The Atomic Kid

Rating: 2 out of 10.

US scientists, Soviet spies and peanut butter brands want to know how Mickey Rooney survived a nuclear explosion in this 1954 comedy from Republic. Rooney puts on his best radioactive glow in order to compensate for a messy and dull script. 2/10

The Atomic Kid 1954, USA. Directed by Leslie Martinson. Written by Benedict Freedman, John Fenton Murray, Blake Edwards. Starring: Mickey Rooney, Robert Strauss, Elaine Devry. Produced by Mickey Rooney & Maurice Duke. IMDb: 5.2/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Released for Christmas audiences in the US in 1954, The Atomic Kid is our second-to-last review of SF movies from 1954. The film is perhaps best known to genre fans as the one shown on a movie theatre marquee in the background when Marty McFly leaves 1955 in his DeLorean in Back to the Future (1985). Back in the day, it was released as a B movie riding on the significantly lessened draw of once superstar comedian Mickey Rooney.

The film opens with two amateur uranium prospectors, Barnaby “Blix” Waterberry (Mickey Rooney) and Stan Cooper (Robert Strauss) lost in the Nevada desert looking for uranium deposits. Unbeknownst to them, they have wandered onto a nuclear bomb test site. On the brink of exhaustion and starvation, they discover a house, which is in fact built by the government to test the effects of the bomb. Seeing mannequin dummies inside, the two nitwits figure it is a model house for sale. Stan, getting a positive result on his Geiger counter, believes the house is built next to a uranium field, and takes the car parked outside, intent on finding the sellers. He is instead picked up by the army and informed that his friend is 10 seconds away from being blown to bits. Blix, hungry, remains behind, finds a pantry and makes himself a peanut butter sandwich. Seconds before the explosion, he realises what’s actually going on and hides in the pantry. When the military arrives to pick up his remains, they find that Blix has miraculously survived the blast, peanut butter sandwich still in hand, but has become highly radioactive, “speeding up his neurons”. This, then, becomes the running gag of the film.

Mickey Rooney and his magical sandwich.

Blix is brought to the hospital under strict surveillance by the FBI, who are running tests on him, trying to figure out how he has been able to survive a nuclear blast in close proximity to the bomb. Meanwhile, buffoonish Stan is trying to cash in on Blix’s worldwide fame through product endorsements, in particular peanut butter companies who want to prove that it was their peanut butter that saved Blix from being fried to a crisp. One of the “businessmen” approaching him turns out to be a communist spy (Peter Brocco) trying to steal the secret of Blix’s remarkable survival, and the climax of the film sees Blix and Stan unmasking the Soviet spy plot. In a parallel plot, Blix is soon deemed healthy, with the minor inconvenience of him being highly radioactive. This is presented as no danger to anyone in his proximity, or even to himself, with the exception that the level of radioactivity rises when he gets excited, which causes lights to flicker and fireplaces to spontaneously light up, as well as himself glowing the dark. That’s why he is given a Geiger counter wristwatch. Happily oblivious to the commie plot, Blix spends much of the film trying to shake his FBI protection in order to romance his pretty nurse Audry (Elaine Devry). SF notables among the cast also include staple egghead Whit Bissell and legendary extra Franklyn Farnum.

Elaine Devry and Mickey Rooney.

