Long before he played the long-suffering Mr. Feeney on Boy Meets World, William Daniels made his film debut as another school principal in the 1963 film, Ladybug Ladybug.
In Ladybug Ladybug, Daniels plays Mr. Calkins and he’s got a lot more to worry about than just some unstable student with an unhealthy fixation on a girl that he’s gaslighted into loving him. No, Mr. Calkins has to deal with the very real possibility that a nuclear war might break out at any second. One day, when an imminent nuclear attack warning signal goes off, no one can be sure whether or not it’s real or if it was an accident. However, Mr. Calkins takes no chances. He dismisses school for the day and tells all of the students to go home.
However, there’s a problem. The school is in a rural area and most of the students live several miles away. Because it’s early in the day, there aren’t any school buses running. The children will have to walk home. To make sure that the kids get to safety, they’re divided into groups. A teacher is assigned to each group, tasked with keeping the children calm and making sure they reach their houses.
It’s a long walk and the countryside is deathly quiet. Some of the children talk about what’s going to happen if there really is a war. Others, being too young to understand the seriousness of the situation, treat it all like a game. As each child reaches their house, they have to deal with parents who are more concerned about why their child has come home early than the fact that there might be a war about to break out.
Back at the school, Mr. Calkins and a few remains teachers wait. One teacher tries to clean up her classroom, all the while realizing that there’s a chance that the classroom will never be used again.
And we, the viewers, keep waiting for a bomb to drop or, at the very least, some sort of clarification about what’s really happening. We wait in vain. The film’s ending is harrowing but, at the same time, ambiguous. Is the world ending or are the children going to wake up in the morning and head back to school? It all depends on how you interpret the film’s final few moments.
Of course, by the time we reach that ending, a group of children has already taken cover in a bomb shelter. Unfortunately, their self-appointed leader has decided that there’s not room for all the children, which means that one girl ends up getting kicked out. Wandering around outside, she finds an old refrigerator to hide in. Your heart sinks as you watch her climb in and close the door behind her….
Ladbybug Ladybug is a grim film. At times, it runs the risk of being a bit too grim. The film definitely gets across its point but it’s so relentlessly depressing that it’s a bit difficult to sit through. Of course, Ladybug Ladybug was filmed around the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis so, for many viewers in 1963, the film was less an allegory and more just a record of the feelings and fears that they had to deal with every single day. Towards the end of the film, when one of the children desperately starts to yell, “Stop! Stop! STOP!,” he was undoubtedly speaking for an entire generation that grew up under the shadow of mutually assured destruction.
Ladybug Ladybug was one of the many nuclear war-themed films to be released in the early 60s. One could easily imagine it as being a companion piece to Fail Safe. While President Henry Fonda is debating whether or not to sacrifice New York, the children are simply trying to get home.