By Greg Ehrbar
On March 16, Walt Disney’s mega-hit comedy-fantasy The Absent-Minded Professor turns 55—but the laughter is ageless, from its high-flying Model T antics and gravity-defying basketball game to the its inventive script that moves deftly between all-out zaniness and wry political satire. Along with The Parent Trap, it was one of the five highest-grossing movies of 1961.
With Professor Brainard’s permission, we went digging through his messy file cabinets for flubberized factoids about this comic classic that you either never knew or—like the Professor—forgot about.
- The Absent-Minded Professor completed the “blueprint” for Disney comedy-fantasies that began with 1959’s The Shaggy Dog and continued for decades to come, including the casting of familiar, beloved character actors (many of whom appear in subsequent films in similar or identical roles) and making a specific sport or other competition a key plot point. Even the setting of always financially struggling Medfield College was the backdrop for the film’s sequel, Son of Flubber, the 1997 Flubber remake, and the Kurt Russell trilogy: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, and The Strongest Man in the World. The Epcot attraction Journey Into Imagination with Figment contains several references to Flubber as well as a Medfield letterman’s jacket inside a computer room.
- In The Disney Films, Leonard Maltin notes that Time magazine revealed the Disney special effects department’s formula for Flubber: “To one pound of salt water taffy add one heaping tablespoon polyurethane foam, one can crumbled yeast. Mix till smooth, allow to rise. Then pour into saucepan over one cup cracked rice mixed with one cup water. Add topping of molasses. Boil till it lifts lid and says ‘Qurlp.” (Kids, don’t try this at home.)
- In addition to miniatures and film process screen effects, a full-sized Model T was refitted so it could “fly” with two people inside. In the book, The Disney Live-Action Productions, Second Unit Director Arthur J. Vitarelli told author John G. West that the car was lightened with aluminum fenders, a fiberglass crankcase, and foam rubber tires, then lifted by four powerful wires from a rectangular platform attached to a 150-foot crane.
- Producer/writer Bill Walsh told author West that real-life Professor Julius Sumner Miller from El Camino College supervised the laboratory sequences and helped develop the concept of Flubber. When the Mickey Mouse Club was syndicated for TV in 1962 Professor Miller appeared in new features as “Professor Wonderful” and recorded a series of albums for Disneyland Records about famous inventors.
- The Absent-Minded Professor predates another classic story about a vintage flying car: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which was written by James Bond author Ian Fleming in 1964 and hit movie screens in 1968 (starring Dick Van Dyke with a classic Sherman Brothers score). There are coincidental visual similarities, particularly at the end of both films, in which the crazy inventors and their lady loves fly off in their respective fanciful flivvers.
- Speaking of “the boys,” Richard and Robert Sherman made their big-screen songwriting debut with “The Medfield Fight Song” a.k.a. “The Absent-Minded Professor March.” A version of the song, produced by Tutti Camarata, appeared on a Disneyland Records Storyteller album based on the film, narrated by Sterling Holloway (voice of Pooh, Kaa, and the Cheshire Cat) with vocal effects by Sam Edwards, who appears in the movie briefly as a military technician.