THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR (1961)
A few nights ago I subjected myself to watching a movie that had been the fifth-highest grossing film in the USA back in 1961. Regretfully, I assumed it must have been a great deal better than its dubious title (The Absent-minded Professor) suggested. To describe this picture as ‘drivel’ would be, however, rendering it a genuine kindness! In all honesty, I should have guessed that any movie made in the sixties (even one churned out by Disney), and starring lesser leading players such as Fred MacMurray, Keenan Wynn and Nancy Olson, might not promise all that much. Fred had enjoyed his solitary moment of cinema greatness back in 1944 with his stint opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson in the brilliant thriller Double Indemnity, but he was now almost two decades older and this was supposed to be a comedy. Supposed to be.
Evidently, the highlight of the movie was considered to be a college basketball game between Medfield, and Rutland. At half-time Fred’s character replaces the Medfield boys’ playing footwear with shoes treated with ‘flubber’, the bouncy substance he had just invented. I should add that the Medfield team shared a uniqueness rare to the world of basketball. They were all around five feet tall! The entire team. The opposition were, by comparison, veritable giants! Suddenly, the Medfield boys were springing from one end of the court to the other and outplaying their opponents in every facet of the game. The game itself, incidentally, was woefully played by both sides, and it was clearly evident that whomever was responsible for this stupidity, had never even seen a real game of basketball in his life. Everybody, Medfield and Rutland players alike, had absolutely no idea how to play even the rudiments of the sport. Even so, American audiences of the early sixties flocked to see the movie! It cost $2 million to make and raked in over $25 million nation-wide! A lot of money at that time.
Nancy Olson & Fred MacMurray
This picture also suffered from the age-old Hollywood casting issue of placing pretty, young women in love with men old enough to be their fathers. MacMurray was fifty-two when the film was made, and his on-screen fiancée (Nancy Olson) was thirty-two! Fred was never a screen idol, even in his prime, so we are left to ponder over the reasons why Nancy admired him so, given his penchant for forgetting their intended wedding no fewer than on three occasions! Obviously, tastes in comedy and special effects have changed since 1961; cinema audiences are considerably more discerning today and (arguably) harder to impress, but for this immeasurably dull and stupid fare to be nominated for three Academy Awards (unsuccessfully), and for Fred’s acting to see him nominated for a Golden Globe (also unsuccessfully), staggers belief. Equally staggering, is the fact that The Absent-minded Professor was included in the 2000 list of the 500 movies nominated for the Top 100 Funniest American Movies! Thirty-nine years after its release, and this tripe was still regarded as worthy of such recognition. Sheesh!
This was Alfred Hitchcock’s first film using an All-American cast. For reasons known only to him, he chose not to mention ‘Germans’ as the saboteurs in the picture, even though that had been the original intention, and it was, after all, 1941, so the war had been well and truly underway for some time. The shot of the vessel lying on its side towards the end of the movie in New York Harbor, was an actual shot of the ocean liner S.S. Normandie. It had caught fire and capsized at its pier in New York. Although the fire was a genuine accident, (a cutting torch had accidentally set fire to some kapok life-vests), it was being rumored at the time that sabotage had taken place.
SS Normandie at Pier 88 New York City 1942
Hitchcock’s trademark cameo was initially cut by the censors. He and his secretary had played deaf pedestrians in the original cameo, but Hitch had made an apparently indecent proposal to her in sign language, and she had slapped his face! A less controversial cameo was shot later in front of a drug store. If you look closely (very early in the picture), you will also see an unknown Robert Mitchum passing by on the stairs in the factory.
Robert Cummings & Priscilla Lane in Saboteur
As for the two principal players, Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane, I must agree with the director’s assessment of the former’s performance. He felt the movie suffered because Cummings, ‘belongs to the light-comedy class of actors’ and had ‘an amusing face, so that even when he’s in desperate straits, his features don’t convey any anguish.’ It is true that, in several scenes, this writer fully expected Cummings to come forth with a wisecrack or two! Hitchcock thought Ms Lane ‘simply wasn’t the right type for a Hitchcock picture.’ In all honesty, when we consider he used such diverse actresses as Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak and even Doris Day in his pictures, (to name but three), one wonders just what ‘type’ he was referring to.
Hitchcock only made two movies at Universal Studios during the 1940s; this one and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Although they are very different (quality-wise), neither was a box-office success. Personally, I thought Shadow of a Doubt was one of his best efforts and deserved recognition. Saboteur, on the other hand, is shabbily done, almost amateurish, with plot holes and odd character construction at every turn. Hitchcock had wanted either Gary Cooper or Joel McCrea in the male lead, but Coops was not interested in making a thriller and Joel was not available, so Cummings got the nod. The director also preferred either Margaret Sullavan or Barbara Stanwyck as his leading lady.
Saboteur was Norman Lloyd’s first movie role. He portrayed Frank Fry here, an enemy agent. Lloyd enjoyed an extraordinarily long life and a career that lasted nearly a hundred years, one that involved him in almost every facet of the industry – stage, radio, television and movies – having commenced in the industry in 1923 at the age of nine. He died, aged 106, in May 2021. His screen credits include Spellbound and A Walk in the Sun (1945), Limelight (1952), Dead Poets Society (1989) and The Age of Innocence (1993). John Houseman had recommended him to Hitchcock for Saboteur.