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The Atomic Kid played constantly on late-night TV in the '50s and '60s, but it's one of those pictures that somehow eluded this reviewer until the arrival of Olive Films' beautiful new Blu-ray. It never earned kind reviews from general critics and the Sci-Fi specialists haven't had much to say about it either. The last reliable word I received about it was from fifth graders in my elementary school in San Bernardino. They loved it, but their idea of great screen comedy was The Three Stooges Meet Hercules.
The Atomic Kid ought to have plenty of potential for crazy laughs. Even in 1954 the kind of anxiety generated by the atom bomb was ripe for comedic treatment. If they were naming mixed drinks and bathing suits with the bomb in mind, somebody had a sense of humor on the subject. The film was produced by its star Mickey Rooney, who was then in the middle of a decade-long effort to reinvent his screen persona. Rooney is of course a brilliant performer, and had just been fairly brilliant playing second banana to Bob Hope in Off Limits. Rooney's second banana here is Robert Strauss, an inimitable ham who had made a big impression in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17. He also played opposite Rooney as a funny/serious light comedy relief team for the very sober, big budget James Michener war film The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which ended up being released almost concurrently. What could go wrong?
The story is a silly farce that has trouble establishing any particular comic tone. Uranium prospectors Stan Cooper and Barnaby "Blix" Waterberry (Robert Strauss & Mickey Rooney) are stranded in the desert when they come across what their Geiger counter reports is a mother lode of radioactive ore. They find a house occupied only by numbered mannequins; Stan leaves Blix to guard their claim while he drives into town. Blix is really at ground zero in an atom test, of course, and the soldiers and scientists witnessing the explosion must hold Stan back as the bomb detonates. To everyone's shock, Blix survives. Assisted by the Army and the F.B.I., doctors Rodell and Pangborn (Bill Goodwin & Whit Bissell) take Blix to a hospital at a secret Atomic City in Nevada and repeatedly dunk him in heavy water to "extract the radioactivity". Blix falls in love with his nurse, Audrey Nelson (Elaine Devry 1) The doctors study Blix's inexplicable imperviousness to atom radiation while trying to rid him of odd side effects -- like glowing in the dark. Any foreign power that can kidnap Blix, might be able to develop a 'vaccine' against the effects of atomic attack! Stan is eager to cash in on Blix's notoriety in any way he can. An 'interesting' businessman wants Stan to gather up all the information he can about his friend's condition, the technology around him etc. -- he even gives Stan a hidden camera to sneak some good photos past the F.B.I. agents.
Don't let the presence of Blake Edwards' name in the writing credits give you ideas -- The Atomic Kid is occasionally amusing but almost completely laugh-free. It's as if the filmmakers felt that the basic concept and the presence of funny men would do the job on their own. There really aren't any particularly witty lines, no clever satire, no goofy character touches and not even much in the way of slapstick. Most of the atom-age material is played straight, so the humor around the countdown to doom for Rooney's Blix Waterberry mostly falls flat -- the picture passes up anything resembling an opportunity for a belly laugh, even a nervous one.
Rooney and Strauss work well enough together and there's every indication that they could make a good Mutt & Jeff screen team. But their characters need to be more individualized. Both are dimwitted nice guys, with the exception that Strauss's Stan turns out to be a more than sharp enough to outsmart those pesky Commie agents. Rooney works overtime filling potholes in the under-scripted scenes with extra bits of business and repetitive nervous dialogue. Director Leslie Martinson isn't much help. He came from and went back to TV, mostly staying there. The only other comedy title that jumps out from his filmography is 1966's big-screen Batman adaptation, which is pretty much a bust in the direction department. Martinson's work in The Atomic Kid looks like generic Republic Pictures' style-challenged coverage, with no stress on anything. The best part of the picture is the opening couple of reels in the desert, mixing stock footage with fairly well staged new scenes. Blix is eating a peanut butter sandwich when the bomb goes off, so there's some speculation about what brand of peanut butter might provide a secret immunity to a nuclear blast. Like most everything else we see, that joke thread never finds a payoff punch line. But I know what more than a few modern viewers will be thinking when Blix yanks open the refrigerator in the bomb test house -- we almost expect him to find Harrison Ford hiding inside.
