Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Absent-Minded Professor

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor

Walt Disney knew his way around a winning formula. It isn’t as simple as merely giving the people what they want. You do that too often and you run the risk of repeating yourself, which is something Walt tried to avoid at all costs. Instead, you have to create something that’s the same but different. Walt proved he knew how to do this repeatedly, through the many short films of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, through his animated classics, even through the long-running True-Life Adventures.

When The Shaggy Dog hit it big in 1959, Walt knew he had another winning formula on his hands. Today, that formula is as familiar to Disney fans as the names of the seven dwarfs. They typically take place in Anytown, USA, usually around some stodgy old institution like a college or museum. A student or inventor will make some improbable discovery, either scientific or paranormal, and hilarity ensues. In later years, Leonard Maltin would dub them “gimmick comedies”.

The Absent-Minded Professor cements the formula begun by The Shaggy Dog. This time, the source material was an obscure 1922 short story called A Situation Of Gravity by Samuel W. Taylor. Taylor (no relation to Samuel A. Taylor, the screenwriter of Vertigo) wrote a couple of screenplays, including Hugo Haas’s 1954 film noir Bait, but was better known, at least among the LDS community, for a series of Mormon-themed historical novels. His book Heaven Knows Why! is considered a classic of Mormon comedic writing, which is apparently a thing.

Taylor’s story is hard to track down, so I have no idea how much of it remains in Bill Walsh’s screenplay adaptation. If I had to guess, I’d say not much at all. Walsh had become one of Disney’s most reliable live-action writer/producers since transitioning from TV to features. He’d written The Littlest Outlaw, The Shaggy Dog and Toby Tyler so far. He’ll continue to be a major presence in this column.

Also returning from The Shaggy Dog was Fred MacMurray. But this time, MacMurray wasn’t a put-upon family man whose eldest son experimented with wacky experiments. Here, he’s Professor Ned Brainard, a confirmed bachelor whose obsession with his own wacky experiments keeps causing him to forget about his own wedding. Most women left standing at the altar would dump their fiancé after the first time. But Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson, last seen in Pollyanna) either has the patience of a saint or is a glutton for punishment. She’s given him one last chance (his third!) to tie the knot.

Unfortunately, Brainard stumbles on to a discovery that causes his garage lab to explode and knocks him out cold. He misses the wedding but upon coming to, finds he’s accidentally created a Silly Putty-like goo that gains energy and momentum every time it hits a hard surface. He excitedly dubs the stuff flubber (for “flying rubber”) and is confident that his discovery will save both his relationship with Betsy and his job at financially strapped Medfield College.

Betsy works as a secretary to the dean (Leon Ames, who will also be back in this column), so Brainard attempts to kill two birds with one stone by introducing them both to flubber at the same time. They couldn’t possibly care less. The dean has bigger problems since the massive loan he took out from ruthless tycoon Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn, another soon-to-be familiar face) is now due. Hawk also has a personal grudge against Brainard. The prof flunked his son Biff (Tommy Kirk, playing slightly against type as a dumb jock), preventing him from playing in the all-important basketball game against Medfield’s rivals.

To make matters worse, Peggy has finally decided to dump Brainard. Her escort to the game is English professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reid and yep, he’ll be back in this column too). Deciding he needs a more impressive demonstration, Brainard rigs up his old Model T with flubber and some garden variety radioactive isotopes he had lying around the house, creating the world’s first flying car. When Peggy refuses to go for a ride with him, he irons some flubber onto the team’s tennis shoes at halftime, resulting in a bouncy win for Medfield.

Even so, nobody will listen to Brainard about flubber. So he decides to call Washington, where various bureaucrats give him the runaround. The Secretary of Defense (Edward Andrews) is equally dismissive but the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force all overhear his conversation. For some reason, they take him very seriously and immediately head to Medfield to check it out for themselves.

Unfortunately, Alonzo Hawk happened to spot Brainard’s Model T flying across the night sky. He and Biff hatch a scheme to switch cars, leaving Brainard with egg on his face when he attempts to give the military men a demonstration. But Peggy gets a firsthand look at flubber in action at a dance with Brainard wearing flubberized shoes. She goes back to him and they launch their own scheme to get the Model T back.

