By 1961, Walt Disney Productions had become a bigger juggernaut than even a visionary like Walt could have imagined. The animation branch – the studio’s bread and butter from the beginning – was riding a massive wave of creativity, bringing us fantastic films like Peter Pan, Cinderella, and, most recently, 101 Dalmatians. The studio’s TV series Walt Disney Presents was pulling down big numbers each Friday night on ABC, and, before the end of the year, the show would re-name itself Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color and move to Sunday nights on NBC. And then there was the studio’s biggest money-maker, Disneyland, drawing tons of visitors to Anaheim, CA year after year.
And then there was Disney’s live-action division, which is what brings us together today!
By the ’60s, Disney’s live-action films had found a formula that proved to be both popular and profitable. For their dramas, the modus operandi was to find a book beloved by children and adults and adapt it to film. The most famous examples of this include Old Yeller, Treasure Island, and, probably best of all, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.
With comedies, however, the concept was to come up with a goofy concept and build a story to serve it. This formula’s results are a little more scattershot than the dramas, but Disney comedies of the period were certainly distinctive and very much of their time!
Disney pumped out so many comedies during the 1960s that it’s hard to pick one to cover – and, over the course of this series, I’ll probably discuss several. However, few movies are more indicative of this formula than The Absent-Minded Professor!
The professor of the film’s title is Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray), a good-natured, likable science teacher at the Medfield College Of Technology. At first glance, he seems to have the perfect life: a cushy job, a comfortable home, and a loving fiance, Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson). However, things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Brainard, while beloved by the students, is in the doghouse with the college faculty for the costly repairs required after his class mishaps. By the same token, his home has also borne its brunt of explosions. Saddest of all, however, is the fact that Betsy is becoming irritated with her fiancee after Brainard has missed several wedding ceremonies. In fact, things have gotten so bad between Ned and Betsy that a new suitor (Elliott Reed) has come between them.
However, Ned’s luck takes a turn for the better when one of his lab accidents results in a new discovery! After waking up from an explosion, Ned sees a metal container floating in the air. Ned opens the container to find a rubbery substance inside. Ned forms a piece of it into a ball. Soon, he makes a strange discovery: instead of losing energy and height with each bounce, the ball gains, bouncing higher each time! Searching for a name for this new material, Ned fuses the words ‘flying’ and ‘rubber’ to create FLUBBER!
Excited over his discovery and what it could mean for Medfield College, Ned runs to tell Betsy all about what’s happened. Sadly, however, Betsy wants nothing more to do with Ned, and the new suitor’s only too eager to tear Ned down in Betsy’s eyes. Now determined to win Betsy back as well as help the college, Ned sets out to show the world what flubber can do, placing it on the heels of basketball players’ shoes and using it to make his Model T fly!
Unfortunately, none of these events help Ned win Betsy’s heart. However, flubber does come to the attention of Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn), a rich alumnus of Medfield College. Hawk has turned against Medfield, however, planning to foreclose on the college and sell it off to land developers. Aware that flubber could put the college back on solid financial ground, Hawk sets out to disprove Ned’s claims and keep his plans rolling.
A plot like this is par for the course for Disney live-action of the period, in terms of its goofy concept and amiable vibe. This is probably to be expected, since the screenwriter, Bill Walsh, penned many Disney films during this period, creating that period’s Disney style.
Basically, The Absent-Minded Professor feels like a ’50s sitcom dialed up to 11. The situations are zany, the characters are larger-than-life, and things move at about a million miles an hour. It’s fun enough, I suppose, but it’s a touch too nuts for my taste.
That brings us to the acting, and the two brightest spots in the film. Who are those bright spots? Why, they’re Fred MacMurray and Keenan Wynn!
Fred MacMurray is simply WONDERFUL as Ned Brainerd. Brainerd was probably a deceptively difficult role to play; While he’s our hero, he also makes some decisions that make you want to shout at the screen, and his absent-mindedness gets him into situations that made me wince. In the hands of another actor, those moments may have made Ned a hard character to follow. MacMurray, however, infuses his performance with a sense of friendliness, humor and natural charm that made me like Ned Brainerd. Yes, he inadvertently makes maddening mistakes that cost him dearly. However, Brainerd’s likable qualities are what made his hardships so hard to watch. Mission accomplished, I guess!
Keenan Wynn also does a good job as Alonzo Hawk, largely because he seemed to take the part seriously. A lot of the acting in The Absent-Minded Professor feels overly light and fluffy, as if the actors considered a zany comedy to not be worth their best work. Not Keenan Wynn, though! Being the professional that he was, he took this slightly over-the-top villainous role and played it totally straight. By not mugging for the camera, Wynn gives this crazy story the anchor in reality it desperately needed!
Three years after The Absent-Minded Professor was released, Walt Disney Pictures would release Mary Poppins, a Technicolor extravaganza of music, big stars, and – maybe most importantly – lots of visual effects. Looking at both films, I’ve come to the conclusion that Disney’s effects crew saw Professor as a dry run for Poppins, using many of the same effects they would use in 1964.
Now, not all of those effects hold up as well as the ones in Mary Poppins; a few of the process shots of Ned Brainerd’s flying Model T look a little dated, and the bouncing basketball players look fake at certain points. However, there are a few BEAUTIFUL long shots of the Model T in mid-air – flying across lovely matte paintings of clouds – that make all the clunky effects worthwhile. Those choice shots are one of my favorite things about the film!
So what’s to be done with The Absent-Minded Professor? Well… not a whole lot, actually. It definitely doesn’t need to be punished; despite its flaws, it’s still a decent little comedy, an okay way to spend an hour in a half. However, those aforementioned flaws keep it from rising above a run-of-the-mill 1960s comedy. Still, if you’re bored on a lazy afternoon and you want something to watch, you could do worse!
Final Rating: 3 out of 5 stars