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: Pollyanna

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Pollyanna

By 1960, the original members of the Disney Repertory Players had all left the studio. Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten had grown up and moved on, albeit to very different ends. Fess Parker had hung up his coonskin cap and, in a few years, would be putting on…well, a different coonskin cap for another studio. Richard Todd, who was still getting top billing in the UK, was about to lose out on the role of a lifetime to another former Disney star, Sean Connery.

At the same time, Disney was assembling a new team of contract stars. James MacArthur and Janet Munro were the go-to young adults. Fred MacMurray had already starred in one feature and would soon sign on as a recurring father figure. Kid stars were recruited from TV, mostly The Mickey Mouse Club. Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Annette Funicello and Tim Considine had all become popular favorites. But of all Disney’s recurring stars of the 1960s, perhaps none would become more synonymous with the studio than Hayley Mills. When she made her Disney debut in 1960’s Pollyanna, all the pieces clicked into place.

The novel Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter was first published in 1913. It was an immediate bestseller, producing a string of sequels (only one of which was written by Porter), Broadway adaptations (including one starring James MacArthur’s mother, Helen Hayes) and even The Glad Game, a popular board game from Parker Brothers.

Pollyanna - The Glad Game from Parker Brothers

In 1920, Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart, produced and starred in a film adaptation that was also a big hit. She was 27 years old at the time playing a 12-year-old. Mary Pickford had a weird career.

Because of the character’s consistent popularity over the years, the news that Walt Disney would be spearheading a remake was greeted as a kind of inevitability. Pollyanna was already known as a tearjerker of the highest magnitude. The word itself had become part of the vernacular, describing an excessively cheerful or optimistic person. This was exactly the kind of nostalgic, sentimental hogwash Walt had become known for. Anticipation was not high.

Nevertheless, Walt took the project extremely seriously. Perhaps due to the popularity of the Pickford version, Walt assembled one of the most distinguished casts he’d yet worked with. Jane Wyman, Karl Malden and Donald Crisp were all Oscar winners. Nancy Olson, Agnes Moorehead and Adolph Menjou were prior nominees. These were not the usual Disney actors.

At first, this lineup of heavy-hitters intimidated first-time feature director David Swift. Swift had started his career at Disney in the 30s, working his way up from office boy to assistant to animator on such features as Fantasia and The Reluctant Dragon. He left the studio to serve in the Air Force during World War II. When he returned home, he became a TV writer, creating the Wally Cox comedy Mister Peepers and honing his directing skills on anthology shows like Playhouse 90 and Climax! Walt approached his old employee about writing the screenplay for Pollyanna. Swift’s detailed treatment impressed him enough to offer him the directing gig as well.

Of course, the whole project would have been pointless if they couldn’t find the right girl to play Pollyanna. After an exhaustive talent search led nowhere, Walt was ready to call the whole thing off. But while in London, Walt’s wife, Lillian, and producer Bill Anderson’s wife, Virginia, decided to go to the movies. The picture they went to see, the 1959 crime drama Tiger Bay, starred distinguished stage-and-screen actor John Mills and, in her film debut, his daughter, Hayley. Lillian and Virginia thought Hayley Mills would be perfect as Pollyanna, so they dragged their husbands to the cinema. Although they didn’t know it yet, by the end of that screening a new Disney star had been born. (Two of them, actually. John Mills will be appearing in this column himself before too long.)

Within its opening minutes, Pollyanna announces itself as a spiritual successor to such rose-colored glimpses into the past as So Dear To My Heart. Opening on a shot of a boy’s bare butt as he swings into the local swimmin’ hole for some innocent skinny-dipping, the movie immediately hearkens back to a time when skinny-dipping was actually considered innocent. From there, we follow young orphan Jimmy Bean (Disney regular Kevin Corcoran) as he navigates the streets of Harrington with his hoop and stick. The only thing missing is sepia tone to confirm that we’re back in the Good Ole Days.

