The Absent Minded Professor represents a cornerstone merger of science-fiction and comedy that shows new growth for the genre.
Unlike the sci-fi/comedy films of the 50s that used established comedy teams, like the Three Stooges or Abbott & Costello, allowing them to showcase their comedic bits, The Absent Minded Professor makes comedy from the situations. Being a Disney film, this movie is a wholesome and family friendly film that sets the bar for all future sci-fi comedies.
The title of The Absent Minded Professor is very apropos, as this scientist is extremely scatterbrained. This trailer shows him oblivious to people talking to him, catastrophes around him, and even potentially missing his wedding. Then he accidentally invents Flubber. The Disney comedy shows potential applications for this new substance in balls that can bounce forever, gym shoes that allow basketball teams to leap higher, and flying cars!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The Absent Minded Professor is a thoroughly enjoyable film that walks the line between sci-fi and comedy. Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray), a science teacher at Medfield College of Technology causes an explosion in his classroom while demonstrating acoustical energy. As he starts to tell his class about their homework, he is reminded by a large note that he is getting married at “8:30 tonight!” Elsewhere Ned’s fiancee Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson) is being given a ride home by a friend, Professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reid), who is still in love with her and upset that she’s marrying Ned.
Ned begins working on a project in his lab, but even with all of the reminders from his housekeeper Mrs Chatsworth (Belle Montrose), he still manages to miss his wedding – for the third time! Well, he misses it mainly due to another explosion, one that knocks him unconscious. When he awakens he discovers a new substance that behaves like rubber, but introduces more energy into each bounce, until it’s flying around the room like a rocket. He christens this substance “flubber,” a combination of the words “flying rubber.”
Meanwhile, Betsy is taking a letter from her boss, college President Rufus Daggett (Leon Ames). The college’s loan is about to be foreclosed by the owner of the loan company Mr Alonzo P. Hawk (Keenan Wynn). During the middle of this dictation, Ned shows up with flowers to apologize, again, to Betsy, but she wants no part of it. Alonzo and his son Biff (Tommy Kirk) also show up to discuss the loan. Both are soured on Ned, who flunked Biff out of his science class. Due to the failure, Biff is not allowed to play in the big basketball game against rival Rutland College that evening. Ned is rather abrasive when talking about the principle of the situation, so much so that Alonzo will not allow an extension on the loan.
Ned figures out a way to use a radioactive isotope to direct the reactions of the flubber. He hooks it up to an old Model T car and uses it to fly around town, landing at the basketball game. He tries to sit with Betsy, but she has shown up with Ned’s rival Shelby. The Medfield team is doing no better. Lacking speed and height against Rutland, they are down 43 points at halftime. Ned has an idea, and irons on pieces of flubber to their basketball shoes during halftime. When they return to the court, the players are able to leap dozens of feet and quickly run the score back up, winning the game. This puts Alonzo further into Ned’s business as he had made a sizable wager against Medfield to win.
Alonzo finds out about the flubber and offers to buy it from Ned, but Ned would rather give it to the government for any use they see fit. Leaders of the Army, Air Force and Navy all travel to Medfield to find out more about this amazing miracle substance, but are disappointed when Ned’s flying car does nothing. Unbeknownst to Ned, Alonzo has switched the car with a look alike and plans to use his business connections to make even more money selling the flubber.
Ned realizes what has happened. He convinces Betsy to help him, after she realizes what a jerk that Shelby is, and the two of them set off to steal the car back. The get it out of the warehouse it’s being kept in, after keeping Alonso out of the way with a pair of flubber shoes. Alonzo is in danger of bouncing out of the atmosphere so Biff uses some football player friends to tackle his dad, and take off the shoes. Biff and Alonzo show up at the warehouse just as Ned and Betsy fly away, and the antagonists crash into a police car. The police arrest Alonzo for possession of a gun, and Ned flies the Model T into Washington DC to deliver the flubber to armed services. The film ends with Ned and Betsy, finally getting married, and flying off into the night on Ned’s flubberized Model T.
“Substance X, we dub thee… Flubber!” – Ned Brainard
History in the Making
The 1960s was a decade of growth in science-fiction film. New filmmakers came into the market, countries outside of America increased their output, and more viewers that ever began attending screenings. There were new avenues of sci-fi opened from all of this attention, and one of those avenues happened to be the infusion of comedy with sci-fi.
While comedic sci-fi films had been around for a while (check out the Sci-Fi Saturdays review of Abbott & Costello Go To Mars), The Absent Minded Professor opened new ground in the comedy arena. Rather than using an established comedy team like Abbott & Costello, or The Three Stooges (Have Rocket, Will Travel), this film plays against type with Fred MacMurray in the lead role. At the time of this film’s release, MacMurray had only been doing situational comedy with the television show My Three Sons for about a year. Prior to that he was primarily a leading man running serious roles in Double Indemnity (1944) or The Caine Mutiny (1954). He had done a couple recent comedy roles, including one for Disney with The Shaggy Dog (1959), but this was still all new ground for him. His deadpan and oblivious nature seems perfectly suited to an absent minded professor.
This also marked the beginning of the sci-fi comedy trend for Disney pictures. This film would be followed by a sequel, Son of Flubber, which continued the story of the miraculous substance. Other films include The Million Dollar Duck, and the Dexter Riley Trilogy comprised of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, and The World’s Greatest Athlete, also set at Medfield College. The influence that The Absent Minded Professor had on the future of comedic sci-fi, and the scientists therein is immeasurable. One can see influences in Jerry Lewis’ performance for The Nutty Professor (coming soon on Sci-Fi Saturdays), as well as with Wayne Zalinski (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), Doug Kinney (Multiplicity), and of course, Dr. Emmett Brown (the Back to the Future trilogy).
