Robert Strauss was a remarkably memorable character actor. Although he looked physically threatening, he actually played comic roles more frequently than villains (and if he played a convict or a hood, it was usually for comic affect). His great breakout part was in STALAG 17, when he was the Betty Grable loving P.O.W. "Animal", who had a memorable (and ultimately sad) moment dancing while drunk with Harvey Lembeck in a "blond wig". But after STALAG 17 there was no comparable role to build on. His next film with Billy Wilder would be as the lecherous building superintendent in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. But it was ultimately easy and hard to cast him. Easy in supporting bit parts, but hard to find roles he really deserved.
I consider THE ATOMIC KID the nearest Strauss got to a true leading part. It was made one year after STALAG 17, so his name recognition was still high. And he was teamed with another sure fire box office draw (though slightly faded in 1954), Mickey Rooney. Rooney as a leading draw peaked in the 1940s in his series with Lewis Stone about the Hardy Family. But he was always a capable and entertaining performer, and he and Strauss work well together as a team.
THE ATOMIC KID could easily have been an Abbott and Costello property. The two leads are looking for uranium in the desert, and they have car problems. They find a deserted house, and Rooney stays in it while Strauss goes trying to get help for their car. Rooney finds the larder of the house well stocked with provisions, and makes himself a peanut butter sandwich or two while he waits. Then hell breaks loose - the house is a faked house (though if faked why does it have furniture and food in it) and is at ground zero for an atomic blast site. It is hit, but Rooney survives.
He becomes a national sensation - the first known human being to survive an atomic blast at it's metric center, untouched. Why? Was it the diet of peanut butter sandwiches? One can see Lou Costello in such a role (although he might have insisted the sandwich be a pastrami sandwich), and Strauss replaced by Abbott. Like Bud, Robert always sees the big picture - the money to be made in marketing the celebrity of his friend the survivor. And he soon has all sorts of contracts being signed by Mickey (as Bud would have had Lou sign them) for endorsements - like peanut butter brands. Between this and the constant testing by the government, Rooney has time for little else - although he soon is romancing his nurse, Elaine Davis. However, soon the FBI (Hal March) is aware of another interested party: the Russians have sent an agent to try to discover Rooney's immunity secret.
As a shot at the marketing of modern celebrity in America (think now of Paris Hilton, Marilu Rettin, or George Foreman), THE ATOMIC KID is on target as much as it's contemporary Judy Holiday film, IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU. As a piece of amusing whimsy, it does proud for both Rooney and Strauss (who, despite his crass greed, does show his loyal friendship to Rooney when the latter is endangered). But it is the business of cold war paranoia in the film's background that is fascinating.
I reviewed, some time ago, a contemporary English comedy called YOU KNOW WHAT SAILORS ARE. It too dealt with the fear of nuclear annihilation in the 1950s, and how the public wished it away. There it was "demolished" when Akim Tamiroff and a friendly scientist concocted a scheme to convince the Russians that a make-shift gizmo (that really did not do anything) could demolish nuclear missiles upon take off. Here it is the survival of Rooney, apparently by eating peanut butter. Peanut butter would not be served as well again as a diet treat or power source until Jim Henson's Muppet, "the Great Mumford" would invent his magic catch phrase "a la peanut butter sandwiches" on Sesame Street. Would that something as tasty and satisfying as peanut butter could protect us all from nuclear destruction. It probably could not. Even, in the end, the scientists studying Rooney are not able to say why he survived.
Review by theowinthrop from the Internet Movie Database.