Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Absent-Minded Professor (Walt Disney Productions, 1961)

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

The Absent-Minded Professor has been called Walt Disney’s most openly autobiographical movie since Pinocchio. Disney’s character, according to this reading of his life (expressed most notably in Richard Schickel’s The Disney Version), was shaped largely by his father, Elias P. Disney, a small-time businessman and inventor with (at least according to Marc Eliot’s more recent biography) distinctly socialist — or at least populist — political leanings. Schickel analyzed Pinocchio as a parable of Disney’s own childhood and his desperate attempts to gain favorable attention from his father, and suggested that Fred MacMurray’s character in The Absent-Minded Professor — a small-town college professor who invents a revolutionary new compound in his garage — was also a portrait of Elias Disney (with the difference that the character, Professor Brainerd — the name an interesting compound of “brain” and “nerd” — actually succeeds, which Disney Sr. never really did). Besides having contributed its title to the language, The Absent-Minded Professor is a politically ambivalent movie in ways that the entire populist movement was politically ambivalent: reactionary in its idealization of a “traditional” small-town America (and also in the all-whiteness of the cast; perhaps the oddest thing about the movie to a contemporary audience is that a principal scene takes place during a college basketball game … in which all the players are white), while also very progressive in its indictment of capitalism. The villain, Keenan Wynn, is a small-town savings-and-loan operator (the character is similar to the one Lionel Barrymore played in It’s a Wonderful Life, though if anything even more matter-of-factly exploitative, since he’s not in a wheelchair and therefore his greedy acquisitiveness cannot be forgiven, as it can to an extent in the Capra film, as a product of his embitterment over being disabled) who is seeking to foreclose on his $500,000 loan to the college that employs Professor MacMurray so he can tear it down and redevelop the property. (It’s ironic that so many Disney films of the 1960’s criticize greedy land developers — the second Love Bug film also comes to mind — when Disney’s own company was behaving in an equally greedy way in putting together the land for Disney World in Florida and the ultimately unbuilt Mineral King ski resort in Northern California!)

The Absent-Minded Professor benefits from quite good special effects (MacMurray’s Model T really does fly convincingly — and it’s clear, from those spectacular shots of it in midair, silhouetted against a cloudy twilight sky, where Steven Spielberg and Melissa Matheson got the idea for the fleet of flying bicycles at the end of E.T.!) and atmospheric black-and-white direction by Robert Stevenson (the same one who rivaled Hitchcock as a suspense director in Britain in the 1930’s, then came to America and shot the Joan Fontaine/Orson Welles version of Jane Eyre in the 1940’s and, through a process I’ve never quite been able to understand, ended up a house director at Disney, shooting virtually all their good live-action films of the 1960’s, including this one, Mary Poppins and The Love Bug). Stevenson even gets some noir-ish compositions into what is otherwise a wacky comedy, and the acting of MacMurray and Nancy Olson (as his fiancée, whom he leaves standing at the altar three times because he’s So Wrapped Up In His Work) is also quite adequate for the character. Largely due to its surprisingly anti-capitalist critique, as well as a witty premise (the story is credited to Samuel W. Taylor) executed with quite a lot of charm, this movie holds up surprisingly well (though I suspect the black-and-whiteness of it — Disney has colorized this film, but wisely opted to show it in its original state — had less to do with atmospherics or budget and more to do with the effects still, as of 1961, being easier to do in black-and-white than in color). Now, if they’ll only show the three sequels (Son of Flubber, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey’s Uncle)! — 7/24/95 


I was quite anxious for the opportunity to see The Absent-Minded Professor again because it’s the first movie I can recall sitting through start to finish in a movie theatre back in 1961, when it was new and I was seven. I may have seen bits and pieces of it on TV since but hadn’t sat through the whole thing since that early viewing in my childhood (at least that’s what I thought when I was watching it last night; while posting the above I found a note I had on my computer of a viewing, probably on the Disney cable channel, from 1995) — and it seemed to me just as good this time around. In the meantime Charles and I had viewed the 1997 remake, Flubber, starring Robin Williams, and I was surprised to note that the two versions track pretty closely: chemistry professor Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray in the 1961 version; when Robin Williams played him 36 years later his first name was changed to “Philip,” and interestingly MacMurray seemed better in the role precisely because he wasn’t a brilliant, imaginative comedian and therefore he was more believable as a character), known not-so-affectionately to his students at Medfield College of Technology as “Neddy the Nut,” has stood up his bride-to-be, Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson), twice before and is scheduled to marry her at 8:30 one evening — only that evening he loses track of time as he experiments with various contraptions in his lab and emerges with a black, gooey substance that seems to defy the normal laws of physics by gaining, not losing, energy every time it bounces. He christens this discovery “Flubber” — short for “flying rubber” — only in the process of making it he’s blown up his lab, knocked himself out, and when he comes to it’s 8:30 all right — 8:30 a.m. the next day — and Betsy is naturally upset enough to consider the rival proposal of Professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reed), who teaches English at Medfield’s rival college Rutland (by coincidence, or maybe not, also the name of the fictitious British town the Rutles, the “Pre-Fab Four” profiled in the hilarious Monty Python/Saturday Night Live co-production The Rutles: All You Need is Cash) and prefaces his attempts to make love to her with garbled quotations from Shakespeare.

