Long before Doc Brown was installing a time travelling device inside a DeLorean Professor Ned Brainard was out fitting his Model T with an anti-gravity material in The Absent Minded Professor; this Disney classic from 1961 is a perfect example of the trope of the befuddled scientist that the movie was named after, and Fred MacMurray plays the part brilliantly. It was popular enough to merit a sequel, Disney’s first sequel in fact, and it spawned two remakes, but it’s the original movie that everyone looks back at fondly.
Based on the short story “A Situation of Gravity” by Samuel W. Taylor, and directed by the ever capable Robert Stevenson, Walt Disney’s The Absent Minded Professor follows the story of Professor Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray) who teaches physical chemistry at Medfield College, he is engaged to Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson) but due to his absent mindedness he has missed their wedding day twice, and with the discovery of a new form of energy he misses the third wedding attempt. This does not sit well with Betsy; science is a fickle mistress and one a fiancé isn’t likely to put up with for long.
When his garage lab explodes, knocking him and causing him to miss his own wedding…again, he awakes to discover that his experiment worked, and that he has invented a material with infinite kinetic energy. Bombarding it with a small dose of gamma radiation provides enough initial energy to make this rubber like substance fly, and thus he calls this flying rubber Flubber. Unfortunately Betsy had reached the end of her rope when it comes to Brainard and waiting in the wings is slimy Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reid), an English professor from Rutland College, Medfield’s chief rival. Shelby has been practically stalking Betsy, bashing Brainard at every opportunity, and with this final failed wedding appearance Shelby swoops in like a vulture.
Now Ned Brainard may be a sweet good natured and affable professor but when the love of his life is about to be stolen by a Shakespearean spouting jerk he leaps into action, and lucky for him Flubber proves to be an excellent tool. At first he tries to explain to Betsy about his marvelous discovery, but his inability to work coherence into his science talk leaves her cold, and so he tries to show her his modified Model T car that he has outfitted with Flubber. Unfortunately her rightful anger makes her unable to listen to Ned let alone go for a ride in his supposed “flying car” and so she takes off with Shelby to the big college basketball game between Medfield and Rutland. The game is a disaster, as earlier Brainard had failed the team’s star player Biff Hawk (Tommy Kirk) thus causing the kid to be benched, and the Medfield team finds themselves being trounced by bigger better Rutland players. With Shelby gloating over his school’s eminent victory Ned leaps into action and secretly applies Flubber to the bottom of the Medfield player’s shoes, giving them the added lift to win the game.
In Walt Disney’s 1968 film Blackbeard’s Ghost Dean Jones did not want the ghost of Blackbeard helping his physically inept track team to win, because that would be cheating, but when he learns that the ghost had bet the money required to save the inn owned by the elderly Daughters of the Buccaneers he sets aside his morals and allowed the supernatural assist. In the case of The Absent Minded Professor our hero steps in to aid the team because his romantic rival is cheering for the enemy. Not as altruistic but I guess this qualifies as an “All’s fair in love and war” situation.
Unfortunately when Ned tries to take credit for the Medfield’s startling victory Betsy storms off in disgust while a gloating Shelby looks on, but not one to take such a setback lying down Ned proceeds to hound Shelby from the air using his Flubber powered flying car. While blaring his ahooga horn, and repeatedly bouncing his car off the roof of Shelby’s, he causes Shelby to fly into a panicked state and crash into a police car.
Now Shelby may be the villain of Brainard’s love life but he’s not the chief villain of this movie, that title falls to the deliciously heartless Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn) who plans to call in Medfield College’s loan, shut the school down, bulldoze it and put up a housing development. When his son Biff was benched he took that insider knowledge to bet against his own Alma Mater and put eight grand on Rutland, which of course he lost due to Brainard’s Flubber intervention, but losing that money is completely forgotten when he spots Brainard and his flying car soaring through the night sky. He at first approaches Brainard and offers to be his partner, but when Ned learns that Alonzo Hawk would basically blackmail the American government to make millions he turns him down. Not one to take no for an answer Hawk and his goons swap Brainard’s car for a non-Flubberized one while Ned is trying to win Betsy’s hand at the school dance. When the government arrive to see this “flying car” Ned is humiliated when it fails to get off the ground; a squirrel on a treadmill is found where the engine should be.
Of course Professor Brainard will eventually win the day and the girl, Alonzo Hawk would find himself bouncing higher on higher in a pair of flubberized shoes, and the government would get their Flubber, but not before almost shooting Ned and Betsy out of the sky when they are assumed to be an enemy aircraft.
The Absent Minded Professor falls right smack dab in the middle of Disney’s live action hay day, and the cast of actors Disney Studios were able assemble was simply topnotch, and the special effects provided by Robert A. Mattey and Eustace Lycett, which were nominated for an Academy Award, looks pretty damn good for the time period. The sodium screen matte process, as well as miniatures and wire-supported mockups all worked beautifully to bring Flubber to life. Amazing visual effects aside it’s Fred MacMurray who really makes this film a classic, though Nancy Olson’s spirited Betsy is pretty damn good as well, but without MacMurray the character of Professor Brainard could have easily come across as unlikable idiot.
Note: When one thinks “Cinematic Universe” the Marvel and DC movies immediately leaps to mind, but Disney was there long before Nick Fury was popping up in credit cookies; Medfield College would feature in several Disney films, such as the Dexter Riley series that started with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoe, and the villainous Alonzo Hawk would appear again in Herbie Rides Again.