Comic book adaptation of The Absent-Minded Professor

If The Shaggy Dog invented the gimmick comedy formula, The Absent-Minded Professor perfects it. Everything that worked in the previous film is back in some form or another. There are elaborate special effects sequences that go for laughs rather than action, suspense or visual opulence. The decision to film in black-and-white was made to help mask those effects, since Walt, Bill Walsh and director Robert Stevenson weren’t sure if they’d hold up in color. They aren’t exactly seamless but they are effective. The basketball game and the Model T bouncing off the roof of another car and driving on walls could have come straight out of one of Walt’s cartoons.

MacMurray was a lot of fun in The Shaggy Dog but he really hits his stride here. The Shaggy Dog had given him an essentially reactive role. He excelled in it because Fred MacMurray always had been a great straight man. But he’s the driving force behind The Absent-Minded Professor and he’s just as good. He gets in some great physical comedy (before the visual effects and stunt guys take over) but he’s a master at the half-muttered mostly gibberish dialogue he rattles off constantly. Walt got very lucky when Fred MacMurray joined the studio. He’d found a comedic leading man who could do it all.

The Absent-Minded Professor also introduces the concept of cameos and callbacks to the gimmick comedy formula. James Westerfield and Forrest Lewis are back as put-upon traffic cops Hanson and Kelly from The Shaggy Dog, still crashing into cars and splashing hot coffee into Hanson’s face. When the fire department turns up to try and stop Mr. Hawk from bouncing into the stratosphere, they’re led by Keenan Wynn’s father, Ed Wynn (last heard from in this column as the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland). This is actually a reference on top of a reference. In addition to the unremarked upon father-and-son casting, the elder Wynn had become a star on the radio playing the title character on The Fire Chief. These little touches of meta humor and winks to a shared universe would become a common trope in Disney comedies.

There are two more names in the credits who will soon become inextricably connected to Walt Disney. Brothers Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman began writing songs together in the early 1950s. They’d had a few hit songs, including “You’re Sixteen” and “Tall Paul”, which become Mouseketeer Annette Funicello’s highest-charting single. Annette recorded several other Sherman Brothers tunes and this caught the ear of Walt Disney.

Walt hired the brothers as full-time staff songwriters in 1960. Their first assignment was another song for Annette, “Strummin’ Song”, which was featured in the two-part Disneyland episode The Horsemasters. The Absent-Minded Professor’s “Medfield Fight Song” was their first credit in a Disney feature. It will not be their last. The Sherman Brothers will be back in this column many times. They also wrote “The Flubber Song”, a ridiculous novelty song for Fred MacMurray that doesn’t show up in the movie but did make it onto the record.

The Absent-Minded Professor record album

The Absent-Minded Professor premiered on March 16, 1961. It became the studio’s second consecutive hit of the year after the success of One Hundred And One Dalmatians, raking in over $11 million. It was the 5th highest-grossing picture of 1961 and the studio wasn’t done yet. The year’s 4th highest-grossing movie will be in this column next time.

The movie also provided Walt a somewhat unlikely return to the Academy Awards. The Absent-Minded Professor was nominated for three Oscars: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (both in the black-and-white categories) and Best Special Effects. It lost the black-and-white categories to The Hustler and The Guns Of Navarone took home the special effects award. Still, the idea that The Absent-Minded Professor was up against the likes of La Dolce Vita and Judgment At Nuremberg is pretty wild.

The legacy of The Absent-Minded Professor is very much alive and not just at Disney. Special effects comedies were rare before Walt Disney came along. Abbott and Costello had met the monsters but they weren’t playing with the kinds of budgets that Walt was able to lavish on his productions. The success of the gimmick comedies helped pave the way for later blockbusters like Ghostbusters and Men In Black. Like Professor Ned Brainard, Walt Disney had created an extremely successful formula. Flubber will return.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was not Walt Disney’s first live-action feature. But it was by far the biggest and most ambitious production he had attempted to date. The project went wildly over-budget, becoming the most expensive feature film ever made up to that time. If it flopped, it very likely would have dragged the entire studio down with it. Instead, it cemented Walt Disney’s reputation as a producer capable of creating live-action spectacles every bit as impressive as his animated features.

