The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)
“It’s all about a wacky prof who invents an anti-gravity goo that flew!”
Director: Robert Stevenson
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Nancy Olson, Keenan Wynn
Synopsis: A college professor invents an anti-gravity substance which a corrupt businessman wants for himself.
Fred MacMurray isn’t so much an absent-minded professor as an easily distracted one in this popular live-action Disney movie which is packed with quaint special effects that, in their day, were a sight more fascinating than the computer generated imagery we’re so used to seeing in today’s movies. CGI has made the extraordinary ordinary, and robbed us of our sense of awe, it seems. MacMurray is Professor Ned Brainard, a university professor who is so absorbed in the out-of-hours experiments he conducts in his garage that he repeatedly forgets his wedding to Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson). The third time this happens, Betsy’s so infuriated that she finally kicks him into touch, much to the satisfaction of Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reid), the English professor at rival university, Rutland, who sees himself as the perfect — if not far superior — replacement for Brainard in Nancy’s affections.
This time, though, Brainard has a reasonably good reason for missing his own wedding. He accidentally blew up his makeshift laboratory and knocked himself out while inadvertently creating a flexible rubber substance which has the unique property of generating its own energy so that, for example, if you mould it into the shape of a ball and bounce it once it will continue bouncing higher and higher unless checked. The potential uses to which such an invention could be put are pretty much boundless, but Brainard is more concerned about regaining the love of Nancy. However, when he visits her at the office of Rufus Daggett (Leon Ames), the President of the University for whom she works as a secretary, he only makes things worse by antagonising Alonzo P. Hawk (Keenan Wynn), to whom the university owes a whole truckload of money.
Brainard tests his invention by placing it in his ancient model T Ford and takes it for a fly around the town, during which he’s spotted by Hawk and his spoiled son, Biff (Tommy Kirk). Naturally, Hawk is quick to understand the huge amount of money that can be made from such an invention, and decides that he must get his hands on Brainard’s invention whatever the cost.
The Absent-Minded Professor delivers the kind of solid entertainment you’d expect from a vintage Disney movie, even though it loses its way in the last twenty minutes or so through an ill-advised decision not only to involve all three branches of the military but to also insert a degree of tame political and military satire that simply doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie’s content. MacMurray makes an endearingly fuzzy leading man, who never quite seems capable of getting out the precise words he needs to resolve whatever situation he finds himself in until the last few scenes, when everything comes together with typical tidiness. It’s difficult to believe today’s kids will find much in The Absent-Minded Professor with which they can identify, but it will no doubt entertain those who were kids when it first came out, or who grew up seeing those bouncing basketball players on every bank holiday broadcast of Disney Time throughout their childhood.
(Reviewed 16th November 2013)