A younger audience will be forgiven for not knowing Mickey Rooney, but back in the late thirties he was literally Hollywood’s biggest star, being the top box office draw for three years in a row, primarily because of his hugely popular Andy Hardy comedies. Born in 1920, Rooney was a minor star in the silent era as a kid actor, on the strength of around two dozen Mickey McGuire shorts. As opposed to most kid stars, however, Rooney’s career skyrocketed when he hit his teens, and created his famous wide-eyed, muggy, hyperactive on-screen character. As the naive and well-meaning, yet prank-prone upper-middle-class kid Andy Hardy trying to navigate teenage life and love in the big city, Rooney became a sensation. But his movie career came to an abrupt halt in early 1944, when he was drafted to the military and spent two years entertaining the troops. When he returned to Hollywood in 1944, he tried to pick up where he left off, with yet another Andy Hardy film, but the world had moved on. Where the goody-two-shoes, apple-pie world of sweet Andy Hardy was just what the doctor ordered during the restless war years, audiences after the war had trouble accepting that same innocent fantasy, having learned of the Nazi atrocities, lived through the loss of countless sons, brothers and fathers, and now living in uncertainty of the new global threat, the nuclear bomb. While it made a decent profit at the box office and had likewise decent reviews, the film wasn’t the success MGM had hoped, and one can also imagine its star Mickey Rooney, now 26, was ready to leave the juvenile capers of Andy Hardy behind, sort of.

Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy with Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Ann Rutherford in a PR pic for Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938).

Rooney tried to reinvent himself as a serious actor, starring in sports movies and particularly gangster noirs — exclusively B vehicles. While not wholly unsuccessful as B programmers, their commercial successes were a far cry from Rooney’s heyday, and come the mid-fifties, the former superstar was struggling to get roles, and trying desperately to get his career back on track, in any genre. That’s the context of The Atomic Kid. The Atomic Kid was based on a story by Blake Edwards — yes, that Blake Edwards. But the actual script was written by Benedict Freedman and John Fenton Murray, two hack writers with considerably thinner portfolios than Mr. Edwards’. Like director Leslie Martinson, they spent most of their career doing rather anonymous work in TV.

The atom bomb and nuclear power were on everyone’s lips in 1954. Shocked by the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the American public were at once terrified of the prospect of a nuclear bombing of the United States, and deeply sceptical of nuclear power’s safety as the future backbone of American domestic energy production. On the other hand, as average people had little understanding of how nuclear power worked, and the research into its peaceful use was still in its infancy, this miracle invention held an almost magical promise as a universal fix-all. From powering airplanes, cargo ships and space rockets, to supplying manufacturing industries with cheap energy, ushering in a new age in radioactive medicine and providing the explosives for excavations, demolitions and canal building, nuclear power was going to bring on a brighter future for America and mankind, said many government enthusiasts. In the end of 1953, exactly a year before the premiere of The Atomic Kid, US President Dwight. D. Eisenhower gave his famous speech “Atoms for Peace”, and in 1954, with a radioactive rod, he gave the signal to start building USA:s first commercial nuclear plant. With all this commotion around the power of the atom, the topic was rife for satire.

Mr. and Mrs Mickey Rooney.

Unfortunately neither Blake Edwards nor the above mentioned screenwriters were at their best at social satire, and The Atomic Kid misses its mark in the writing department. It’s like the writing duo wasn’t quite sure of the tone of the film or which direction to take it in, so they sort of grabbed a little bit of everything and stuck it together. The first ten minutes of Stan and Blix finding the model house are perhaps the best of the film, with Rooney and Strauss playing off each other like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. Unfortunately, the duo is then separated for most of the movie, both exploring their separate plots. The most promising subplot is probably the one in which different manufacturers of peanut butter are trying to take credit for their product’s power to save you from a nuclear blast, despite the fact that Blix can’t remember which brand he ate. But the theme is only momentarily prodded, and nothing is really made of it. The idea of a radioactive man loose in the city is another one that could have made for great comedy, but by making Blix’s radioactivity completely harmless, the screenwriters defuse any drama this angle could have provided. And while Rooney and Elaine Devry (at the time Mrs. Mickey Rooney) don’t lack chemistry, the romantic subplot feels tacked-on, as does the spy twist at the ending, which seems to be there only to give the film a patriotic boost at the end. There’s also sort of an idea that Stan is taking advantage of Blix’s situation for his own gain, but the script fails to develop this idea as well, and the two remain friends throughout the proceedings.