Betsy works as secretary to Medfield College president Rufus Daggett (Leon Ames), who’s worried because the college owes $500,000 to Alonzo P. Hawk (Keenan Wynn), CEO of the Auld Lang Syne Insurance and Loan Company, and Hawk is itching to see the college default on the loan so he can foreclose on the property, tear the college down and build a housing development in its place. Using the power of Flubber, Prof. Brainard rigs up an old Model “T” Ford he’d intended to restore so it can not only drive but fly — and the sequence in which he gets his revenge on Prof. Ashton by bouncing his Model “T” repeatedly on top of Ashton’s modern station wagon is delicious. All of this is happening while Medfield’s basketball team is preparing for its annual big game against Rutland, and while there’s a certain nostalgia in this movie watching both basketball teams be all-white, Rutland’s players both literally and figuratively tower over Medfield’s. The first half of the game — on which Alonzo Hawk has bet big against Medfield after Medfield’s star player, Biff Hawk (Tommy Kirk), was disqualified because he flunked Prof. Brainard’s chemistry exam — goes 46-3 in Rutland’s favor. Then Prof. Brainard hits on the idea of putting Flubber on the heels of the Medfield players’ shoes, and with the new-found jumping and bouncing ability given them by the gravity-defying stuff on their shoeheels, Medfield stages an amazing come-from-behind victory. Hawk is determined to gain the rights to Flubber so he can exploit it commercially, but Prof. Brainard is sufficiently patriotic he only wants to turn it over to the government for use in the national defense — and there’s a literal as well as figurative scramble by the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force to grab Flubber before their rival services can.

The film suddenly turns sort-of noir as Alonzo and Biff Hawk steal someone else’s Model “T” and substitute it for Prof. Brainard’s Flubber-equipped one — so the professor is embarrassed when he tries to make it fly and it does absolutely nothing — and he and Betsy have to break into the warehouse of Hawk’s company (which looks an awful lot like the disused storage buildings movie criminals of the day used as their hide-outs) and grab the real car, fly it to Washington and risk getting shot down as a UFO before they finally land on the Capitol lawn and the professor presents his discovery to the military. The Absent-Minded Professor is everything a good “family film” should be and almost never is: an entertainment with enough fun stuff to make kids like it and enough sophistication and wit so adults will like it to instead of regarding it as something they had to sit through out of parental duty. In some ways it’s what would have resulted if Frank Capra had made a science-fiction film: the rather nebbishy hero, so adept at molecular chemistry and so inept at every other aspect of life, is pure Capra and so is the villain, a financier attempting not only to put the hero out of business but take over the small town they live in and build a suburban nightmare in its place. It’s also arguably a personal film for Walt Disney: though its subject matter was a short story by Samuel W. Taylor (not the Samuel Taylor that wrote the script for Hitchcock’s Vertigo) called “A Situation of Gravity” and Bill Walsh wrote the screenplay, Disney biographer Richard Schickel argued that the character of Ned Brainard was Disney’s homage to his father, Elias P. Disney, a turn-of-the-century tinkerer and would-be inventor in Disney’s home town, Kansas City. It’s also a film that clearly draws not only on Capra’s formula but also Disney’s own experiences with the government during World War II; during the 1930’s Disney wasn’t especially political but he began to be active in conservative causes partly because of the strike called against him by several of his animators in the early 1940’s and partly because he was incredibly upset by the high-handed way with which the government dealt with him during World War II, when he offered to make cartoons to promote the U.S. war effort and had government bureaucrats not only micromanaging his productions but taking their own sweet time on paying him — a plot element that becomes even more important in the second film, Son of Flubber. 

The director of both The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber is Robert Stevenson, who had one of the weirdest career trajectories in movie history. In the 1930’s he was considered Alfred Hitchcock’s rival at the top of the heap of British directors, and made such excellent movies as The Man Who Changed His Mind a.k.a. The Man Who Lived Again (1936), with Boris Karloff in one of his best mad-scientist roles; King Solomon’s Mines (1937), which turned H. Rider Haggard’s adventure story into a feature for Paul Robeson (a much better movie than the mediocre remake from MGM in 1950); and Non-Stop New York (1937), a quasi-science fiction piece about a transatlantic airliner and the skullduggery surrounding its maiden flight. In the 1940’s he followed Hitchcock to the U.S. but, rather than specializing in one sort of film like Hitchcock did, his credits ranged all over the map, from the World War II thriller Joan of Paris to the 1943 Jane Eyre (though the extent of Stevenson’s contribution as opposed to that of his male star, Orson Welles, who took over much of the film’s direction, is still being debated; Joan Fontaine, who played the title role and couldn’t stand Welles, boasted in her autobiography that she helped Stevenson reassert his authority by insisting she would take notes on her performance only from him, not Welles, yet when Charles and I recently re-saw the film, during one of the many windblown chiaroscuro landscapes I said, “This looks much more like the work of the man who made Citizen Kane than the man who made Mary Poppins”); in 1950 he was the director who got stuck with Howard Hughes’ dream/nightmare assignment, The Woman on Pier 13 a.k.a. I Married a Communist (the assignment Hughes had offered to all the Left-leaning directors on his staff, figuring that if they turned it down they must be a Communist and should be blacklisted); and eventually, after spending most of the 1950’s doing TV (including, ironically, seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents), he got a sinecure at Disney, where he drew this assignment and the other three films in the Medfield College cycle (Son of Flubber, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey’s Uncle) as well as The Love Bug and its sequel, Herbie Rides Again, That Darn Cat and his final feature credit, The Shaggy D.A. — a 1976 sequel to a 1959 film, The Shaggy Dog, in which Tommy Kirk played a teenage boy who periodically changes into a dog; the sequel again starred Kirk as he had naturally aged and cast him as a young assistant prosecutor who … you guessed it.