first time I found mention of his cinematic work on line. Do you have contact with Sandy Spring Museum? I will Tell them of your website and effort here, I know they would be interested.