Robert Strauss and Mickey Rooney.

Of course, in a goofball comedy science isn’t required as a top priority, but in this case the whole premise is built on a scientific mystery, and, sadly, the film fails even to provide any sort of answer or conclusion to the central question: How did Blix survive the nuclear blast? We are no wiser in the end than in the beginning, which is certainly an egregious writing mistake. The side effects of Blix’s radioactivity are also completely random. When he first crawls out of the building, he talks at double speed, like Chip ‘n’ Dale, and the explanation is that his neurons are sped up. But later, there’s no sign of Blix doing anything faster. Instead, the radioactivity somehow makes him win at the slot machines. We are told that when he is excited, his quickened metabolism increases his radioactivity, but despite the fact that he glows in the dark and makes lamps flicker, he seems to pose no threat to the people around him. In fact, his radioactivity doesn’t really play into the plot of the film at all. It’s just sort of a gimmick. Because there’s so many plot threads, none of which are thoroughly explored, nothing is really at stake in this film, making it increasingly dull to watch. Rooney seems to realise the problems with the writing, and compensates with wild mugging. The direction is solid, and the Leslie Martinson gets up a high level of excitement in the beginning, aided by editor Fred Allen, in juxtaposing Blix’s hunt for food in the model house with the army’s build-up to the blast, and the frantic energy when they realise that someone is stuck at the blast site and try to stave off the explosion. But it feels as if the director’s energy levels sink at the same rate as the script drives itself into the ground. It’s also a somewhat odd thing that the horrific effects of a nuclear bomb is treated as a harmless gag. As Stuart Galbraith IV writes at DVD Talk, the film acts as if Hiroshima and Nagasaki had 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.” (In fact, it was never released in Japan.)

Mickey Rooney with a dummy in the model house.

The Atomic Kid opened to lukewarm reviews. The New York Times wrote: “Five minutes or so are genuinely funny, the rest is a fair, misguided try. […] the film remains a shrill, if light-weight, business, echoing one simple gag and begging chuckles through incessant double takes.” Variety called it a “weak Mickey Rooney comedy”, and noted that “most adult patrons will be bored”. The movie has an OK 5.2/10 rating at IMDb and not enough entries for a Rotten Tomatoes consensus. TV Guide calls it “a none-too-funny nuclear comedy”, and AllMovie gives it 1/5 stars, with Craig Butler writing: “It’s amazing that movies as bad as The Atomic Kid ever get made […] The Atomic Kid is simply an embarrassment.”

Everyone does not hate The Atomic Kid. Stuart Galbraith IV does not love it, but writes that it has “a beguiling kind of naïve charm”, and “is uniquely appalling and fascinating at once”. But all are not as quick to forgive the film’s shortcomings. Jeffrey Kauffman at Blu-ray.com gives it 1.5/5 stars, writing: “most of The Atomic Kid is as flat as a test house after a nuclear explosion”. Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant is a tad more nuanced: “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.” Richard Scheib at Moria also gives the movie 1.5/5 stars: “The Atomic Kid not a particularly good film – after getting started, the story is at a loss what to do with its premise and runs around vague subplots involving Russian spies and foxy love interests and various slapstick pratfoolery with Mickey Rooney glowing in the dark and causing explosions with his sneezes.” Neither is film historian Bill Warren impressed. In his book Keep Watching the Skies, he writes: “There’s no satire, atomic bombs are shown to be very funny things, and radiation wears off like bad paint. What laughs there are in the film are due to Rooney’s professional mugging, but those laughs are few and far between.”

Robert Strauss and Mickey Rooney.

