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: The Shaggy Dog

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog

Since the release of Treasure Island in 1950, Walt Disney’s live-action division had dabbled in a variety of different but fundamentally similar genres. The boys’ adventure of Treasure Island led to historical adventure dramas like The Story Of Robin Hood and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, westerns like Davy Crockett and Westward Ho The Wagons!, family dramas like Old Yeller, and even one big budget sci-fi/fantasy in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The one thing they had not attempted was comedy. But with The Shaggy Dog, Walt hit upon a formula that would, for better or worse, come to define the studio style for the next twenty or so years.

The Shaggy Dog is based on the novel The Hound Of Florence by Felix Salten, although “based on” seems a little strong. Walt’s first adaptation of a Salten novel, Bambi, was released back in 1942. It had done poorly but was an important film to Walt. Shortly before its release, Walt picked up the movie rights to five more Salten books. Part of the reason was that Salten lived in Switzerland and Disney had money tied up overseas that, due to World War II spending restrictions, had to be spent overseas. But it was also because he didn’t want anyone else to come along and make a movie based on Salten’s sequel, Bambi’s Children.

At this point, it doesn’t seem like Walt had any real intention of filming any of these books, although he claimed to be developing at least a couple of them as cartoons. (Salten himself died shortly afterward in 1945). But then Winston Hibler had the idea to adapt Perri into a quasi-True-Life Adventure entry. Now I can’t say for certain that the experience of making Perri jogged Walt’s memory and sent him back into the Disney library to see what else he’d picked up. But it does seem an odd coincidence that suddenly Felix Salten’s name was attached to two very different movies more than 15 years after Walt originally acquired the rights.

Beyond the central idea of a boy who magically transforms into a dog, The Shaggy Dog has very little in common with Salten’s original book. The story goes that Walt originally pitched the idea to ABC as a television show. When the network passed, an insulted Walt decided to prove them wrong by turning it into a feature. Bill Walsh, the former comic strip writer who had been promoted to running Disney’s TV operations, produced and co-wrote the script with Lillie Hayward, another TV writer who had recently cowritten the screenplay for Tonka.

To direct, Walsh recruited Charles Barton from the TV side, where he’d directed episodes of Spin And Marty and Zorro (not to mention The Peter Tchaikovsky Story, an episode of Walt Disney Presents that was sort of half a mini-biopic of the composer and half a commercial for Sleeping Beauty). But it wasn’t Barton’s TV credits that made him the right man for the job. He had also directed several of Abbott and Costello’s best features, including Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein and Africa Screams. If there was a director in Hollywood who knew about combining fantasy and comedy, it was Barton.

Barton shot the film on a low budget using a young cast of familiar TV faces. Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, the brothers from Old Yeller, starred as brothers Wilby and Moochie Daniels. This was at least the third similar-but-unrelated “Moochie” character for Corcoran, following turns as Moochie O’Hara on Spin And Marty and Moochie Morgan in Moochie Of The Little League. Tommy Kirk was cementing his position as Walt’s new favorite juvenile lead, a status that would come to an unhappy end just a few years later. We’ll get to that story in due course.

Wilby’s best frenemy, Buzz Miller, was played by Tim Considine. This would be Considine’s only appearance in a Disney feature, although he’d been a big star on TV on Spin And Marty, opposite Tommy Kirk as the Hardy Boys, and elsewhere. He’d eventually retire from acting to become a sports writer and photographer but not before starring for several seasons on the sitcom My Three Sons alongside someone we’ll get to here momentarily.

The two young female leads were Annette Funicello and Roberta Shore. Annettte was by far the most popular of the original Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club. She appeared in sketches, sang songs, acted in Spin And Marty and even received her own eponymous serial, Walt Disney Presents: Annette. We’ll be seeing a whole lot more of her in this column.

Despite Annette’s popularity, she has a relatively small role compared to Roberta Shore. Shore had played Annette’s friend and sometime rival, Laura, on the Annette serial. Her role as the exotic new neighbor, Francesca, would be her first and last appearance in a Disney movie. Her biggest role came a few years later in a recurring part on the long-running TV western The Virginian. She also would retire from acting by the end of the 1960s, moving to Utah and devoting herself to her family and Mormon faith.