When the orphaned Pollyanna arrives to live with her wealthy Aunt Polly (Wyman), Harrington seems like a picture-perfect little town but resentment and hostility simmers everywhere just beneath the surface. Polly opposes the town’s demands, led by Mayor Warren (Crisp), to raze the dilapidated old orphanage on the grounds that her father donated the landmark to the community. Reverend Ford (Malden) has allowed Polly to dictate the tenor of his weekly sermons, alternately boring and frightening his congregation with fire-and-brimstone ranting. Polly’s maid, Nancy (Olson), is in love with George Dodds (James Drury, recently seen shooting poor Mr. Stubbs in Toby Tyler) but has to sneak around to see him.

Pollyanna’s arrival coincides with the return of Polly’s old paramour, Dr. Edmond Chilton (Richard Egan). Chilton entertained hopes of rekindling his old romance but having found Polly changed considerably, he sides with the townsfolk in organizing a bazaar to raise money for a new orphanage.

Like everyone else in town except Aunt Polly, Chilton is immediately charmed by Pollyanna and her sunny outlook on life. Pollyanna touches Reverend Ford’s heart by sharing a locket given to her by her father inscribed with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will.” (Lincoln never said that, by the way. The Disney marketing department had to stop selling keepsake replica lockets after Swift told them he’d made it up himself.) She even wins over the town’s most feared residents: hypochondriac shut-in Mrs. Snow (Moorehead) and old recluse Mr. Pendergast (Menjou).

Pollyanna sneaks out of her aunt’s house to enjoy the bazaar, which is a rousing success. But as she’s trying to sneak back in, she slips and falls from a tree, breaking her back and, worst of all, her spirit. Dr. Chilton tells Polly that her niece will never walk again without love…and a major operation but mostly love. Aunt Polly learns the error of her ways and the entire town gathers at the house to see Pollyanna off to the hospital and show her how important she’s become to everyone in the extremely short time she’s been in town.

On paper, this all sounds insufferably corny. But under Swift’s capable direction, Pollyanna manages to walk a tightrope between sweet and saccharine. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one. Nobody is more surprised by this than me. I had managed to avoid exposure to Pollyanna before watching it for this column. This wasn’t difficult. It simply didn’t look as though it would hold any appeal for me whatsoever. But even a cynic like me can appreciate good schmaltz when it’s put together well and the ingredients here all work.

The cast is certainly the biggest factor in the film’s success. These are all old pros but there’s no sense that anyone is slumming it by appearing in a children’s film. Everything is played with absolute sincerity with no winking at the camera. Jane Wyman could easily have tilted her performance into Wicked Stepmother territory but she remains grounded and believable. Her imperiousness comes across as a natural defense mechanism against a world that doesn’t look favorably upon strong, independent women. When she finally softens her heart a little, you don’t get the idea that her personality is now radically different. It’s just deepened a bit.

Agnes Moorehead and Adolphe Menjou, on the other hand, do undergo radical personality shifts thanks to Pollyanna. Old Mr. Pendergast even agrees to adopt Jimmy Bean, even though they didn’t seem all that close. But if you’re going to include such broadly drawn characters, it’s smart to get actors like Moorehead and Menjou who can commit to them and have fun.

This would turn out to be Adolphe Menjou’s last film before his death in 1963. Moorehead would remain busy for the next decade and a half, including her iconic run on the sitcom Bewitched, but this would be her only appearance in a Disney feature. In 1971, she’d appear in The Strange Monster Of Strawberry Cove, a two-parter for The Wonderful World Of Disney, but TV releases fall outside the purview of this column.

Karl Malden was a Very Serious Actor, known for his work with Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams. He’d won an Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire and had been nominated for On The Waterfront. If anyone was going to look down their not insubstantial nose at a Disney picture, it was him. But Malden goes all in. He has a lot of fun ranting about God’s wrath but his most effective moment on the pulpit comes after he’s met with Pollyanna and decides to focus on “happy texts”. As he realizes that he was wrong, we see him struggling with shame and self-doubt. It’s a tender moment that helps elevate the material.

