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A is for Atom – Physics cartoon, 1953

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Hydrogen Bomb

Run time 14:26
Producer Sutherland (John) Productions
Sponsor General Electric Company
Audio/Visual Sd, C

Presents in lay terms what an atom is, how energy is released from certain kinds of atoms, the peace-time uses of atomic energy and the by-products of nuclear fission.

Ken Smith sez: This animated short is one of the better “benevolent atom” films released in the ’50s. The elements are depicted as humans with giant molecule heads; radioactive elements are shown dancing frantically. Atomic Energy is a giant glowing outline man. Great mid-’50s free-form art backgrounds. Best scenes: 1) Dancing molecules bouncing into each other in “Element Town” and 2) the majestic, ethereal atomic giant seen straddling the Earth at the end of the film.

Although the “Atoms for Peace” campaign was formally launched in 1957, corporate America began to promote peaceful uses of atomic energy as early as the first few months after Hiroshima. A Is For Atom, an artifact of this effort, takes this highly loaded and threatening issue straight to the public in an attempt to “humanize” the figure of the atom.

A Is For Atom speaks of five atomic “giants” which “man has released from within the atom’s heart”: the warrior and destroyer, the farmer, the healer, the engineer and the research worker. Each is pictured as a majestic, shimmering outline figure towering over the earth. “But all are within man’s power Ñ subject to his command,” says the narrator reassuringly, and our future depends “on man’s wisdom, on his firmness in the use of that power.”

General Electric, a long-time manufacturer of electric appliances, power generation plants, and nuclear weapon components, is staking a claim here, asserting their interest in managing and exploiting this new and bewildering technology. Its pitch: this is powerful, frightening, near-apocalyptic technology, but managed with firmness, it can be profitable and promising. This “Trust us with the control of technology, and we’ll give you progress without end” pitch resembles what we’ve seen in films like General Motors’ To New Horizons (on the Ephemeral Films disc). But the automobile, of course, wasn’t a weapon of mass destruction.

In its first two years of release, A Is For Atom was seen by over seven million people in this version and a shortened ten-minute theatrical cut. In 1953 it won first prizes in both the Columbus (Ohio) and Turin (Italy) Film Festivals, the Freedoms Foundation Award, an “oscar” from the Cleveland Film Festival, and a Merit Award from Scholastic Teacher. In 1954 it won first prize in the Stamford Film Festival, a Golden Reel Award from the American Film Assembly, and a second Grand Award from the Venice Film Festival. The film was remade in the mid-sixties and is still available for rental.

Like other John Sutherland films, A Is For Atom presents a portentious message in a visually delightful and often self-deprecating manner. “Element Town” and its quirky inhabitants, including hyped-up Radium and somnolent Lead, is unforgettable, and the animated chain reaction manages to avoid any suggestion of nuclear fear.

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