Was Mickey Rooney the first unlucky sap to get caught in a cinematic nuclear blast? In the Sci-fi opuses (opi?) that followed, Glenn Langan grows to an amazing, colossal size, Robert Clarke becomes a scaly lizard man and Ron Randell turns to steel. Nothing much at all happens to Blix. He glows only in one scene. He wears a wrist-gauge that tells him when his radioactivity gets too high -- the high mark on the dial helpfully reads, "Explode". When Blix is aroused by kissing Audrey, his radioactivity peaks, which unfortunately convinces her to stop making out with him. The movie makes an attempt to be charming when Blix'es watchful medicos and G-men take pity on his isolation, and arrange to help him escape from the special clinic in The Atomic City for a night on the town with Audrey. At a casino, Blix discovers that he has another inexplicable new super-power: any slot machine he stands next to hits a jackpot, spilling silver dollars over the floor. I'm sure some wiseacre film critic can make the case that that talent is a Tex Avery-like redirection of Blix'es sexual energy.
Savant usually pounces on any '50s film, sci-fi, or not, that pushes pro-nuke "soft" propaganda in support of our government's nuclear energy/nuclear weapons programs. In this film the theme just sits there; I suppose a paranoid might think that the trivializing of the effects of radiation is an attempt to deceive the public. 2 Stan morphs from dopey inadvertent traitor to true-blue defender of both the flag and his buddy's safety. As for Blix, he becomes a hero helping the F.B.I. capture the 'Mister Big' Commie rat, Comrade Mosely (Peter Brocco). Although it's very brief, the final action scene might just have the best "falling dummy" shot in film history. Did the Lydecker brothers have something to do with this? Blix tumbles out of a window, dive-bombing the bad guy on his way down. He lands hard on the concrete sidewalk, right on his head. No rubbery arms and legs on this dummy -- it looks so convincing that I had to play it several times to convince myself that it couldn't be a stunt man.
Also present and doing their best are Hal March as a chatty F.B.I. agent and the late Robert Nichols in just a few cuts as a technician operating robot hands to dunk Blix in the heavy water bath. Nichols is the original guy with the electric blanket in The Thing From Another World and Rex Reason's likeable sidekick in This Island Earth. Added note ... Robert Strauss's last film appearance was in an independent art film, The Noah. In it, he plays the lone survivor of an atomic holocaust. But the two movies do not add up to a statement about Man and the Atom.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Atomic Kid is a great-looking disc. Maybe all of those thousands of TV airings were made from the same ten battered 16mm prints, because the elements used for this HD encoding are in fine shape...
... with just two qualifiers. For perhaps an entire reel, the music track has a noticeable warble problem, as if a magnetic film reproducer had a loose capstan. We notice it several times in the middle of the film. Secondly, Olive Films has been in general been very good about transferring pictures at their original aspect ratio. This transfer is flat 1:33 /1:37, but the reliable authority Bob Furmanek reports that it should have been in 1:66 widescreen:
"Republic began composing for widescreen in May of 1953 and made their official announcement on August 8, 1953. The Atomic Kid began filming on June 14, 1954. It should be 1.66."
I agree, as the main titles for The Atomic Kid are composed for a widescreen crop favoring the top part of the frame. There's always a lot of dead area at the bottom of the image, excepting perhaps two or three shots of mushroom clouds taken from government stock footage. Would Mickey Rooney and Robert Strauss suddenly become several times funnier, properly matted widescreen? I dunno ... that pressing research problem is one for a film student in search of a thesis subject!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Atomic Kid Blu-ray rates:
1. Pictured above with her new husband, the gorgeous, amiable Elaine Devry was Mickey's fourth wife. In the movie she's billed as "Elaine Davis - Mrs. Mickey Rooney". She kept Davis as her stage name for about five years before reverting back to Devry. Fans of glamorous actresses will find Ms. Devry in several sexy scenes, wearing even sexier outfits, in Gene Kelly's The Guide for the Married Man.
2. Yep, plenty of American movies around this time pushed hawkish, sometimes ultra-conservative and xenophobic themes about the nefarious activities of our Cold War competitors. Not that it's any defense, but the Russians were pushing hard from the other direction with far more pernicious anti-Yankee propaganda, especially at international film festivals and markets. I still want to see Serebrystaya Pyl (Silver Dust), a Stalin-era 1953 propaganda film set in a decadent, military-mad U.S.A. It reportedly shows American agents pressuring a scientist to finish a nasty radioactive poison-invention. Union workers are persecuted and black servants are subjected to racist violence. How can this incredibly un-biased, in-prejudiced reviewer say, "sounds accurate to me" without seeing the Red propaganda film first?
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