I don’t think i can add much to the above statements. I wasn’t as offended as some the critics above by the idea of making fun at nuclear bombs, I think everything can be joked about if it is done right. Which it obviously isn’t in The Atomic Kid. The main problem with the film isn’t its topic, but the fact that it’s so poorly probed. The Atomic Kid fails as a satire, as a buddy comedy and as slapstick. The romance angle as well as the spy angle are poorly tacked-on and don’t really work as MacGuffins since the audience isn’t invested in them. The film is occasionally amusing and at least not painfully dull to watch, and Rooney has his moments, but that’s the highest praise I can give it.

Mickey Rooney, although he never again reached his former career heights, soldiered on. Along with friend Blake Edwards they tried to relaunch him as a TV star with The Mickey Rooney Show in 1954, but the show only lasted one season. Rooney continued to take lead roles in B movies, but it was his supporting work that put him back on the map. In particular, it was his highly contested portrayal of Mr. Yumiyoshi in Blake Edwards’ classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) — a bucktoothed yellowface character with coke-bottle glasses, which was comedy gold to many, but even back in the day raised some eyebrows both with critics and civil rights groups. Even at the end of his career, Rooney showed the clip on his roadshows, and never really admitted he had done anything wrong in playing to such broad racist stereotypes. Blake Edwards, of course, continued his Asian stereotyping with Kato (although played by an American Asian actor) in the Pink Panther series, and still in 1968’s The Party had Peter Sellers play an Indian character in blackface (Sellers, of course, has his own highly problematic history with yellow- and blackface). Rooney’s appearance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was one of a handful of high-profile supporting roles — others included the star-studded car chase comedy It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) and The Black Stallion (1979), which brought his fourth Oscar nomination. And while he had trouble getting his own show running, despite several attempts, he kept entertaining both as recurring character, main character and guest character on numerous TV shows, earning him several Emmy nominations and a win for the TV movie Bill (1981).

Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

Between TV gigs and the occasional A-grade supporting role, Rooney kept starring in cheap and sometimes bizarre low-budget films, TV movies and some straight-to-video pictures, and also lent his voice to animated features. Among his later output one can find truly bizarre things like The Manipulator (1971), The Godmothers (1973), Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991), La vida láctea (1993), Sinbad: The Battle of the Dark Knights (1998), The Thirsting (2007) and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (2017). In 1979 Rooney was invited to headline a newly written Broadway revue paying homage to the days of burlesque and vaudeville called Sugar Babies. The show became a hit and was nominated for eight Tonys, including a best lead actor nomination for Rooney, and ran for three years with over 1,200 performances. This led to further stage work, which he kept doing as long as his health allowed, until the late nineties. In 1995 Rooney guest starred as himself in The Simpsons episode Radioactive Man. However, the episode contained no references to The Atomic Kid, but was based on the sixties Batman series. Ironically, The Atomic Kid’s director Leslie Martinson directed the 1966 movie spinoff Batman: The Movie, as well as a couple of episodes for the series.

Elaine Devry, Robert Strauss and Joey Forman.

Beefy, burly, gravelly-voiced Robert Strauss conversely came up from Broadway to the movies. In 1952 he made a splash in the Broadway POW comedy Stalag 17, and was subsequently asked to reprise his role in the 1953 movie starring William Holden and Otto Preminger. The role led to an Oscar nomination for Strauss, and he became a staple supporting actor in fifties movies, including The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and The Seven Year Itch (1955). However, The Atomic Kid was one of his few starring roles. Like many fifties comedic actors, Strauss became a popular guest star on TV shows in the late fifties and sixties, while his film career dwindled. In the early seventies he became incapacitated due to electroshock therapy to combat depression. One of his final films, The Noah, was shot in 1968, but not released before 1975, two months after Strauss’ death. While not a commercial success, it is a magnificent acting tour de force by Strauss. The experimental post-apocalyptic movie showcases him as the only survivor of a nuclear holocaust, creating for himself a fantasy world inhabited by a mate and former brothers-in-arms. The final film he appeared in was the Swedish-American softcore sex comedy Dagmar’s Hot Pants (1971). His only SF movie beside The Atomic Kid and The Noah was 4D Man (1959).

