Blissfully unaware of its own extreme tastelessness, The Atomic Kid (1954) has a beguiling kind of naïve charm. A sci-fi comedy about a dumb schlub (Mickey Rooney) who miraculously survives an atomic bomb test at point-blank range, The Atomic Kid isn't exactly good and in fact much of it is mediocre, pointless, and meandering, but as a genuinely oddball relic of the Cold War it's quite mesmerizing. And, in its defense, some of the broad slapstick and intended satire isn't bad (if more frenetic than funny, like Rooney himself), particularly in early scenes that team the diminutive, hyperactive actor with hulking, sloth-like Robert Strauss (Stalag 17).
I hadn't seen the film since I was a child, when for no clear reason I stayed up to catch a 4:35 am showing on a local UHF station. Olive Films' high-def video transfer is full frame even though The Atomic Kid very clearly was shot for cropped widescreen, but otherwise the image quality of this black-and-white independent production for Republic Pictures is fantastic.
Barnaby "Blix" Waterberry (Rooney) and Stan Cooper (Strauss), hoping to locate uranium and strike it rich, have been lost in the Nevada desert for several days. A ticking Geiger counter leads them to what appears to be an aircraft warning beacon but which actually contains the most powerful atomic bomb to date, though scientists Drs. Rodell (Bill Goodwin) and Pangborn (Whit Bissell) ironically note that it's already obsolete, that an even more destructive nuclear device (the H-Bomb) is in the works.
Blix and Stan find a tract house a stone's throw away, and are puzzled to find posed mannequins inside. Stan, still convinced they've stumbled upon a rich vein of uranium, borrows an automobile parked in the driveway, leaving Blix to guard their "claim." Stan learns its real purpose too late: the bomb is detonated, and Blix is presumed dead. However, soldiers arriving at the scene (none wearing protective gear) are shocked to find Stan dazed and his clothes tattered, but otherwise remarkably untouched by the point-blank detonation. (In fact, at that range Blix and the entire house would have been instantly vaporized.) "We'd better get a picture of [him] before he disintegrates," says Pangborn.
Blix is whisked to a military hospital guarded by FBI agents, where doctors try to determine how he could have survived, and if such extreme exposure to radiation has had any lingering effects. (Ya think?) Blix gamely plays along, lifted by robot arms into a tub of "heavy water," and he flirts with Nurse Audrey Nelson (Elaine Devry, billed in the credits as "Elaine Davis - Mrs. Mickey Rooney," the fourth of his eight wives). He's also given a wristwatch-type device to monitor his radiation poisoning. Its face has but three readings: Normal - Danger - Explosion.
Elsewhere, and disappointingly disconnected from the main story, Stan cashes in on Blix's misfortune by selling all rights to a mysterious Mr. Reynolds (Robert Emmett Keane), who accidentally refers to Stan as "comrade" in one scene tipping off the audience his real interests in Blix.
(Strauss, incidentally, himself played a character exposed to radiation from a nuclear blasts in a very peculiar movie, his last, called The Noah. Not a lot of laughs in that one.)
Mickey Rooney had been the Number One box office star of the late 1930s and early '40s, but after two years of wartime service during 1944-45 his career hit a prolonged slump. The Atomic Kid was a Mickey Rooney Production based on a story idea by Blake Edwards, with whom Rooney also created the now forgotten sitcom Hey, Mulligan, which ran for just one season.
The Atomic Kid casts the 34-year-old in the same mold as his earlier MGM glories: the excitable, hyperactive force of nature that in movies like these he unsubtly sells gags by overreacting to everything. Paired with Robert Strauss, The Atomic Kid almost works as a kind of faux comedy team comedy, but the script makes the mistake of separating them for most of the last two-thirds of the picture.
The indescribably horrific effects of nuclear blasts on human victims weren't as widely known or understood by the general public in 1954 as today, but lest it get in the way of this supposed laff-fest, The Atomic Kid all but pretends Hiroshima and Nagasaki never happened. "Let's hope," says one blast observer, "that real people will never be so close to an atomic explosion." It's hard to imagine The Atomic Kid going over big in Japan.
Like many other films of this era, nuclear weapons are little more than colossal firecrackers while the radiation exposure is treated almost like fairy dust, capable of producing almost magical effects, and nothing a good scrubbing can't wash away. Blix's head glows in one sequence, and after escaping his hospital bed for a night out in Las Vegas, he discovers that that his radiated status triggers jackpots in all the casinos' slot machines, but that roulette wheels are "radiation-proof." These scenes play like a lame comedy-styled episode of Twilight Zone. Even in fantasy terms with radiation functioning more like magic, capable of the gall-darndest things, The Atomic Kid could have used it more imaginatively than this.
And yet The Atomic Kid is uniquely appalling and fascinating at once. The good use of stock footage from real atomic tests add a verisimilitude that makes Blix and Stan's accidental wandering onto the test sight while the clock ticks down to zero excruciating to watch. The big joke at the end has Blix and Nurse Audrey wandering on yet another nuclear test sight minutes before an H-Bomb test. That the horror of their discovery is intended to elicit laughs is indescribable. And yet throughout the film atomic bombs and radiation poisoning is regarded as a kind of as-yet untapped comedy goldmine of hilarity. Take note of the poster above.
Video & Audio
On one hand, The Atomic Kid looks great. The black-and-white image is super-sharp with excellent PQ quality throughout save for a slightly warped Republic Pictures logo. But the movie was filmed in the summer of 1954 and premiered that December and all available evidence (including the framing and credit blocks) suggest it was shot for 1.66:1 cropped widescreen and not the full-frame presentation given here. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise problematic. Around the 42-minute mark the sound gets wobbly through to the end of the film, but this is only really noticeable when the background music heats up. No Extra Features.
Not for everyone, but for Mickey Rooney fans and those fascinated like I am with Cold War science fiction (and Cold War science fiction comedies), The Atomic Kid is a mesmerizing relic of its era. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.