In fact, Walt at first considered adapting Jules Verne’s novel as a feature-length cartoon. That in itself is a fascinating alternate history to contemplate. Almost all of Disney’s animated films fall pretty squarely within the fairy tale/fantasy genres. It would have been incredible to see what the Disney animators could have done with a science fiction adventure.

It was the work of artist Harper Goff that convinced Walt to make the film in live-action. Goff had been working as a set designer for Warner Bros. when he met Walt in 1951. They were both trying to buy the same model train set and bonded over their shared hobby. Walt got the train but Goff got a new job.

Assigned to work on the 20,000 Leagues project, Goff proceeded to draw up an elaborate set of storyboards for a live-action feature. The work clicked with Walt. Perhaps emboldened by the success of his first live-action British production, Treasure Island, he greenlit 20,000 Leagues as his first American-based feature.

To direct, Walt hired Richard Fleischer, the son of one of his oldest competitors, the great animator Max Fleischer. The younger Fleischer started his career at RKO, directing low-budget B-movies and noirs like The Clay Pigeon and The Narrow Margin. Nothing in his previous work suggested that he was the right fit for a project of this magnitude. To be fair, very few projects of this magnitude had been attempted by anyone. Needless to say, Dick Fleischer leapt at the chance, but not before both he and Walt made sure Max was okay with his son going to work for his old rival.

Fleischer worked on the screenplay with Earl Felton, a writer he’d worked with previously at RKO. Like many popular novels of its era, Verne’s book had originally been published as a serial. This gave Fleischer and Felton a lot of cool incidents and episodes to choose from but not a lot of plot. Ultimately, they decided to focus on the unwilling captivity of the book’s three heroes, picking the most memorable scenes from the book and rearranging them into an order that fit their needs. The result is faithful to the spirit and flavor of Verne’s book, if not the letter of the text.

Walt was willing to do whatever it took to ensure the film’s success, even if that meant hiring bona fide A-list movie stars for the first time. Kirk Douglas had only been in pictures for less than a decade. But he was already a two-time Oscar nominee for the films Champion and The Bad And The Beautiful. Physically, he was ideally suited for the role of harpooner Ned Land. For Douglas, it gave him an opportunity to play a lighter role than the intense, hard-boiled parts he’d been associated with. Because this was a Disney movie, he’d even get to sing a song.

As Professor Aronnax, Disney cast Paul Lukas, an Oscar winner for the wartime drama Watch On The Rhine. The great character actor Peter Lorre was cast as Aronnax’s assistant, Conseil. This was also a change of pace for Lorre, who was usually typecast in roles that ranged from somewhat shady to outright villainous. Lorre and Douglas make a surprisingly effective comic duo. It would have been wonderful to see them together in other films, like a European heist movie.

Of course, Disney’s most inspired bit of casting was James Mason as the brilliant but deranged Captain Nemo. Mason had been a huge star in the UK but had not been an immediate success since coming to Hollywood. That was starting to change thanks to starring roles in The Desert Fox and especially A Star Is Born.

Mason’s performance as Nemo is one of the absolute best pairings of an actor to a character. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role now without a touch of Mason’s influence creeping in. He’s imperious, paranoid, single-minded, ruthless and refined. Virtually none of Nemo’s robotic, identically dressed crewmen on the Nautilus even have names, much less personality. They don’t need them. It’s clear that they live only to serve their charismatic cult leader.

Disney had never really worked with established movie stars before and wouldn’t do so very often in the future. He preferred to make his own stars, be they cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or contract players like Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten. But 20,000 Leagues demonstrates that Walt had a canny sense for tapping into what made these stars great. None of the four actors were really playing against type. But Disney found a way to channel what made them great, Douglas’s magnetism, Mason’s intensity, Lukas’s gravitas and Lorre’s…well, Lorre-ness, and channel it in directions no one else had. He ended up getting four great star performances without a weak link in the bunch.

