Monday, June 22, 2015

Son of Flubber (Walt Disney Productions, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I attended a screening of Walt Disney’s 1961 production The Absent-Minded Professor and its 1962 sequel, Son of Flubber. Seeing them both in one night was something of an endurance test but it was also fascinating. Both films star Fred MacMurray as Prof. Ned Brainard, chemistry teacher and researcher at Medfield College of Technology, who in The Absent-Minded Professor (a film that was so successful and reached so far beyond the target audience that “absent-minded professor” entered the language — even though according to there was a film called The Absent-Minded Professor as early as 1907) invented a black, gooey substance called “Flubber” — short for “flying rubber” — whose metastable chemical composition meant that it gained energy every time it bounced instead of losing it — and turned it over to the U.S. military for defense purposes. A sequel showing military hardware bouncing around and providing the U.S. an unparalleled advantage over its putative enemies (until their own “absent-minded professors” figured out how to neutralize it) might have had some interest, but instead Disney and his filmmakers — director Robert Stevenson and writers Bill Walsh (who also worked on The Absent-Minded Professor) and Don DaGradi (who didn’t) — took it in another direction.

Though less atmospheric visually than its predecessor (which had a few oddly noir-ish scenes as Prof. Brainard and his girlfriend — now, finally, his wife in the sequel — Betsy (Nancy Olson) have to steal back their Flubber-equipped Model “T” Ford from the gangsters who are keeping it in a garage, having stolen it on the orders of both films’ principal villain, financier Alonzo Hawk, played by Keenan Wynn), Son of Flubber — at least for its first half-hour or so — is considerably darker thematically. Walt Disney’s exasperation with government bureaucracies and his growing conservatism are vividly shown in a grim scene in which the Brainards are visited by Mr. Hurley (Ken Murray) of the Internal Revenue Service, there to collect a tax bill of over $625,000 from the $1 million Ned Brainard estimated on his tax return he would earn from royalties on Flubber — only the U.S. government seized control of the invention, declared it top secret, forbade Brainard from licensing any commercial uses and left him even more broke than he was when he started. At one point, exasperated by Hurley’s attitude, Brainard snaps, “If need be, I’ll bet you’d put your own mother in jail.” “Funny you should mention that about Mom,” Hurley replies. “A little matter of some unreported income from jams and jellies. We nailed her dead to rights!” There’s also a marvelous satire of capitalist marketing as it stood in 1961, in which a delegation of corporate types anxious to license Flubber show the Brainards a film of all the industrial uses they have worked out for it — including Flubberoleum, a resilient floor you can fall on without hurting yourself and drop things on without them breaking — and present Mrs. Brainard with a fur coat and a check for $1 million, only to take them back when Alonzo Hawk comes by and correctly guesses how the government has screwed the Brainards over. Fortunately, as a side effect of Flubber, Brainard has discovered something called “Flubbergas” with which he thinks he can seed clouds and produce rain. He even manages to make it rain inside the car of his hated rival for Mrs. Brainard’s affections, Rutland College English professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reed, who like most of the cast members repeated his role from the earlier film), but when he tries it on a larger scale all he manages to do is shatter just about every glass object in the vicinity, including car windshields, store display windows and a valuable crystal punch bowl that Mrs. Brainard was about to sell for food money.

Son of Flubber drew not only on the original film and its source story, Samuel W. Taylor’s “A Situation of Gravity,” but also the first few “Danny Dunn” books, a series of young-adult novels written from 1956 to 1977 by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams (Abrashkin died after the first five of the 15 novels in the series but Williams continued to co-credit him because he’d been instrumental in developing the recurring characters) of which the first, Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint, is clearly plying the same territory as The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber. (In the books, Danny Dunn is a science student and the sidekick of researcher Professor Euclid Bullfinch of Midston University in New England.) Son of Flubber throws together some oddly assorted plot elements, including vampy Desirée de la Roche (Joanna Moore), who used to date Prof. Brainard before he fell in love with Betsy and whose attentions towards the prof are being encouraged by Shelby Ashton, who hasn’t given up on Betsy; a costume party Desirée invites Brainard to (naturally his wife insists on coming along!) in which Brainard dresses as a 1920’s college boy, complete with raccoon coat and baritone saxophone (on which Brainard plays a few notes — Fred MacMurray had actually started in show business as a sax player and occasional singer with dance bands in the 1920’s under his real name, Loren MacMurray, and he graduated to acting when the casting directors of Broadway shows Three’s a Crowd, 1930, and Roberta, 1933, saw him playing in the pit bands and decided he’d look good on stage; in The Absent-Minded Professor Brainard was shown playing a trumpet, an instrument MacMurray really couldn’t play, though he’d played the part of a trumpeter on screen before in the 1937 musical Swing High, Swing Low); and a big climax at a college game between Medfield and Rutland.