Of course, Hayley Mills is the golden thread that keeps the movie together and she’s delightful. Like Bobby Driscoll before her, she won the Academy Juvenile Award for her performance, the last time that honorary trophy was given out. The movie wouldn’t be the same without her guileless presence. She and Disney were made for each other. We’ll see a lot more of her in this column. We’ll also have return visits from Jane Wyman, Karl Malden, Nancy Olson, Donald Crisp and, of course, the inescapable Kevin Corcoran.

Walt had given Pollyanna a relatively lavish budget by his live-action standards and was expecting it to be a blockbuster. It wasn’t. It earned a tidy profit, which is certainly more than could be said for some of the studio’s other recent releases. But Walt was disappointed. The picture connected with girls and women but Walt felt more boys would have gone to see it if it’d had a different title.

The Disney studio wasn’t quite through with Eleanor Porter’s creation. In 1982, the Walt Disney anthology series aired The Adventures Of Pollyanna, a pilot for a potential series starring a young Patsy Kensit as the Glad Girl and Shirley Jones as Aunt Polly. They’d have better luck a few years later with Polly, a musical remake directed by Debbie Allen.

Soundtrack cover to Polly, the 1989 musical remake of Pollyanna

The mostly Black cast included Keshia Knight Pulliam, Phylicia Rashad, Dorian Harewood, Brock Peters, Celeste Holm, Ken Page (the future voice of Oogie Boogie in The Nightmare Before Christmas) and, in her final role, Butterfly McQueen. Polly was a ratings smash and a sequel, Polly Comin’ Home!, followed the very next year. The Polly movies have a fanbase, especially in the African-American community, so I’m surprised Disney hasn’t done more with them.

It’s easy to roll your eyes at a movie as earnest and sweet as Pollyanna, especially in this day and age. It almost requires an act of will to switch off your inner cynic and allow yourself to be won over by something this innocent. Honestly, I’m not sure I was able to completely do that myself. But if nothing else, I can appreciate the skill behind the movie and understand why its fans love it.

VERDICT: Disney Plus…I know, I’m surprised myself.

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An Honor To Be Nominated: Sunset Blvd.

THE CONTENDER: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Number of Nominations: 11 – Picture, Actor (William Holden), Actress (Gloria Swanson), Supporting Actor (Erich von Stroheim), Supporting Actress (Nancy Olson), Director (Billy Wilder), Writing, Story and Screenplay (Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman, Jr.), Cinematography, Black and White (John F. Seitz), Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black and White (Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Sam Comer & Ray Moyer), Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Franz Waxman), Film Editing (Arthur Schmidt & Doane Harrison)

Number of Wins: 3 – Writing, Story and Screenplay; Art Direction/Set Direction, Black and White; Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture

There’s no business like show business and of all the myriad branches of entertainment, none is as magical or inspiring as the motion picture industry. Don’t take my word for it. Just ask the people who work in the motion picture industry.

Since the silent era, one of Hollywood’s primary missions has been the creation and promotion of its own self-aggrandizing myth. Hollywood loves to make movies about itself but just to prove they’re good sports, they’re willing to laugh at themselves, too. More often than not, this comes in the form of softball gags pushing the notion that all actresses are vain, all actors are a bit dim, producers and directors are locked in a constant battle over art and commerce, and writers are the overlooked underclass that everyone would prefer to forget. Feel free to have a laugh at these stereotypes but never forget that you’d do anything to be one of them yourself.

Every so often, a truly great, audacious filmmaker will slip a knife into the hand that’s supposed to be patting Hollywood on its back. Arguably the greatest of these dark Hollywood movies is Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Blvd., a film so far ahead of its time you may wonder how it got made in the first place.