Elaine Devry in The Boy Who Cried Werewolf.

Elaine Devry, a 22-year-old model, was fresh off a divorce from her high school sweetheart in 1952 when she met and married Mickey Rooney, who helped get her into acting. As he co-produced The Atomic Kid, he was able to secure her a leading role in her second-ever film (billed as Elaine Davis). With this in mind, Devry pulls her weight admirably in the picture. She appeared in a few films and TV episodes in the fifties, and divorced Rooney in 1958. Presumably now in need of income, she started appearing regularly as a guest star in numerous TV shows in the sixties, and had supporting roles in a dozen films between 1961 and 1975. Best known are probably her appearances in the Vincent Price vehicle Diary of a Madman (1963), the Doris Day picture With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), the Jimmy Stewart/Henry Fonda western comedy The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) and Herbie Rides Again (1974). Her largest role was as the mother of the titular boy in the low-budget horror movie The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973). She appeared in two episodes (different roles) in the TV show Project U.F.O. in 1978, and then dropped out of acting, until making a couple of low-key appearances in film and TV in the nineties. As of August 2021, Devry is still with us at 91 years of age, last known to live on a ranch in Oregon.

Whit Bissell (right) in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1966).

One of the lead scientists treating Blix in The Atomic Kid is played by character actor legend and SF staple Whit Bissell, known to friends fifties horror and SF films as the eternal straight-laced, often mild-mannered and competent scientist, physician, government official or military man. He is best known to a wider audience for one of his rare villainous roles, that of the evil scientists who turns future Charles Ingalls, Michael Landon, into a werewolf in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). But his SF credit sheet is a mile long, and memorable performances include Dr. Thompson in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review), a small but crucial role as the doctor in the framing story of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), a likewise small but important role as one of the time traveller’s sceptical friends in George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960) and his portrayal of the evil Governor Santini in Soylent Green (1973). He also appeared in a small role in Lost Continent (1951, review), played a military scientist in Target Earth (1954, review), reprised his villain in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), appeared in Jack Arnold’s Monster on the Campus (1958), played Dr. Holmes in Irvin Allen’s TV movie City Beneath the Sea and reprised his role in a TV remake of The Time Machine (1978). Bissell was also a familiar face in science fiction TV from the fifties onward, appearing in many anthology shows, such as Out There and Science Fiction Theatre. His most prominent SF role was that of Lt. Gen. Heywood Kirk, one of the main characters of the TV series The Time Tunnel (1966-1967). Other memorable SF moments on TV for Bissell are the 1959 Christmas episode of Men into Space, the injured navy captain at the heart of the One Step Beyond episode Brainwave (1959), as small role as commanding officer in The Outer Limits episode Nightmare (1963), guest starring a young Martin Sheen, Mr. Lurry, the station Manager of the space station involved in the legendary Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles (1967), and as one of the scientists studying the captured Hulk in The Incredible Hulk episode Prometheus: Part II (1980).

Born Whitnell Nutting Bissell in 1909 in New York, he was the son of a surgeon and took to acting during his university studies in North Carolina , where he majored in drama and English, training with the Carolina Playmakers. He then moved to New York, where he had a short stint at Broadway, including the smash hit Winged Victory while he was drafted to the US Air Force. He made his screen debut in 1943. While never a marquee name, his reliability and versatility offered him a constant flow of work in Hollywood over four decades. He appeared in over 200 films and scores of TV shows. Bissell served for many years on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild, and represented the actors’ branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board of governors. The only reward he ever received for his long and distinguished career was a life career award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. He passed away in 1996.

Stanley Adams (right) as Cyrano Jones in Star Trek (1967).