Only this time the sport is not basketball but football, though predictably Medfield is outclassed until Biff Hawk (Tommy Kirk) figures out a way to inflate the team’s quarterback with Flubbergas (via rubber bladders concealed inside his uniform) and pass him, as well as the football, to score enough last-minute touchdowns to put Medfield within two points of the game, then fill the football itself with Flubbergas so Medfield’s place kicker can kick a 98-yard field goal — indeed the ball ends up in orbit along with the artificial satellites that were such a novelty for 1962 audiences. The film ends with a sequence that appears to be either an homage to or a parody of the ending of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, in which Prof. Brainard is put on trial for all the damage he’d done to the town’s windows with his rain-making machine and he makes a big speech defending the individual entrepreneur against the pettifogging collectivists in both the government and corporate worlds: “The road to genius is paved with fumble-footing and bumbling. Anyone who falls flat on his face is at least moving in the right direction: forward. And the fellow who makes the most mistakes may be the one who will save the neck of the whole world some day.” He’s saved by agricultural agent A. J. Allen (Ed Wynn, Keenan Wynn’s father, who’d also appeared in The Absent-Minded Professor as his famous “Fire Chief” radio character, called to rescue Alonzo Hawk from uncontrollably bouncing up and down outside his office building because Brainard slipped him Flubber-soled shoes; Son of Flubber also features Keenan Wynn’s son Ned in an unbilled role as one of the Rutland football team’s assistants), who brings in hyperthyroid fruits and vegetables and said Brainard has transformed the hopeless farmland around Medfield into bumper-crop heaven because his gun has created “dry rain,” fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and showering it down on the crops to make them super-sized. (Apparently one of the writers had read H. G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods.)

Though not as good as The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber is an engaging movie in its own right and also interesting for the looks it gives us at Walt Disney’s politics, which were hardly conventional Right-wing positions then or now but a sort of conservative libertarian populism and a defense of the “little man” against hierarchies, both governmental and corporate — and as I noted briefly in my comments on The Absent-Minded Professor, Fred MacMurray is almost ideal for his role precisely because he’s so deadpan he lets the humor come from the situations and the stunning special effects; in the 1997 remake, Robin Williams (of sainted memory) threw so many dazzling bits of improv into it he lost sight of the character in the process. (Williams’ version also suffered from his making it about 10 years too late; in the 1980’s he’d still have been able to do the pratfalls himself instead of relying on stunt doubles.) It’s also notable for the sheer number of performers both at the beginnings and endings of their careers; Disney had cast both Wally Brown and Alan Carney, RKO’s attempt to create their own bionic version of Abbott and Costello in the 1940’s, in The Absent-Minded Professor, and while Brown didn’t return for Son of Flubber, Carney did. Son of Flubber also benefits from Paul Lynde (in his film debut) as the announcer of the big football game, and though he’s hardly recognizable Jack Albertson appeared as one of the Rutland people. I suspect the next two films in the cycle, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) and The Monkey’s Uncle (1965) — which carried over the Midland setting but dispensed with Fred MacMurray and were instead centered around students Merlin Jones (Tommy Kirk) and his girlfriend Jennifer (Annette Funicello), and Merlin’s attempts to keep Midvale’s (not Medfield’s!) star football players from flunking out by beaming them knowledge while they sleep — would date far more badly than these two, but they’d still be fun to see again.