The Night Ed Sullivan Scared a Nation with the Apocalyptic Animated Short, A Short Vision (1956)

On May 27, 1956, mil­lions of Amer­i­cans tuned in to The Ed Sul­li­van Show, expect­ing the usu­al vari­ety of come­di­ans, tal­ents and musi­cal guests. What they weren’t pre­pared for was a short ani­mat­ed film that Sul­li­van intro­duced thus­ly:

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.

And with that, he screened the hor­rif­ic bit of ani­ma­tion you can watch above. At the height of the atom­ic age, this film was a short sharp shock. Its vision of a nuclear holo­caust is told in the style of a fable or sto­ry­book, with both ani­mals and humans wit­ness­ing their last moments on earth, and end­ing with the extin­guish­ing of a tiny flame. The most­ly sta­t­ic art work is all the more effec­tive when faces melt into skulls.

A Short Vision

Many chil­dren didn’t leave the room of course, and the web­site Conel­rad has a won­der­ful in-depth his­to­ry of that night and col­lect­ed mem­o­ries from peo­ple who were trau­ma­tized by the short as a child. One child’s hair–or rather a small sec­tion of his hair–turned white from fright.

It was as for­ma­tive a moment as The Day After would be to chil­dren of the ‘80s. The papers the next day report­ed on the short in sala­cious detail (“Shock Wave From A‑Bomb Film Rocks Nation’s TV Audi­ence”) and Sul­li­van not only defend­ed his deci­sion, but showed the film again on June 10.

The film was cre­at­ed by mar­ried cou­ple Peter and Joan Foldes, and shot for lit­tle mon­ey in their kitchen on a makeshift ani­ma­tion table. Peter was a Hun­gar­i­an immi­grant who had stud­ied at the Slade School of Art and the Court­laud Insti­tute and appren­ticed with John Halas where he learned ani­ma­tion.

(Halas is best known for the ani­mat­ed fea­ture ver­sion of Orwell’s Ani­mal Farm.)

A Short Vision would go on in Sep­tem­ber of that year to win best exper­i­men­tal film at the 17th Venice Film Fes­ti­val. (Peter Foldes would lat­er make anoth­er dis­turb­ing and award-win­ning short called Hunger.)

Once so shock­ing, A Short Vision fell out of cir­cu­la­tion. But a gen­er­a­tion grew up remem­ber­ing that they had seen some­thing hor­rif­ic on tele­vi­sion that night (in black and white, not the col­or ver­sion above.) For a time, it was hard to find a men­tion of the film on IMDB and a dam­aged edu­ca­tion­al print was one of the few copies cir­cu­lat­ing around. For­tu­nate­ly the British Film Insti­tute has made a pris­tine copy avail­able of this impor­tant Cold War doc­u­ment.

What we want to know is this: Did Steven Spiel­berg see this movie that Sun­day night in 1956? He would have been 10 years old.

A Short Vision will be added to the Ani­ma­tion sec­tion of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

via A Wast­ed Life

Relat­ed con­tent:

Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lyn­de & the Orig­i­nal Cast of Bye Bye Birdie Appear on The Ed Sul­li­van Show (1961)

Ani­mat­ed Films Made Dur­ing the Cold War Explain Why Amer­i­ca is Excep­tion­al­ly Excep­tion­al

Dizzy Gille­spie Wor­ries About Nuclear & Envi­ron­men­tal Dis­as­ter in Vin­tage Ani­mat­ed Films

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (8)
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  • Ted Mills says:

    Oh yes! The very depress­ing When the Wind Blows. I was think­ing of mak­ing a longer list of “trau­ma­tiz­ing films from the nuclear age” but did­n’t want to go too far down the rab­bit hole.

    Oth­er sug­ges­tions:
    On the Beach
    Mir­a­cle Mile
    On the 8th Day
    The War Game

  • Dan Colman says:

    Yup, Mark, that is already not­ed in the post.

  • Eleanor Paul says:

    THANK YOU! I have remem­bered this for almost 60 years but could remem­ber noth­ing of its ori­gin oth­er than that it was first shown on the Ed Sul­li­van show, back in the 1950s (I was one of those aston­ished, hor­ri­fied chil­dren). Since the arrival of the inter­net in our homes, I have searched for it from time to time but did­n’t know what to say about it, how to describe it for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion — until tonight! Now I have watched it for the first time in 6 decades, & no longer mar­vel that it stayed lodged in my mem­o­ry as it did; and my respect for Ed Sul­li­van went up, even at that time, for dar­ing to show some­thing like that to Amer­i­ca’s inno­cent & large­ly pam­pered cit­i­zens — although, know­ing me, I was prob­a­bly more impressed & con­cerned as it showed the dam­age done to inno­cent ani­mals by our human fol­ly (I was an ani­mal rights per­son from birth, I think!). Any­way, many , many thanks for putting this on here! Eleanor.

  • Eleanor Paul says:

    I was 10 years old & did not see this again until I found it on here after a long search — I nev­er for­got it — it is still ter­ri­fy­ing. I think the nations of the world need to see it again — it should be shown on tele­vi­sion & in schools — at least then we will know what peo­ple are talk­ing about when they so glibly advo­cate war.

  • Nancy Bertelsen says:

    I was 8 years old. Ed Sul­li­van was always a Fam­i­ly Sun­day night favorite. I remem­ber this video as if it was on last night. I was ter­ri­fied by the clip and being the begin­ning of the Sum­mer I refused to look up in to the sky at night. I told this sto­ry many times in my adult­hood and searched the inter­net to show a few friends who had nev­er heard of it. Even with the tech­nol­o­gy of the apoc­a­lyp­tic movies of today noth­ing scares me like this clip did.

  • Richard Ferguson says:

    I was only 7 years old when I saw this film. It was in black and white before col­or tele­vi­sion. I nev­er for­got the film and had night­mares for years after­wards.
    I have lived under the threat of nuclear anni­hi­la­tion my entire life. The threat has nev­er less­ened and has now esca­lat­ed in mad­ness because of pro­lif­er­a­tion.
    I chal­lenge the mani­acs who pos­sess the pow­er to end the world, push those but­tons. Get it on. Or…
    Sit down togeth­er and end this stu­pid, idi­ot­ic notion that you can win a nuclear war. You can’t win. The more weapons you build the more rub­ble you will bounce.
    Crawl into your bunkers and fire away. When you’re through and crawl back out, you will real­ize, too late, that the only thing you won was a dead, radioac­tive world that is devoid of life. Except for you. And soon you will die also, fight­ing with your­selves with sticks and rocks.
    You are mur­der­ous mon­sters chock­ing on your own hate.

  • Frank Romo says:

    The Road

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