But by far Walt’s biggest get for The Shaggy Dog was Fred MacMurray. MacMurray had been a musician and singer who turned to acting in the mid-1930s. He became a star appearing in comedies like Swing High, Swing Low and The Egg And I. Occasionally, directors like Billy Wilder would cast him against his nice guy image, tapping into a darker side in movies like the film noir classic Double Indemnity. But after appearing in a string of mediocre western programmers, MacMurray’s star was on the wane by the end of the 50s.

Walt personally approached MacMurray about returning to his comedic roots. Apparently his second choice for the role was Gregory Peck, which is bizarre to think about. In any event, MacMurray agreed to star as Wilson Daniels, the retired mailman with the severe dog allergy. The role kickstarted the last and most profitable phase of his long career. Between the Disney films (he’ll make frequent appearances in this column going forward) and his role as the family patriarch on My Three Sons, MacMurray would become known as America’s Dad long before Tom Hanks could claim the title.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Shaggy Dog

The story that Walsh and Hayward concocted from Salten’s book is very much a shaggy dog story, a cluttered series of incidents and random tangents that somehow manages to amuse despite itself. Wilby Daniels is an offbeat kid who spends his spare time in his basement coming up with kooky inventions. After a homemade rocket almost destroys the house, his dad lays down the law and orders him to get rid of all his equipment.

While he’s doing this, he spots his friend Buzz picking up Allison, the neighbor girl both boys have a crush on. But pretty soon, the arrival of a new neighbor turns Allison into yesterday’s news. Francesca and her adoptive father, Dr. Mikhail Andrassy (Alexander Scourby), move into the neighborhood along with Francesca’s beloved sheepdog, Chiffon. Chiffon takes an immediate liking to Wilby and the boys use the dog as an excuse to introduce themselves to Francesca.

They accompany her on an errand to the local museum, where Wilby gets separated from the group. He runs into Professor Plumcutt (Cecil Kellaway), who’s putting together an exhibit of artifacts from the Borgia family. Wilby accidentally knocks over a tray and ends up with a Borgia ring stuck in the cuff of his jeans. The ring bears an inscription, “In canis corpore transmute,” that Wilby reads aloud, triggering a curse that transforms him into Chiffon.

Trapped in dog form, Wilby reveals himself to his younger brother, Moochie, who is delighted at the prospect of finally getting a dog. However, the curse isn’t permanent or predictable. Wilby starts switching back and forth between boy and dog at random, inopportune times, including at a dance where Buzz tries to pull off dating both Allison and Francesca simultaneously.

Back in dog form, Wilby finds himself trapped inside Francesca’s house, where he discovers that Dr. Andrassy is part of a spy ring preparing to smuggle some highly classified something-or-other called “Section 32” out of the country. Wilby escapes and goes to his father for help. Wilson faints when he hears Wilby’s voice coming from Chiffon, so Wilby tries to go it alone. After Wilson recovers, Moochie convinces him that the stories are true, Wilby is a dog and the new neighbor’s a spy. But when Wilson goes to the police, they understandably think he’s nuts and send him to the police psychiatrist (played by prolific voice actor Paul Frees in an uncredited cameo). All this nonsense winds up in a wacky chase with Chiffon behind the wheel of Buzz’s car and Wilson, Moochie, Buzz and some disbelieving cops in pursuit.

It’s absolutely pointless to complain that a movie called The Shaggy Dog has a lot of loose ends. Of course it does. But some of the loose ends here seem like they would have been a lot of fun to explore. That whole subplot about Wilby being a boy inventor? Doesn’t really factor into the movie. The bit with Buzz trying to mack on both Allison and Francesca and ending up getting both girls vying for Wilby instead? Funny stuff that’s forgotten about pretty quickly.

What we’re left to focus on is all the Cold War spy stuff. It’s left purposely vague, which is fine. There’s no point in getting into the finer points of international espionage in a movie like this. But it’s also not as character-based as the movie’s best moments. MacMurray does a great job selling peeved, frustrated, befuddled and eventually, harmlessly hypocritical as he allows the papers to sell his image as a dog-loving hero.

