Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Absent-Minded Professor
Walt Disney knew his way around a winning formula. It isn’t as simple as merely giving the people what they want. You do that too often and you run the risk of repeating yourself, which is something Walt tried to avoid at all costs. Instead, you have to create something that’s the same but different. Walt proved he knew how to do this repeatedly, through the many short films of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, through his animated classics, even through the long-running True-Life Adventures.
When The Shaggy Dog hit it big in 1959, Walt knew he had another winning formula on his hands. Today, that formula is as familiar to Disney fans as the names of the seven dwarfs. They typically take place in Anytown, USA, usually around some stodgy old institution like a college or museum. A student or inventor will make some improbable discovery, either scientific or paranormal, and hilarity ensues. In later years, Leonard Maltin would dub them “gimmick comedies”.
The Absent-Minded Professor cements the formula begun by The Shaggy Dog. This time, the source material was an obscure 1922 short story called A Situation Of Gravity by Samuel W. Taylor. Taylor (no relation to Samuel A. Taylor, the screenwriter of Vertigo) wrote a couple of screenplays, including Hugo Haas’s 1954 film noir Bait, but was better known, at least among the LDS community, for a series of Mormon-themed historical novels. His book Heaven Knows Why! is considered a classic of Mormon comedic writing, which is apparently a thing.
Taylor’s story is hard to track down, so I have no idea how much of it remains in Bill Walsh’s screenplay adaptation. If I had to guess, I’d say not much at all. Walsh had become one of Disney’s most reliable live-action writer/producers since transitioning from TV to features. He’d written The Littlest Outlaw, The Shaggy Dog and Toby Tyler so far. He’ll continue to be a major presence in this column.
Also returning from The Shaggy Dog was Fred MacMurray. But this time, MacMurray wasn’t a put-upon family man whose eldest son experimented with wacky experiments. Here, he’s Professor Ned Brainard, a confirmed bachelor whose obsession with his own wacky experiments keeps causing him to forget about his own wedding. Most women left standing at the altar would dump their fiancé after the first time. But Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson, last seen in Pollyanna) either has the patience of a saint or is a glutton for punishment. She’s given him one last chance (his third!) to tie the knot.
Unfortunately, Brainard stumbles on to a discovery that causes his garage lab to explode and knocks him out cold. He misses the wedding but upon coming to, finds he’s accidentally created a Silly Putty-like goo that gains energy and momentum every time it hits a hard surface. He excitedly dubs the stuff flubber (for “flying rubber”) and is confident that his discovery will save both his relationship with Betsy and his job at financially strapped Medfield College.
Betsy works as a secretary to the dean (Leon Ames, who will also be back in this column), so Brainard attempts to kill two birds with one stone by introducing them both to flubber at the same time. They couldn’t possibly care less. The dean has bigger problems since the massive loan he took out from ruthless tycoon Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn, another soon-to-be familiar face) is now due. Hawk also has a personal grudge against Brainard. The prof flunked his son Biff (Tommy Kirk, playing slightly against type as a dumb jock), preventing him from playing in the all-important basketball game against Medfield’s rivals.
To make matters worse, Peggy has finally decided to dump Brainard. Her escort to the game is English professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reid and yep, he’ll be back in this column too). Deciding he needs a more impressive demonstration, Brainard rigs up his old Model T with flubber and some garden variety radioactive isotopes he had lying around the house, creating the world’s first flying car. When Peggy refuses to go for a ride with him, he irons some flubber onto the team’s tennis shoes at halftime, resulting in a bouncy win for Medfield.
Even so, nobody will listen to Brainard about flubber. So he decides to call Washington, where various bureaucrats give him the runaround. The Secretary of Defense (Edward Andrews) is equally dismissive but the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force all overhear his conversation. For some reason, they take him very seriously and immediately head to Medfield to check it out for themselves.