According to Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s invaluable reference Inside Oscar, Wilder was Paramount’s golden boy. His work had been so successful that he was able to begin production without even turning in a script. At story conferences, Wilder told the Paramount brass that he was making a movie called A Can Of Beans and gave them phony plot points, all of which were complete fabrications. Once shooting began, Wilder would lock up the script in his office to make sure no one caught on.

Finding the right cast also proved difficult. Today, it’s impossible to picture anyone as faded silent film star Norma Desmond other than Gloria Swanson. Try to imagine how different the film would have been with Wilder’s first choice, Mae West. West turned it down, claiming she was too young, and after considering such luminaries from the silent era as Mary Pickford and Pola Negri, Wilder found the perfect choice in Swanson.

For Joe Gillis, the washed-up screenwriter who becomes Norma Desmond’s pet companion, Wilder originally cast Montgomery Clift. But the movie hit a bit close to home for Clift. At the time, he was in a relationship with an older woman, singer Libby Holman, who threatened to commit suicide if Clift did the picture. He dropped out and Wilder approached several other actors, including Fred MacMurray, before settling on William Holden. Holden wasn’t much more than a B-movie star at this point and Joe Gillis was an unlikely role to catapult anyone to stardom. But it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Wilder and Holden, leading to other classics like Stalag 17 and Sabrina.

It’s fair to say that Sunset Blvd. was one of the strangest films nominated for Best Picture up to this point. The movie exudes a weird menace from the moment Joe Gillis drives up to Norma Desmond’s eerie, dilapidated mansion. Joe is at first mistaken for an undertaker, scheduled to deliver a coffin for a recently deceased monkey. After Norma learns he’s a writer, she forces him to stick around and read the epically long script she’s written for her “return” (don’t call it a comeback), an overwrought adaptation of Salome. Desperate for cash, Joe agrees to help her edit the pages into something resembling a script. But little by little, he finds himself losing what few morals he had left and settles into a new role as a gigolo.

Even by film noir standards, the characters in Sunset Blvd. are a dark and twisted lot. Norma Desmond is a recluse clinging to her past glory, unwilling or unable to believe that her beloved fans have abandoned her. Joe Gillis may have had a glimmer of talent at one time but it was snuffed out long ago by his pursuit of money. As Norma’s devoted butler Max, the great, embittered silent filmmaker Erich von Stroheim is lost in his own mad attempts at preserving Norma’s illusions. It’s not entirely surprising that von Stroheim always spoke derisively of the film, waving it off as “that butler role.” The casting is particularly poignant in a scene with Norma showing Joe one of her old films. The movie, projected by Max, is actually Queen Kelly starring Swanson and directed by von Stroheim.

Despite receiving multiple nominations, the odds of Sunset Blvd. actually winning the Best Picture Oscar were always fairly remote. The film was greeted enthusiastically by critics but Wilder’s dark indictment of Hollywood infuriated many within the industry itself. Mogul Louis B. Mayer went so far as to demand that Wilder be “tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” Sure enough, the big prize went to a slightly more veiled backstage drama, All About Eve, while Swanson lost out to newcomer Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.

Still, the movie did pick up a few justly earned trophies. Wilder and his longtime collaborator Charles Brackett shared the writing award with D.M. Marshman, Jr. Franz Waxman’s sweeping gothic noir score nabbed a music award, while the team responsible for the look of Norma Desmond’s cluttered mansion won the Art Direction/Set Decoration award. It’s worth pointing out that at this time, the awards for technical and design awards like cinematography were divided into two categories: black-and-white and color. The categories would keep the distinction alive until 1957.

More than sixty years after its release, Sunset Blvd. remains one of the most indelible and timeless films ever nominated for Best Picture. It’s very much a movie of its time, perfectly capturing the state of the film industry in 1950, and yet nothing about it feels dated. It’s a breathtaking example of what a great filmmaker can do when given absolute creative freedom and doesn’t give a damn about the consequences.

Sunset Blvd. is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.