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The Cold War Meets Commerce: The House(s) in the Middle

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The following is a guest post by Kelly Chisholm, a Processing Technician in the Moving Image Section.

Back in December, I posted an entry about three versions of a film I found in the J. Fred MacDonald Collection; today, I return with a story about another film from that collection to illustrate a little more about what some of us here in the Moving Image Section do on a day-to-day basis. It involves The House in the Middle, a ludicrous (in hindsight) Cold War film about how tidy, freshly painted houses were more likely to survive a nuclear firestorm than those in disrepair; the film was named to the National Film Registry in 2001. But as it turns out, there are two versions of The House in the Middle, requiring a lot more research than a typical title before we could fully process them.

Currently, two co-workers and I are working our way through a more complicated portion of the MacDonald Collection, trying to solve mysteries of unidentified films and clear up discrepancies. We have a custom database designed for MacDonald processing, and my colleague Jami Judge-Almeida noted something unusual when she came across copies of The House in the Middle that didn’t match. One version was copyrighted by National Clean Up – Paint Up – Fix Up Bureau and was in color, but the other was credited to the Federal Civil Defense Administration and was in black-and-white. Here’s the original entry in the database with Jami’s request that the films be compared.

One of the first things I do when resolving these discrepancies is check online for copies of the title in question. The House in the Middle was easy to find. I watched a copy of the film on The Internet Archive, noting it was the color version and had the National Clean Up – Paint Up – Fix Up Bureau credits. It’s this color version that was named to the Registry, by the way.

I wound through the other copy to see if I could find the same credits; but as Jami noted in the database, this new copy was black-and-white and had no mention of theNational Clean Up – Paint Up – Fix Up Bureau in the credits sequence; indeed, it had a totally different credits sequence. This appeared to be a different film! At that point, I decided to watch the black-and-white version on one of our flatbed viewers to see just how similar it was to the color version. Was the audio in the two films the same? Could I tell if they were using similar footage? When I watched my mystery copy, I could see and hear that the content was certainly similar and the nuclear test footage used looked to be the same, but the script for the narration was different and the set on which the narrator was filmed was different. The color version was also several minutes longer than my black-and-white version.

The House in the Middle (National Clean Up – Paint Up – Fix Up Bureau, 1954). This is the version named to the National Film Registry.
The House in the Middle (Federal Civil Defense Administration, 1953). This is the original version.










After checking our most frequent resources we use to help identify educational and government films (The Educational Film & Video Locator and The Field Guide to Sponsored Films) and not coming up with much on the black-and-white version, I started doing web searches on things like “atomic testing footage shown on TV in the 1950s.” I went to a site called Atomic Theater that featured a timeline of atomic testing-related films, and found a mention that two films were released under the title The House in the Middle – the first in the fall of 1953, and a longer version in 1954. It all started to make sense: we had a black-and-white film of nuclear bomb testing and its effect on traditional houses, and a longer, more elaborate color film on the same subject. Curious about where this website’s information came from, I contacted the person who created the site, Jacob Hughes.

Page 124 of the 1957 Annual Statistical Report from the Federal Civil Defense Administration. Note that Duck and Cover – another National Film Registry title – was deemed “obsolete”…perhaps a subject for another post.

Jacob replied quickly and pointed me to one of his go-to primary sources for this kind of information: an Annual Statistical Report from the Federal Civil Defense Administration, in this case one from 1957. These reports include all the activities of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, including the motion pictures they made, cooperated with, and distributed during a given year. And there on page 124 was a list of films in circulation, with two versions of The House in the Middle – one released in October 1953 in black-and-white and 6.5 minutes long, and the other in 1954 in color and 12 minutes long.

The most interesting tidbit — and what explains the different credits listed in the two films – was that the second, longer version is listed as “Sponsored and/or financed by a commercial organization with the cooperation of the FCDA”. That “commercial organization” was the “National Clean Up – Paint Up – Fix Up Bureau” that tipped Jami off to the potential discrepancy. Turns out this strangely titled bureau is a folksier name for the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association, which had a vested interest in people buying lots of house paint.




So, here are the two versions of this film– the 1954 version named to the National Film Registry and the 1953 original I came across while trying to answer a cataloging question. Given that the longer, color version was sponsored by an association dedicated to encouraging people to buy more paint, I’ll let you come to your own conclusions about how that connection affected the content of the film.

The House in the Middle (Federal Civil Defense Administration, 1953)

If you want to download this video, right-click here and Save As.

The House in the Middle (National Clean Up – Paint Up – Fix Up Bureau, 1954)

If you want to download this video, right-click here and Save As.

Comments (8)

  1. As a member of the duck-and-cover generation, I say–Johnny, go clean up your room!
    Interesting post. I love the sleuthing and the results. the movies’ concept is pretty amazing in hindsight, and obviously isn’t without some factual basis (although we’d all probably be dead anyway). but the practical application in encouraging us to all be neatniks (and buy some nice paint, already!) is brilliant!

  2. Great post, Mike. Cold War history has always fascinated me, going back to my “duck and cover” days in elementary school. I used to hate hearing the air raid sirens at the fire station each Friday at 10am…
    I hope you can find some more footage like this.

  3. To paraphrase President Johnson from the “Daisy” commercial:
    “We must either love to clean, or we must die.”

  4. Hello- I was wondering what is the name of the cataloging program that your article above demonstrated? ~Thanks

    • From Kelly Chisholm: The screengrab you see towards the top of the post is from a simple database we made with Microsoft Access for the MacDonald collection. You can tailor an Access database to have specific fields in each record, and we created a template for the records in that database to help us record consistent information on all the reels of film. Once the items have been more fully inspected, a more detailed cataloging record is created in our MAVIS database. MAVIS stands for Merged Audio Visual Information System, and it is tailored specifically to audiovisual material. That database is much more robust than a simple Access database; for example, it can link authority records (film credits, collection names) to film titles and collection items, track incoming material and outgoing loans, as well as interact with our digital preservation software.

  5. Thank you for this blog post, Kelly, which I came across today. I expect you’re unlikely to see this reply, as it’s so long after your piece was posted, but in case you do I just wanted to say that’s enlightening information and much appreciated. I’m an academic working on nuclear culture and wrote briefly about ‘The House in the Middle’ a long time ago (in ‘States of Suspense: The Nuclear Age, Postmodernism and United States Fiction and Prose,’ Manchester University Press, 2008) – I wish I’d known the history you’ve uncovered then.

  6. I just watched this film, the color version, on Turner classic movies. What concerned me the most was the men touching the materials affected by the radioactive blast right after it happened. I wonder if they got radiation poisoning.

  7. TCM ran it again this morning, sending me scratching around the web for more info. Thanks for the research. I’ve seen high school ‘health’ films that weren’t as heavy-handed. A true product of its time.

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