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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Atomic Kid

Republic Productions put out a comedy film in late 1954 which might be considered nominally sci-fi. The Atomic Kid (TAK) did involve atomic energy — a common sci-fi element in the 50s — but in more of a supporting role. Mickey Rooney stars as “Blix” Waterberry, a man who survives a nuclear test, for no apparent reason and thus becomes a person of interest. Since TAK is a “Mickey Rooney Production,” it’s not surprise that Rooney’s wife (#4), Elaine Devry, co-starred as his love interest. Robert Strauss co-starred as Blix’s faithful, if not too bright, friend Stan. Strauss gained fame in Stalag 17 the year before. Blake Edwards, creator/writer of the Pink Panther series, wrote the screenplay. Some of Cleuseau’s bumbling can be seen in Blix.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Blix and Stan wander through the Nevada desert, disappointed that they had not found a get-rich-quick uranium mine. They wander onto the site of a nuclear test about to be detonated. Stan’s geiger counter picks up radiation, so he’s sure there’s a lode nearby. They find a lone house, with a family of manikins inside. Thinking it’s a model for a tract development, Stan drives to town (in the manikin family’s car) while Blix stays to squat their claim. Blix, hungry, finds food in the pantry and makes himself a peanut butter, sardine and horseradish sandwich. Stan tells the army about Blix, but too late. The bomb is exploded. The army and physicists rush in. Blix is fine, though a bit singed and his bread toasted. Blix is subjected to months of tests to understand why he’s only radioactive, but otherwise unharmed. Corporate representatives lobby Stan for product endorsements — such as Mother Goose peanut butter. A shifty man named Reynolds convinces Stan to deny all other offers and sign with him for a million dollar book deal. This deal required that Stan wear a spy camera in a lapel flower to gather information about Blix (and any other atomic secrets he might find.) Meanwhile, Blix has been falling for his very pretty nurse, Audrey. Whenever she is near, or holds his hand to take his pulse, Blix’s radiation increases. After a variety of tests, the doctors still have no idea why Blix survived, or remains radioactive. Frustrated at his confinement, Blix manages to escape the hospital, despite serious incompetence. The FBI assist his escape. While on the lam, Blix travels to Las Vegas to meet Audrey. He does, and finds out that his atomic energy makes slot machines jackpot around him. He and Audrey go to her rooming house. After some compressed speed-courting, Blix finally gives Audrey a big kiss, which causes all sorts of sight gags about his energy burst. He glows in the dark. Blix goes back to the hospital for yet more tests, but they find that his radioactivity has returned to zero. Free to leave, if a bit disappointed at being a common nobody again, Blix seeks out his friend Stan. Mr. Reynolds is chastising Stan for being incompetent as a spy. When Blix arrives, Reynolds’ he tries to kidnap Blix for study by the Russians. Blix bluffs that his radioactivity means he could blow up with a sneeze. This, he times with a scheduled nuclear test. Cowed by the demonstration, Reynolds summons his boss. Through some fast-paced slapstick, Blix is knocked out of a window and lands on the spy boss, right in front of two vacationing FBI agents. Blix and Audrey wed and travel to their honeymoon on backroads to avoid the press. They become lost and stop at a house for directions. The house is full of manikins. Oh no! They drive away at a sped-up frame rate. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
It’s a light-hearted Blake Edwards comedy. It’s supposed to be fun. Rooney and Strauss actually make a good comedy team. They are almost in the Lewis & Martin or Abbott & Costello style, but without the Straight Man being too straight, or the “little one” being too inept. Stock footage of the nuclear tests of the early 50s is time-capsule fun.

Cold War Angle
Aside from the extensive look at nuclear testing, there is the Russian spy subplot with Mr. Reynolds. In the case of TAK, the Cold War is more of an overt background to the romantic comedy.

Yucca Flats’ Brighter Side — The premise that a man is altered by having been exposed to a nuclear test, would get recycled a few times, but one of the more famous ones is 1961’s Beast of Yucca Flats. In that film, Tor Johnson is a soviet agent accidentally exposed to a nuclear test explosion. But, instead of being turned into a benignly glowing lovelorn young man, Tor was turned into “a beast”.

Operation Desert Rock — Younger viewers might question the logic (if not the veracity) of the old stock footage showing soldiers being deliberately placed in trenches near a nuclear blast. But, this actually happened. One goal of the many nuclear tests was weapons development — bigger bombs or details, such as how high above the ground made for the best air burst. Another goal of the tests was to train troops. Sheltering in trenches showed that they could survive a nuclear blast. Entering a recently nuked zone gave them experience in moving over and taking irradiated ground. If a nuclear war were to break out, better to have ones troops familiar with what to do, and what not to do. Just as Operation Crossroads in the late 40s tested the effects of nukes on naval vessels, Operation Desert Rock tested blast effects on army gear such as tanks, trucks, cannons and jeeps. The twisted hulks were, no doubt, useful reminders of the bomb’s power.

Operation Doorstep — A tertiary goal for the nuclear tests was to study the effects on civilian items. During the Upshot-Knothole series of blasts, in March of 1953, Civil Defense authorities had some typical homes constructed at various distances from the blast center. Mannequins were arranged in faux dinner parties or other everyday tableau. Some were positioned in the bunker basements in proper Duck and Cover mode. There are some famously-repeated clips of the structures being exposed to the heat then the shock wave. Some of the frame houses were blasted apart. Others fared better. The mannequins and furnishings were generally tossed around. Operation Doorstep is the real-world event upon which Blake Edwards created his story.

Laughter Medicine — In the 50s, the American public was generally freaked out at the prospect of a nuclear attack. There were many sobering dramas, such as the television movie Atomic Attack, also in 1954. As in most of the 50s’ films, where a shred of optimism somehow prevails, Blix’s comically absurd survival was, nonetheless, survival. Having the apparent key be a peanut butter, sardine and horseradish sandwich was funny enough, but it represented that hope people had in the 50s. Somehow, they might survive the unthinkable — even if by absurd coincidence. Laughing at nuclear doom was a sort of cure for it.

Old Boy — Mickey Rooney gained fame as a “boy” actor. He began at the age of seven as the recurring character Mickey McGuire in a series of “shorts” in the late 1920 and into the early 30s. After that, he played various precocious comic boy roles. In 1937, he started another long-running boy character named Andy Hardy. This was his signature role of lovelorn, awkward and innocent “boy” role. Andy Hardy had many films stretching through the 40s. Even though (then) in his late 20s, he was short enough and baby-faced enough to pull off playing a teen. By the time of TAK, he was too old for boyish Andy Hardy films, although TAK could be viewed as “Andy Hardy Gets Bombed”. Rooney played the comic pair well with Buddy Hackett in 1963’s comic farce, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

Bottom line? TAK is a light comedy in the Abbott & Costello idiom. It’s humor is mostly slapstick or simple plays on words. As such, TAK can be appreciated by younger children. The humor can sometimes be a bit juvenile, but that has a nostalgic value: humor before vulgarity became the benchmark. The sci-fi element is thin, but the historic footage of nuclear tests has some time-capsule value.

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