Defining a genre is no easy feat. The Absent Minded Professor provides enough character moments that make Ned Brainard more of a caricature rather than actual person, thereby defining a new type of sci-fi trope. Firstly the character is exceedingly unaware of his surroundings – to a comical fault. The film pushes the professor to such extremes, for comedic purposes, that he becomes bigger than life. Brainard is so into his science that he continually misses his wedding dates, is unaware whether it’s day or night, and doesn’t actually listen to people around him.
The comedic elements of the antagonist are also elevated. Alonzo Hawk is a mustache-twirling villain, equal to any of Disney’s animated versions. His goals are also single-minded, but in this case it’s not world-domination, but getting rich and making more money. If the film sets up an oblivious scientist, it then also must create an antagonist set to take advantage of his faults. These extremes and the contrast between the two characters is what sets up much of the comedy in this type of film. But of course this “villain” is really a big buffoon, and it’s only the fact that the professor is so out of touch that makes the villainy work. Any normal person would see right through Hawk’s lies and be able to defeat him easily.
A final element that The Absent Minded Professor introduces is the trope that the science being produced is suitably world changing. In these films, it’s not a process that would only alter the lives of the main characters, but mankind. Whether it’s a new way of life, or as in this film a new type of energy, the person that would bring this invention to light would become rich and powerful. Ned is not interested in that aspect and therefore cannot grasp Alonzo’s greed. He sees it as only a purely scientific pursuit whose accidental creation is now something he can use to benefit the world. Science for science’s sake!
The film doesn’t really get into any deep philosophical issues like The Time Machine or The Incredible Shrinking Man. However it does look at the two sides of the issue regarding science for altruism or for profit, albeit comically. As mentioned above, Alonso Hawk is a character that exploits all possible profit. Whereas Ned Brainard has accidentally created a world-changing source of energy at no cost to himself and therefore wishes to provide it to the government for free. The film appears to come down on the side of altruism, celebrating the professor for turning over the flubber to the government and making sure that Alonzo Hawk gets his comeuppance.
Being 1961, the applications of flubber by the government, are portrayed as beneficial and benign, but one can only imagine what the post World War II/pre Cuban Missile Crisis government would do with such a discovery. At this time America was transitioning from President Eisenhower to President Kennedy. The film, which was released in March 1961, would have been made after Kennedy was elected, but before he took office – in January 1961. America was still in the honeymoon phase of “Camelot,” the name given to the Kennedy regime. Ned characterizes the President as a nice man, not specifying who he actually met. Maybe giving flubber to the armed forces during this era would have been okay, but given the turmoil that this decade would see, it would absolutely change the outcome for America as the years unfolded. It would be interesting to see how the 1963 sequel addresses any of this – which it probably does not, as Disney would not be producing politically motivated works at this time.
Additionally even though the film was released in 1961, it still feels very much entrenched in the 1950s, maybe partially due to being released in black and white. It is not very progressive in terms of romance or courtship, giving Betsy the roll of bride, and secretary, and not much else. She becomes the prize to be won as Shelby attempts to compete with Ned for her hand in marriage, not even thinking of asking her how she feels. By the end of the film, Betsy does realize that Shelby is a dufus and not what she’s looking for in a partner. But the growth, if it can really be considered that, is weak and superficial.
The Science in The Fiction
Science-fiction without some sort of science is just fiction. Sometimes the science presented in a film is superfluous or cursory, either in terms of execution or inclusion. The Absent Minded Professor is heavy on the science but only as plot point to allow the audience to believe that Professor Brainard could actually invent flubber. But the film also makes sure that science is represented somewhat accurately. The invention of flubber is not mystical, it’s firmly rooted in the potential of the scientific process. Unfortunately, Professor Brainard is just unsure exactly what he did to make the flubber!
What it does present, quite well, is Brainard’s use of the scientific method. Ned is shown teaching his class about scientific principles, and he uses logical arguments in his personal interactions. The filmmakers demonstrate the importance of science in education, showing the characters with a science background as superior to other characters. At one point, Betsy corrects the priest who mistakes Shelby for Ned. While they are both professors, she says that Shelby is “romance languages,” while Ned is “physical sciences.” This definition of the two plays out comedically, since Shelby uses flowery language and quotes from poets to attempt to woo Betsy. On the other hand, Ned’s “physicality” and attitude is what attracts and draws her towards him.
The Final Frontier
The Absent Minded Professor had a sequel made in 1963 called Son of Flubber starring most of the same cast, and continuing the crazy adventures of Ned Brainard and his flubber. That film appears to be more of the same type of fun that this one is, based on the reviews for it. There was also a remake produced in 1997, called Flubber, that updated the story for modern audiences. It was co-written by John Hughes, based on the original screenplay for The Absent Minded Professor. It starred Robin Williams, which one might expect made it an immediate hit, but reviews for that film did not fare well. If memory serves, one of the problems with that film is attempting to make flubber sentient; like a green alien goo. It goes to prove that sometimes remakes are completely unnecessary.
Remakes aside, the real achievement for this film is its presentation of a sci-fi premise in a comedic package. There are probably some people that would never see a “sci-fi film,” such as The Time Machine or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but bundle up some of that optimism and humanity in a comedy, and tickets get sold. The crossbreed of sci-fi and comedy presents similar ideas to audiences but in a slicker package that one doesn’t have to take as seriously. This film showed Hollywood that there was a market for these types of films, and there have steadily been profitable sci-fi comedies coming out ever since.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.