And speaking of Tribbles, Stanley Adams, in a minor role in The Atomic Kid, was actually the instigator of the whole Tribble problem in afore-mentioned Star Trek episode, as Cyrano Jones, the salesman selling the furry beasts to the Enterprise crew. He reprised the role in the animated Star Trek series in 1973, and actually has a writing credit for one Star Trek episode in 1969. He had a recurring role as Captain Courageous in the Batman TV series and appeared in a prominent role in the SF movie The Clones (1973).

Peter Brocco, playing the communist spy in The Atomic Kid, was right in his element, as he was often cast as minor villains in TV during his long Hollywood career, which spanned six decades. Among his most distinguished roles are that of Ramon, a supporting character in Spartacus (1960) and Col. Matterson, a wheelchair-bound patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Brocco appeared in large supporting roles in The Whip Hand (1950, review), as well as in the comedy Jekyll and Hyde… Together Again (1982). He also played Mr. Mute in the “Kick the Can” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). He had bit-parts in Invaders from Mars (1953, review), Tobor the Great (1954, review) and The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962). He can also be seen briefly in yellowface as Doctor Wu in Our Man Flint (1966). In the fifties he played a villain thrice on the TV series Adventures of Superman, having the distinction of being killed off twice, which rarely happened in the show. He also played villain twice on Captain Midnight and had a recurring role as Dr. Varney on Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe in the fifties. He also appeared in a number of other SF shows, including Star Trek. In the episode Errand of Mercy (1967) Brocco plays Claymare, a prominent member of the Council of Elders at the mysterious planet Organia, in the end revealing himself to be a member of an ancient, incorporeal race. Brocco was blacklisted for a period during McCarthyism, but supplemented his income through his ceramics studio. His blacklisting may be the reason that he goes uncredited in The Atomic Kid, despite his prominent role. He passed away in 1992.

Peter Brocco in another movie.

Another actor of some interest are Joey Forman, playing an MP, who is perhaps best known for portraying Agent 13 in the TV series Get Smart and the tie-in film The Nude Bomb (1980).

Director Leslie Martinson started his career at the mail room of MGM, and worked himself up to script supervisor and assistant director. Realising he was going to struggle with becoming a film director in his own right, he jumped ship to TV when the chance was given in the early fifties, beginning, as most TV directors at the time, with western shows. The Atomic Kid was his feature debut, and he directed a good two dozen films during his career, few of which are remembered today, apart from Batman: The Movie. Other films worthy at least of mention are PT 109, perhaps his film, a pseudo-biographical picture about John F. Kennedy’s experiences wartime experiences in the South Pacific (1963), Fathom (1967), a sort of female James Bond movie starring Raquel Welch and Missile X: The Neutron Bomb Incident (1979), a German-Italian-American co-production set in Iran, starring Peter Graves, Curd Jürgens and John Carradine. His SF involvement came primarily from TV, where he directed a few episodes of Batman, The Green Hornet, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman and others. His longest involvement with an SF show was directed around 25 episodes of the family show Small Wonder in the eighties. Martinson passed away in 2016, over 100 years old.

Mickey Rooney is hung up.

Cinematographer John Russell was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), composer Van Alexander was nominated for three Emmys and art director Frank Hotaling for one Academy Award. The special effects of The Atomic Kid were handled by the legendary Lydecker “twins”.

Janne Wass

The Atomic Kid 1954, USA. Directed by Leslie Martinson. Written by Benedict Freedman, John Fenton Murray, Blake Edwards. Starring: Mickey Rooney, Robert Strauss, Elaine Devry, Bill Goodwin, Whit Bissell, Peter Brocco, Joey Forman, Peter Leeds, Hal March, Fay Roope, Stanley Adams, Robert Emmett Keane. Music: Van Alexander. Cinematography: John Russell. Editing: Fred Allen. Art direction: Frank Hotaling. Makeup supervisor: Bob Mark. Special effects: Howard & Theodore Lydecker. Costume supervisor: Adele Palmer. Produced by Mickey Rooney & Maurice Duke for Mickey Rooney Productions & Republic Pictures.

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