Cinema History from the Cold War!

Rescue Street


Federal Civil Defense Administration
R.E.O. Motor Company

"This film, using the National Civil Defense Training Center at Olney, Maryland as its setting, shows a typical student receiving instruction in Civil Defense rescue techniques and how a rescue truck is employed in Civil Defense operations." (1)  While this description of Rescue Street, taken from a government promotional catalog, accurately explains the film's content, it leaves out the most entertaining aspect.  The plot stems from a petty feud between between the film's narrator, who is also a trained civil defense rescue volunteer, and his neighbor Charlie Hopkins.  Both men live in the Detroit suburbs, are middle-aged and middle-class and are always trying to outdo one another to gain the admiration of the neighborhood.  When the narrator buys a new mower, for example, he teases Charlie who shows up the next day pushing the most expensive mower on the market.  The competition reaches a boiling point when Charlie parades down the street in a brand new car.  Unable to stand the attention heaped upon Charlie, the narrator retrieves the "Calamity Jane" rescue truck from his local civil defense headquarters, parks it next to Charlie's car, and proceeds to demonstrate the equipment inside of it.  Once he has the neighborhood's attention, he invites everyone to view photos of his trip to Olney.

                   

Rescue Street was released by the Federal Civil Defense Administration in January of 1954, with financial backing provided by R.E.O. Motor Company of Lansing, Michigan. (2)  Founded in 1907 by Ransom E. Olds, of Oldsmobile fame, the company began manufacturing a line of all-terrain trucks designed to carry rescue equipment in 1953. (3)  Nick-named "Calamity Janes", these specialized vehicles were sold to civil defense units across the United States.  Likely at the insistence of R.E.O., the trucks are heavily promoted throughout the film.  In the narrator's living room, he shows photos of his training at Olney, Maryland.  Built to simulate a city struck by an atom bomb, Olney was home to America's premiere training center for volunteer rescue squads.  In addition to classroom instruction and theory, trainees also conducted exercises to rescue live casualties from demolished buildings.  The narrator describes his masculine exploits which include knot-tying, excavation and rappelling.  Interestingly, the notion of using helicopters for rescue is briefly mentioned but the narrator concedes this would be cost-prohibitive for most areas.  Instead, the Calamity Jane is subtly presented as the better and more cost-effective option.  Several action scenes depict the truck easily traversing the shattered urban landscape of Olney.  The creation of the Olney training center is detailed in the 1952 F.CD.A. film School for Survival, which also highlights the trainee coursework and the unique engineering which allowed for the simulated rescue of live casualties.

                    

When the slideshow finishes, the neighbors discuss the importance of civil defense.  The mood of the film turns somber as they contemplate the frightening possibility of a hydrogen bomb destroying a city.  It is noted as this point that no one, not even Charlies Hopkins, is in the mood for another round of drinks.  The narrator reassures his friends, and the viewing audience, that Americans have never backed down from a fight and will rise to meet the challenge of civil defense if necessary.  As a patriotic score begins to play softly in the background, he looks out on his neighborhood and town and expresses a pride in the American way of life.  Although the need for trained rescue squads to enter a bombed city or respond to less devastating peacetime disasters never ceased, Rescue Street would not enjoy favorable longevity.  As the decade progressed, civil defense planning and resources began to focus almost exclusively on the threat of radioactive fallout, a problem which is not addressed in Rescue Street.  Likely for this reason, the film was declared obsolete by the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization (the successor agency to the F.C.D.A.) in 1959.  Citing changing protection strategies, officials within the O.C.D.M. claimed the film's advice was no longer valid and ordered a recall of all government copies of Rescue Street.  Owners of private prints of the film were encouraged to cease screenings.

Rescue Street may be viewed, in its entirety, HERE.

Sources
1. Federal Civil Defense Administration.  Civil Defense Films Available to Television Stations Without Charge.  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1954.  2.
2.
Federal Civil Defense Administration.  1957 Annual Statistical Report. United States Government Printing Office, 1957. 124
3. R.E.O. Motor Company.  Chronology of Events. 3.
4. Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.  Motion Pictures on Civil Defense.  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1959.  15.