Jean Hagen, the Oscar-nominated co-star of Singin’ In The Rain, has a thankless role as Wilson’s long-suffering wife, Freeda. Despite having virtually nothing to do, Hagen makes the most of it, deadpanning her way through her boys’ ridiculous antics and misadventures. She and MacMurray pair off well together. It’s too bad she’s sidelined for the movie’s second half.

The movie’s most pleasant surprise has to be the relaxed, engaging performances delivered by the kids. In Old Yeller, Kirk’s teenage petulance and Corcoran’s hyperactivity grated on my nerves. But with The Shaggy Dog, they’re in their element. Despite his character’s awkwardness, Kirk really is the all-American teenager. And Barton dials back Corcoran’s enthusiasm without losing his sense of mischief and fun. Best of all, their familiarity with each other sells the idea that they’re brothers in a way that seems a bit less forced than in Old Yeller.

Familiarity also drives home the friendship between Kirk and Considine. They have an easy, natural rapport. You buy the idea that they’d remain friends even though Buzz really takes advantage of Wilby at every turn. There’s an art to playing an arrogant showboat like Buzz without alienating your audience. Tim Considine figures it out. Even at his worst, Buzz still seems like he’d be fun to have around.

Annette doesn’t have much of a chance to shine here. She’s the ideal girl next door but that’s about it. Later films would give her more opportunities to showcase the talents that made her such a draw as a Mouseketeer. Roberta Shore is fun as the exotic Francesca, although her vaguely “foreign” accent is forgotten at the first available opportunity.

Nobody had high expectations for The Shaggy Dog. According to Walt, most people around the studio barely even noticed they were making it. The movie was released on March 19, 1959, and became a surprise blockbuster. It became the second highest-grossing film of the year, behind Ben-Hur, outperforming now-classics like Some Like It Hot, North By Northwest and Pillow Talk. It was the Disney studio’s most successful film of the decade.

Success breeds imitation, so Walt wasted little time codifying the Shaggy Dog formula. Throughout the 60s and into the 70s, Walt would corner the market on what Leonard Maltin has described as “gimmick comedies”. The heroes are usually young and/or somewhat eccentric. Something comes along, either an invention or a discovery or a monkey or some other magical McGuffin, to cause chaos and wacky misadventures ensue. We’ll be seeing plenty of gimmick comedies in the weeks and months ahead.

We’ll also be seeing Wilby Daniels again, although not as soon as you might think. Despite the film’s popularity, Disney didn’t produce a sequel until The Shaggy D.A. some 17 years later. In 1987, the studio released a TV sequel called The Return Of The Shaggy Dog, starring Saturday Night Live’s Gary Kroeger and co-written by Paul Haggis. At the time, Haggis was known as a TV writer on sitcoms like The Facts Of Life, still many years away from Oscar-bait movies like Million Dollar Baby and Crash.

After the sequels came the remakes. In 1994, ABC debuted their version of The Shaggy Dog starring Scott Weinger (the voice of Aladdin) as Wilby Daniels and Ed Begley, Jr. as his dad. Finally (at least so far), Tim Allen starred in a 2006 remake that combined elements from both The Shaggy Dog and The Shaggy D.A. to create a movie that seemingly no one likes although it made a lot of money. Today, if it’s remembered at all, it’s as a low point for Robert Downey Jr. before his Iron Man renaissance.

(Iron Man, which predates Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, will not be appearing in this column. Neither will either of the made-for-TV Shaggy Dogs. Tim Allen’s The Shaggy Dog, God help us all, will.)

So the gimmick comedies are here to stay. Some will be good and some will be real clunkers. Eventually, they’ll start to dominate everything else at the Disney studio and be partly responsible for some of the studio’s darkest days. But with the original Shaggy Dog, you can see the genre’s appeal, both creatively and financially. It’s a genuinely amusing comedy that earned a boat-load of cash. No wonder they went back to the well again and again…and again…and again…

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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