The original 1961 film was one of the first Disney films to be colourized (for the 1986 and 1997 video releases), and along with 1959's The Shaggy Dog and Son of Flubber, it is one of Disney's few black-and-white films made after 1941.
Professor Ned Brainard (pronounced BRAY-nard) is an absent-minded professor of physical chemistry at Medfield College who invents a substance that gains energy when it strikes a hard surface. This discovery follows some blackboard scribbling in which he reverses a sign in the equation for enthalpy to energy plus (rather than minus which is correct) pressure times volume. Brainard names his discovery Flubber, a portmanteau of "flying rubber." In the excitement of his discovery, he misses his own wedding to Betsy Carlisle, not for the first time. Subplots include another professor wooing the disappointed Betsy, Biff Hawk's ineligibility for basketball due to failing Brainard's class, Alonzo Hawk's schemes to gain wealth by means of Flubber, the school's financial difficulties and debt to Mr. Hawk, and Brainard's attempts to interest the government and military in uses for Flubber.
Looking for backers, he bounces his Flubber ball for an audience, but his investment pitch proves so long-winded that most of the crowd has left before they notice that it bounced higher on its second bounce than on its first. For a more successful demonstration, he makes his Model T fly by bombarding Flubber with radioactive particles. Other adventures and misadventures result as Flubber is used on the bottoms of basketball players' shoes (in a crucial game) giving them tremendous jumping ability; Brainard (at a school dance) making him an accomplished dancer, and the scheming businessman (who must be tackled by a full football team to bring him down after Brainard tricks him into testing Flubber on the bottom of his shoes). Eventually, Brainard shows his discovery to the government and also wins back Betsy, culminating in a wedding at last.
- Fred MacMurray as Professor Ned Brainard
- Nancy Olson as Betsy Carlisle
- Keenan Wynn as Alonzo Hawk
- Tommy Kirk as Biff Hawk
- Leon Ames as President Rufus Daggett
- Elliott Reid as Professor Shelby Ashton
- Edward Andrews as Defense Secretary
- David Lewis as General Singer
- Jack Mullaney as Air Force Captain
- Belle Montrose as Mrs. Chatsworth
- Wally Brown as Coach Elkins
- Wally Boag as TV Newsman
- Don Ross as Lenny
- Forrest Lewis as Officer Kelley
- James Westerfield as Officer Hanson
- Gage Clarke as Reverend Bosworth
- Alan Hewitt as General Hotchkiss
- Raymond Bailey as Admiral Olmstead
- Ed Wynn as Fire Chief
The aforementioned Prof. Alyea (1903–1996), professor of chemistry at Princeton University, earned the nickname "Dr. Boom" from Russian observers of his demonstrations at the International Science Pavilion of the Brussels World's Fair in the 1950s, which had Walt Disney in attendance. He told Alyea that he had given him an idea for a movie, and invited Alyea to California to give a demonstration for actor Fred MacMurray, who later mimicked Alyea's mannerisms for the film. MacMurray would later state that he had never understood chemistry until his meeting with Alyea.
The special effects were created by Robert A. Mattey and Eustace Lycett, who was nominated for an Academy Award, and included the sodium screen matte process, as well as miniatures and wire-supported mockups. The film's "Medfield Fight Song" was written by Richard and Robert Sherman, their first song for a Disney feature.
Ed Wynn and son, Keenan, appear together in this film. Ed plays the Fire Chief (an inside joke, as he hosted the popular radio program The Fire Chief for most of the 1930s). Keenan also played Alonzo Hawk in Son of Flubber and again in Herbie Rides Again (1974). In the bounce scene, Keenan's character called Ed's a fathead. Keenan's son, Ned, also appears uncredited in a bit part.
Medfield College of Technology was used again as the setting for the sequel, Son of Flubber, as well as a later trilogy of Disney "Dexter Riley" films: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don't, and The Strongest Man in the World, each starring Kurt Russell and Cesar Romero.
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards.
- Best Art Direction (Carroll Clark, Emile Kuri, Hal Gausman).
- Best Cinematography (Edward Colman)
- Best Effects, Special Effects
The film was reissued to theatres in 1967 & 1975 and released to video in 1981, 1986, and 1993. It was released as a pan and scan print on VHS in black and white in 1981 and 1993, and in a colourized version in 1986, after successful airings on the Disney Channel in March of that year. In 2003, the film finally got a widescreen treatment: The Walt Disney laserdisc #028AS is letterboxed to produce a 1.85:1 aspect ratio format. In 2008 the film was released in the United States as part of a 2 disc set with its sequel, Son of Flubber.
This film was followed by a sequel Son of Flubber, released less than two years later in 1963 also featuring MacMurray, Olson, Reid, and Kirk reprising their roles. Hewitt also returns (now as District Attorney), as well as the three Wynns (Keenan reprising the role of Alonzo Hawk, Ed Wynn as a Hank Kimball-like county agent, and Ned as the student manager of Rutland's football team).
There was a 1988 television movie made for The Wonderful World of Disney also named The Absent-Minded Professor. It takes place at a more modern day Medfield College where Harry Anderson plays a science professor Henry Crawford, with Mary Keller as his girlfriend Ellen Whitney. A difference from the original is that Henry Crawford has designed an interactive computer called "Albert", using the avatar of Albert Einstein, to help him with his coursework and make reminders of daily life. In this version, flubber has been lost to the ages due to Professor Brainard's passing but rediscovered by Professor Crawford. Albert finds Brainard's notes and also rediscovers Brainard's flying Model T, which Henry Crawford reinvents. The film was followed by a 1989 sequel where Professor Crawford realizes that is he freezes flubber for a set period of time, it takes a permanent form akin to glass. He names the discovery "flass", akin to "flying + glass".
The film has been remade into a theatrical movie called Flubber, with Robin Williams as the renamed Professor Philip Brainard, with Marcia Gay Harden as his love interest, Dr. Sara Jean Reynolds (Nancy Olson appears in a cameo). It was not held in as wide regard as the original but was still a considerable success.