Personally, the idea of a movie about Mickey Rooney exposed to lethal doses of radiation is mouth-watering manna from heaven for me. Bonus points being that it’s played for laughs. But seriously, folks, that’s the premise for the zany 1954 Republic comedy THE ATOMIC KID, now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
In the post-war, post-nuclear, and, most importantly, post-Martin & Lewis wake known as the early 1950s, buddy comedies flourished. This was primarily the result of a chain reaction wherein virtually every studio from MGM to Monogram passed on Dean and Jerry – a mistake that Hal Wallis and Paramount cashed in on mightily, as the duo became the most financially successful movie twosome of all time.
In an effort to rectify this grievous error, Hollywood bent over backwards to scour the planet for M&L clones, occasionally literally doing so with lookalikes Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo.
Mickey Rooney, long past his sell-by date, had soured as a major cinema attraction and was eking out a living cranking out B-product for Columbia, Universal-International and his old alma mater Metro. With scant results. In 1953, MGM had paired him with Eddie Bracken, announcing a grand new team in the blandly entertaining A Slight Case of Larceny.
But Rooney had plans of his own. While knocking out a minor musical at Columbia (All Ashore), the Mick approached director Richard Quine and his buddy, screenwriter Blake Edwards, about latching on to a possible Martin & Lewis clone franchise. Quine stealthily sneaked off, but Edwards took the bait and fashioned the story (which evolved into the final script from John Fenton Murray and Benedict Freedman).
A modern update of the “hero by no fault of his own” scenario, THE ATOMIC KID (although at 34, hardly a kid) tread ground previously honed by Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. But sufficiently dumbed down (okay, fair’s fair – it IS a tiny tot picture). In it, Rooney plays bummy “Blix” Waterberry, who along with his equally slovenly pal Stan (Robert Strauss) fantasizes scoring as a uranium prospector. Little do they know that they have stumbled upon an army test site, and when Rooney retires to convenient empty house for the night, the schmuck has no idea that he’s in the designated target area. And it’s blown to smithereens. Inconceivably, he somehow survives, and is immediately whisked away to a military hospital for observation.
It’s here that the kind of stuff that usually happened to Huntz Hall manifests itself upon the scruffy ill-mannered lawn gnome. These changes cause Stan to go all Bud Abbott on him, exploiting his pal for fame and fortune – a super-duper plus when a visit to Vegas reveals that Rooney’s mere presence around slot machines causes them “to give.” Why Edwards avoided the obvious, FX-ing the star’s much-joked upon size by having him grow to amazing colossal man proportions remains one for the books, but is likely due to the budget (or lack of).
How Strauss and Rooney manage to elude the entire U.S. military is never logically explained, but, then again, this isn’t exactly The Best Years of Our Lives (literally or figuratively). Besides, they do return to the hospital for further examination. It’s significant to mention that many of the visual puns in the movie are pure Edwards, and often pop up in his subsequent Pink Panther forays. One gag, Rooney’s sexual arousal causing him to actually glow, is a G-rated embryonic precursor to the only yuk in Skin Deep. And this needs additional mentioning, as it involves the female lead, Elaine Davis – who also requires additional mentioning. Davis is a drop-dead gorgeous starlet, playing the nurse assigned to Rooney. For no explicable reason whatsoever, she immediately falls in love with him. While this insane response can be easily explained away by reminding viewers that this movie is science-fiction, it certainly wasn’t so with the diminutive actor and Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and every other actress passing through MGM gates with possible exceptions of Margaret Rutherford and Lassie. That Gardner ended up marrying the squirt is another jaw-dropping Ripley fact that has stunned movie buffs for generations. Suffice to say that Davis had, prior to production, become the newest Mrs. Rooney (#4 out of an eventual 9452). Uncharacteristically, it was one of Rooney’s lengthiest betrothals (six years), after which Davis changed her name to Devry, enjoying a fairly lucrative career in movies and TV throughout the 1960s (and achieving quasi-iconic status among horny teenage boys as Walter Matthau’s adulterous client in 1967’s A Guide for the Married Man).
Leaving no McCarthy era stone unturned, an additional subplot in THE ATOMIC KID has evil Commie spies out to snatch Rooney and cart the cretin back to the Kremlin. And this brings to mind another of THE ATOMIC KID‘s gloriously unrealized moments, as the Rooskies discuss Rooney’s inevitable vivisection. Ah, what could have been!
