Hard for me to believe I haven’t gotten to this one yet; it feels very much like the sort of thing I would’ve written about when—no lies here—I didn’t actually have time to watch anything before writing about it. I’ve seen it enough times to fake it, you know? Weirdly, though, it is the 1961 Disney movie with the most Oscar nominations. As established before, The Parent Trap had two, losing both to West Side Story. The short “Aquamania,” which I might as well write about next week, lost Best Animated Short to “Ersatz (The Substitute).” However, it was nominated for B&W Cinematography and Art Direction (losing both to The Hustler) and for Special Effects, losing to The Guns of Navarone. Which, again, I haven’t seen—can anyone speak to the special effects there?
Professor Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray) is due to get married. For the third time. Not to get married for the third time, he’s due for the third time. But he misses the wedding, again, because he’s made a discovery of a substance he calls Flubber, which has incredible properties. He uses it to make a Model T fly. Which is all well and good, but Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson) is tired of being rejected—and you can’t blame her for feeling rejected. So she’s willing to be swayed by the smarmy Professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reid) of nearby Rutland College.
Meanwhile, while Ned is trying to get his invention to the government, Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn) is contemplating calling in a loan he made to Medfield, his alma mater, not helped by the fact that Ned failed his son, Biff (Tommy Kirk). Alonzo and Biff discover Ned’s flying car and decide they can make a lot of money at it themselves. Alonzo is so obsessed with money that he uses his private knowledge of Biff’s failing the course and being kicked off the basketball team to bet against Medfield in the big game against Rutland. So Ned decides to take advantage of that and cheat a little for old Medfield.
As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, a lot of these old Disney movies mentioning sports are about cheating in one way or another. It’s a weird running routine. Ghosts, secret inventions, what have you—lots and lots of cheating, basically. I will say, however, that Rutland doesn’t quite appear to be playing by the rules of basketball themselves. Sure, they’re taller and more skilled than the Medfield team—honestly, Biff must be an amazing player to make up for the rest of the team’s failings. But it’s just a step or two shy of a Harlem Globetrotters game on that court.
I’m not a physicist, but of course I doubt anyone working on the movie was, either. However, it’s a movie that could go on one of those Very Specific Letterboxd Lists as “Movies where gamma rays screw up a scientist’s personal life,” as it turns out that one of the things powering Flubber is gamma rays. Now, the whole point of Flubber is that it is a physical impossibility; it violates Newton’s Laws of Motion by getting more energy out than you put in. It’s still a little alarming that Ned is working with gamma rays in a suburban garage.
In fact, Disney released the special effects department’s recipe for Flubber, which itself seems like a bad idea. Per Time magazine, “To one pound of salt water taffy add one heaping tablespoon polyurethane foam, one cake crumbled yeast. Mix till smooth, allow to rise. Then pour into saucepan over one cup cracked rice with one cup water. Add topping of molasses. Boil till lid lifts and says ‘Qurlp.'” So that’s something you probably shouldn’t try at home that I’ve given you the option to try at home.
Of further interest is that this movie featured three generations of the Wynn family. I either didn’t know or had forgotten that Ed Wynn was Keenan Wynn’s father; Keenan was his mother’s maiden name. Wynn has a minor role as the fire chief responsible for Keenan’s rescue, when Ned and Betsy put Flubber-soled shoes on Alonzo Hawk. Ed’s memory was apparently fading at the time, and they let him just improvise lines because he couldn’t remember them. He and Keenan had actually done several things together, including an episode of 77 Sunset Strip that also featured William Shatner, but it’s still nice to see the family all together.
The truly fascinating thing about this movie is the contrast between it and The Parent Trap. The Medfield fight song was actually the first song the Sherman Brothers wrote for Disney, presumably before “Let’s Get Together” and the other assorted songs for that movie. But I’ve always thought this movie was set in the ’50s, because Biff is such a ’50s character. It’s hard to believe that he is less than a decade older than Sharon and Susan; he’s got a crewcut and is wearing a bowtie while Susan is dreaming of Ricky Nelson and rocking out. In a relatively tame sort of way, of course.
1961 was a very odd year for Disney, all things considered. This was the the fifth most successful film of the year. In fact, four of the top twenty movies that year were Disney releases. Number one for the year was One Hundred and One Dalmatians, of course. Number six was The Parent Trap. Number fourteen, which I’ve already covered, was Babes in Toyland. They’re four very different movies—though the theme to The Parent Trap was sung by Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands because they were already on the studio lot for Babes in Toyland.
I think, though I may be wrong, that Hawk’s warehouse is actually the Disney studio lot. It looks considerably more like a studio than it looks like a warehouse district, honestly. Certainly this movie doesn’t have the interesting and widely varied locations that The Parent Trap did. It’s a smaller movie, and not just because it’s in B&W. It does feel like the sort of thing Disney was doing for TV in the ’50s, which may also be why I assume it’s older than it is most of the time. But, yes, this was part of Disney’s 1961.