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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-Action Edition. The Absent-Minded Professor.

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. Since we have covered the animated films, we have moved on to the live-action and partially animated films. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Absent-Minded Professor.

Year: 1961

Source materials: Based on the short story “A Situation of Gravity” by Samuel W. Taylor.

Budget: $2,000,000 (estimated)

Box office: $25.4 million

Plot: Professor Brainard is an absent-minded professor of physical chemistry at Medfield College who invents a substance that gains energy when it strikes a hard surface. This discovery follows some blackboard scribbling in which he reverses a sign in the equation for enthalpy to energy plus pressure times volume. Brainard names his discovery Flubber, which is a portmanteau of “flying rubber.”

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In the excitement of his discovery, he misses his own wedding to Betsy Carlisle, not for the first time, but his third. Subplots include another professor wooing the disappointed Miss Carlisle, Biff Hawk’s ineligibility for basketball due to failing Brainard’s class, Alonzo Hawk’s schemes to gain wealth by means of Flubber, the school’s financial difficulties and debt to Mr. Hawk, and Brainard’s attempts to interest the government and military in uses for Flubber. Shelby Ashton, who was interested in Betsy, is given his revenge by the Professor, who keeps on jumping on the top of Shelby’s car, until it crashes into a police car, where he is given a field sobriety test.

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Looking for backers, he bounces his Flubber ball for an audience, but his investment pitch proves so long-winded that most of the crowd has left before they notice that the ball bounced higher on its second bounce than on its first. For a more successful demonstration, he makes his Model T fly by bombarding Flubber with radioactive particles.

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Other adventures and misadventures result as Flubber is used on the bottoms of basketball players’ shoes (in a crucial game) giving them tremendous jumping ability; Brainard (at a school dance) making him an accomplished dancer, and the scheming businessman Alonzo Hawk, who switches cars on the professor, with a car containing a squirrel and pigeons. Hawk then must be tackled by a full football team to bring him down after Brainard tricks him into testing Flubber on the bottom of his shoes.

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The Professor retrieves the old Model T from the warehouse, and Hawk is arrested for having a gun in his possession, when the car crashes into a police car. Eventually, Brainard shows his discovery to the government, after being scared by a missile in flight, and also wins back Miss Carlisle, culminating in a wedding at last.

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Background: Hubert Alyea, professor of chemistry at Princeton University, was nicknamed “Dr. Boom” for his explosive demonstrations at the Brussels World’s Walt Disney invited Alyea to California to give a demonstration for Fred MacMurray. The special effects were created by Robert A. Mattey and Eustace Lycett, who were nominated for an Academy Award, and included the sodium screen matte process, as well as miniatures and wire-supported mockups.

Songs: The film’s “Medfield Fight Song” was written by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, their first song for a Disney feature.

Cast: Fred MacMurray returns as Professor Ned Brainard and Tommy Kirk returns as Biff Hawk.

Nancy Olson as Betsy Carlisle. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Betty Schaefer in Sunset Boulevard. She appeared in Union Station, Force of Arms, Submarine Command, Big Jim McLain, So Big, Battle Cry, Dumbbells, Pollyanna, and Snowball Express. She made a brief, uncredited appearance in Flubber. Keenan Wynn 1 as Alonzo P. Hawk. He has numerous film credits including Annie Get Your Gun, Royal Wedding, Kiss Me, Kate, Battle Circus, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, A Hole in the Head, Dr. Strangelove, Touch of Evil, Finian’s Rainbow, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Nashville. He is also the voice of the Winter Warlock in Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

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His father is Ed Wynn, who cameos as the Fire Chief, and his son Ned appears in a small role.

Leon Ames 2as President Jeffrey Daggett. He is best remembered for such films as Meet Me in St. Louis, Little Women, On Moonlight Bay,By the Light of the Silvery Moon, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Tora! Tora! Tora! His last film role was in Peggy Sue Got Married. Elliott Reid 3 as Professor Shelby Ashton. Reid’s best-known film role was as Ernie Malone in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Edward Andrews 4 as the Defense Secretary. He appeared in Send Me No Flowers, Avanti!, The Young Savages, The Young Doctors, Advise & Consent, The Thrill of It All, Good Neighbor Sam, Youngblood Hawke, Kisses for My President, The Glass Bottom Boat, The Trouble with Girls, Tora! Tora! Tora!, How to Frame a Figg, The Million Dollar Duck, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, Charley and the Angel, and The Seniors. He played the character of “Grandpa” Howard Baker in Sixteen Candles. His final appearance in a feature film was in Gremlins. Alan Hewitt 5 General Hotchkiss. Possibly his most prominent roles were Detective Brennan in My Favorite Martian and the district attorney in How to Murder Your Wife. He appeared in A Private’s Affair, That Touch of Mink, Days of Wine and Roses, Follow That Dream, How to Murder Your Wife, Sweet Charity, and The Barefoot Executive.

Wally Boag 6 as the TV Newsman. He is known for his starring role in Disney’s long-running stage show the Golden Horseshoe Revue. Boag voiced Jose in “Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room” and also wrote much of the script.

Critical Reception:

  • Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “remarkably bouncy entertainment … the grown-ups should find it entertaining for the silly shenanigans it contains and for the simple satisfaction of noting the pleasure it gives the kids.”
  • Variety described it as “a comedy-fantasy of infectious absurdity” with MacMurray “ideally cast.”
  • Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film, “for all that it happens to be a one-joke picture, is good AND funny … while its satire should be at least as sharp as its slapstick but isn’t, the novelty of the gimmick will carry the picture to popularity.”
  • Edith Oliver of The New Yorker called it “a funny and unpretentious piece of slapstick that cannot fail to please children and all the rest of us who are fans of the Keystone Cops.”
  • The Monthly Film Bulletin called it “agreeable and entertaining,” but “the comedy doesn’t bounce enough. It is really a one-joke story, and could have done with more invention, more unpredictability; the humorous possibilities of the admirable flubber are not explored sufficiently.”

Legacy: The film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Art Direction , Best Cinematography, and Best Effects: Special Effects.

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This film was followed by a sequel Son of Flubber, released less than two years later in 1963 also featuring MacMurray, Olson, Reid, Hewitt, the two Wynns, and Kirk reprising their roles. The Absent-Minded Professor has been remade twice, once as a 1988 television version with Harry Anderson, and in 1997 titled Flubber with Robin Williams.

Medfield Cinematic Universe: Medfield College of Technology was used in Son of Flubber, as well as in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, and The Strongest Man in the World. Medford is also the setting of The Shaggy D.A. meaning that The Shaggy Dog is in the same universe. Also, Forrest Lewis and James Westerfield play officers Kelley and Hanson in both films. Keenan Wynn reprises his role in Herbie Rides Again, meaning that the Love Bug movies are also in the same continuity. The queue line for Journey into Imagination at Epcot passes the offices of Professor Brainard and Dean Higgins. A Medfield College letterman’s jacket can be seen inside the room.

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My take: There’s something fun about a straight up comedy with a simple premise. The basketball sequence was fun.

Next Week: The Parent Trap