It’s probable that Rooney, tiny megalomaniac that he was, intentionally shopped the picture to Republic, as it would give him more of a chance to flex his muscles. From the opening credits, it’s made painfully clear the THE ATOMIC KID is a Mickey Rooney production starring Mickey Rooney, dominated by Mickey Rooney and ultimately infected by Mickey Rooney. Davis, who appeared in ads and promotions in nurse attire (but more of the Halloween slutty-nurse variety than RN standard) is also billed as Mrs. Mickey Rooney, a smarmy graphic leer that smirks a demeaning “look what I go home to every night, suckers!” objectification of the woman.
It must be stated that kiddies in 1954 ate this title up faster than their popcorn, and, indeed, THE ATOMIC KID later became a surefire Boomer TV programmer during the 1960s. I somehow missed it, but friends would regale me throughout my childhood of its many pleasures. Looking at it sans the eyes of an 8-year-old, it’s hard to appreciate the urchin delights, but I’m nonetheless fascinated by the fact that a juvenile comedy would have been made in ANY era concerning radioactive contamination (and, yeah, I know, that’s part of the plot to Living it Up, made the same year).
My flirtation with Mickey Rooney was indeed a brief one, lasting a mere four years. I truly liked him in Baby Face Nelson and The Big Operator, and rejoiced seeing him (again as part of a new team) with Buddy Hackett in Everything’s Ducky, a dubious joy repeated when the two were reteamed in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (it was also during this period that he provided one of the genuinely great ad-lib puns in show biz, the beautifully timed response to his appearance with Jayne Mansfield). But that pretty much ended it for me. That and an incident at NYU during the 1970s.
I was a film student then, and one day a former alumnus turned up to visit. He had just finished working on a low-budget pic featuring Rooney and dubbed it the experience from hell. “The guy is undirectable! He goes on about how he knows better, how he directed all his movies. How everyone from Disney to Olivier asks him for his advice. He listens to you, then does it his way – ’cause his way is better. During one exceptionally fine long take, he stopped in the middle, turned to the camera, threw up his hands, and yelled ‘Cut!’ I wanted to kill him!” But, sadly he didn’t.
Coincidentally, this happened nearly simultaneously with another former NYU film maestro, who had worked as an assistant on a miniscule art house epic entitled The Noah. Filmed in 1968, but only then (1975) getting minor distribution as a Midnight attraction at the Waverly (located just a few blocks away), The Noah starred Robert Strauss. I eagerly asked what it was like to work with Strauss, as I admired his performances in the Billy Wilder pics Stalag 17 (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and The Seven-Year Itch. The dude looked at me glumly, rolled his eyes and shook his head. “A big pain in the ass” was all he said, as he then slowly exited presumably to look for a gun.
So I imagine that this couldn’t have been that much of a fun shoot. That said, there are some nifty turns in THE ATOMIC KID by such welcome pans as Peter Leeds, Hal March, Whit Bissell (as Dr. Pangborn, no doubt an Edwards contribution) and Stanley Adams. The crisp black-and-white photography is by the wonderful John L. Russell, known primarily for his TV work, but soon to reach movie immortality as the d.p. of Psycho, which considering this project, is rather apt (the Blu-Ray is an excellent 35MM transfer, jarred only by the insertion of rather gritty and unpleasant documentary bomb footage).
The director, too, is a character generally known for his television efforts, the ubiquitous Leslie H. Martinson. Perhaps it was an ideal solution to fighting fire with fire, as Martinson was a true eccentric, taking to hiding under sheets to block upcoming shots, prone to throwing scripts around the sets like boomerangs and infamous for shouting incorrect logistics to actors and then berating them for following his instructions. I asked Will Hutchins, who worked often with Martinson on Sugarfoot, if they ever discussed this movie. As Will never disappoints, he replied that he does recall one exchange where he asked about working with Rooney. “The guy’s nuts!” replied Martinson adamantly (but with affection). No doubt a case of the pot calling the kettle wack!
THE ATOMIC KID. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]. Mono audio [1.0 DTS-HD MA]. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. UPC: OF564. Cat #: 887090056403. SRP: $29.95 (DVD, $24.95).