Unfortunately, Alonzo Hawk happened to spot Brainard’s Model T flying across the night sky. He and Biff hatch a scheme to switch cars, leaving Brainard with egg on his face when he attempts to give the military men a demonstration. But Peggy gets a firsthand look at flubber in action at a dance with Brainard wearing flubberized shoes. She goes back to him and they launch their own scheme to get the Model T back.
If The Shaggy Dog invented the gimmick comedy formula, The Absent-Minded Professor perfects it. Everything that worked in the previous film is back in some form or another. There are elaborate special effects sequences that go for laughs rather than action, suspense or visual opulence. The decision to film in black-and-white was made to help mask those effects, since Walt, Bill Walsh and director Robert Stevenson weren’t sure if they’d hold up in color. They aren’t exactly seamless but they are effective. The basketball game and the Model T bouncing off the roof of another car and driving on walls could have come straight out of one of Walt’s cartoons.
MacMurray was a lot of fun in The Shaggy Dog but he really hits his stride here. The Shaggy Dog had given him an essentially reactive role. He excelled in it because Fred MacMurray always had been a great straight man. But he’s the driving force behind The Absent-Minded Professor and he’s just as good. He gets in some great physical comedy (before the visual effects and stunt guys take over) but he’s a master at the half-muttered mostly gibberish dialogue he rattles off constantly. Walt got very lucky when Fred MacMurray joined the studio. He’d found a comedic leading man who could do it all.
The Absent-Minded Professor also introduces the concept of cameos and callbacks to the gimmick comedy formula. James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis are back as put-upon traffic cops Hanson and Kelly from The Shaggy Dog, still crashing into cars and splashing hot coffee into Hanson’s face. When the fire department turns up to try and stop Mr. Hawk from bouncing into the stratosphere, they’re led by Keenan Wynn’s father, Ed Wynn (last heard from in this column as the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland). This is actually a reference on top of a reference. In addition to the unremarked upon father-and-son casting, the elder Wynn had become a star on the radio playing the title character on The Fire Chief. These little touches of meta humor and winks to a shared universe would become a common trope in Disney comedies.
There are two more names in the credits who will soon become inextricably connected to Walt Disney. Brothers Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman began writing songs together in the early 1950s. They’d had a few hit songs, including “You’re Sixteen” and “Tall Paul”, which become Mouseketeer Annette Funicello’s highest-charting single. Annette recorded several other Sherman Brothers tunes and this caught the ear of Walt Disney.
Walt hired the brothers as full-time staff songwriters in 1960. Their first assignment was another song for Annette, “Strummin’ Song”, which was featured in the two-part Disneyland episode The Horsemasters. The Absent-Minded Professor’s “Medfield Fight Song” was their first credit in a Disney feature. It will not be their last. The Sherman Brothers will be back in this column many times. They also wrote "The Flubber Song", a ridiculous novelty song for Fred MacMurray that doesn't show up in the movie but did make it onto the record.
The Absent-Minded Professor premiered on March 16, 1961. It became the studio’s second consecutive hit of the year after the success of One Hundred And One Dalmatians, raking in over $11 million. It was the 5th highest-grossing picture of 1961 and the studio wasn’t done yet. The year’s 4th highest-grossing movie will be in this column next time.
The movie also provided Walt a somewhat unlikely return to the Academy Awards. The Absent-Minded Professor was nominated for three Oscars: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (both in the black-and-white categories) and Best Special Effects. It lost the black-and-white categories to The Hustler and The Guns Of Navarone took home the special effects award. Still, the idea that The Absent-Minded Professor was up against the likes of La Dolce Vita and Judgment At Nuremberg is pretty wild.
The legacy of The Absent-Minded Professor is very much alive and not just at Disney. Special effects comedies were rare before Walt Disney came along. Abbott and Costello had met the monsters but they weren’t playing with the kinds of budgets that Walt was able to lavish on his productions. The success of the gimmick comedies helped pave the way for later blockbusters like Ghostbusters and Men In Black. Like Professor Ned Brainard, Walt Disney had created an extremely successful formula. Flubber will return.
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