The Absent Minded Professor (1961)

Based on the short story “A Situation of Gravity” by Samuel W. Taylor and in part on Hubert Alyea, a professor emeritus of chemistry at Princeton University known as “Dr. Boom*” for, well, blowing things up, The Absent Minded Professor is the start of the Medfield College shared universe that has been obsessing me over our two weeks of Disney live action movies.

It was also the first Disney film to get a sequel, as well as the first to be colorized. There was also a spiritual sequel made in 1988 for the Disney Channel and a Robin Williams-led remake.

Professor Brainard (Fred MacMurray) teaches chemistry at the aforementioned Medfield College. He’s invented a substance called Flubber that gains energy whenever it hits a hard surface and can even fly. He gets so excited over inventing this crazy rubbery stuff that he misses his wedding to Besty Carlisle (Nancy Olson, Airport 1975) for the third time, which leads to another professor making a move on her.

Medfield is also in debt to the villainous Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn), who will one day also be the nemesis of Herbie the Love Bug. As for now, his son Biff (Tommy Kirk) has become ineligibile for basketball by failing Brainard’s class, but all his father cares about is getting Flubber for himself. For some reason, Flubber can make cars fly, transform Brainard into a better dancer and truly make white people jump (and play better basketball).

Was Flubber ever real? Well yeah. Kinda.

In the fall of 1962, Flubber was brought to toy shelves from Disney licensee Hassenfeld Bros., Inc. of Rhode Island. You may know them better today as Hasbro. They made Flubber out of butadiene, a synthetic rubber, and mineral oil. Think Silly Putty.

It turns out that the product was leading to rashes and contact dermatitis, which Hasbro claimed couldn’t be the fault of their toy, which had been tested — on convicts, no less. Even though they were cleared of any wrongdoing, the same rash kept showing up across the country until the brand pulled the product in May of 1963.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Hasbro tried to incinerate the leftover product, but it left a black cloud floating around the city of Providence. They also tried to sink it with the help of the Coast Guard — did G.I. Joe team member Cutter pitch in? — but it kept floating back to the top of Narragansett Bay. Finally, they used it as landfill in the parking lot of their new headquarters, but Hasbro employees claim that every summer, you can see Flubber come pouring out of the cracks in the pavement.

*Russian observers of his demonstrations at the International Science Pavilion of the Brussels World’s Fair gave him this name. Walt Disney was in attendance and because Alyea had given him the idea for the movie, he invited the teacher to meet with MacMurray. The actor said that he’d never understood chemistry until he met the professor.

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