Theatrical poster for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Apart from the cast, the movie has several behind-the-scenes MVPs. First and foremost is Harper Goff, whose storyboards kickstarted the whole project. Goff was responsible for designing the Nautilus, both the exterior and interior sets. In doing so, he basically invented the entire aesthetic that later evolved into steampunk. Ornate Victorian furnishings sit comfortably beside hard steel walls with exposed rivets, pipes and tubes and massive circular staircases. Best of all is Nemo’s enormous pipe organ, a magnificently absurd touch that tells you everything you need to know about this character.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea won an Oscar for Best Color Art Direction but Goff didn’t get one. At the time, he wasn’t a member of the Art Directors Guild and therefore, wasn’t eligible under Academy bylaws. John Meehan and set decorator Emile Kuri collected the awards instead. Goff worked for Disney for a few more years, contributing a great deal to the layout of Disneyland and later, Walt Disney World. Later on, he’d once again create some unforgettable sets as art director on Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

20,000 Leagues also won an Oscar for Best Special Effects, beating out another submarine movie, Sam Fuller’s Hell And High Water, as well as the giant ants of Them! (Elmo Williams was also nominated for Best Film Editing but lost that one.) The effects had been by far the most challenging aspect of the production, especially the now iconic giant squid. John Hench was the lead developer of the squid, creating a full-sized hydraulic monster that required a team of twenty-some men to operate.

The first attempt at the squid sequence went poorly. Fleischer and Walt both agreed that the monster looked ridiculous. Walt apparently commented that it looked like a Keystone Kops short. While Hench and his team redesigned the squid’s appearance, writer Earl Felton suggested that the scene take place at night during a violent storm, rather than the placid twilight setting of the original. The film was already in danger of going overbudget and the reshoots sent the cost through the roof. Between this film and the ongoing construction of Disneyland, the studio was once again running on fumes.

But the reshoots did the trick. The giant squid remains a highlight of the picture and an indelible moment in movie history. No one could ever accuse Walt Disney of being thrifty and his willingness to spend whatever it took in his quest for perfection paid off more often than not.

Matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, who had worked on all of Disney’s British productions, had now accepted full-time employment at the studio and set up shop in Burbank. Once again, he created seamless illusions. He transformed a tank on the 20th Century Fox lot into Nemo’s island lair, Vulcania, and a quarry into a South Seas penal colony.

Richard Fleischer also tried to work some traditional Disney animation into the film, proposing a sequence where the Nautilus encounters animated, bioluminescent creatures near the bottom of the sea. The animation was produced (it’s available as an extra on the special edition DVD and it’s pretty cool) but Walt decided to nix the idea. That was the right call, as it would have clashed with the style of the rest of the film. Years later, Wes Anderson would use a different kind of animation to achieve the same effect in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. It works there, matching the more whimsical tone of Anderson’s work.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was a big hit upon its release just before Christmas of 1954, although it took awhile to earn its money back since it had cost so much to make. Eventually it became the third highest-grossing movie of the year, just behind White Christmas and The Caine Mutiny. It was by far the most successful live-action film Walt had produced to date, leading to an attraction at Disneyland, toys, comics and records. Even Kirk Douglas’s “A Whale Of A Tale” got released as a single.

Cover art for the Decca Records release of A Whale Of A Tale by Kirk Douglas

Despite all this success, this would be the only time Fleischer, Mason, Douglas, Lukas or Lorre ever worked for Disney. In Kirk Douglas’s case, the relationship ended on a sour note. He had brought his sons, Joel and Michael, over to Walt’s house and footage from that visit ended up in an episode of the Disneyland TV show. Douglas wrote Walt, saying he hadn’t given permission to use the footage of his family and asked for it to be removed. Walt apologized, then went ahead and aired it again anyway. So Douglas sued him, ABC, and just about everybody else involved with the show for “invasion of privacy”. He later ended up dropping the suit but the incident caused a rift between Walt and Kirk that neither one ever quite got over.

Today, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea appears like a magnificent anomaly in the Disney canon. It could have been the start of a bold new direction for the studio, a series of close collaborations between Walt and first-class filmmakers and actors brought in from outside the studio. Instead, the live-action division began to close ranks, falling back on historical dramas, nostalgia pieces and eventually comedies. It would be years before the studio attempted another live-action film on this scale. Now, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea feels like a calling card for a Disney that never arrived.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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