The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)

Posted by on Dec 20, 2011 in Just My Imagination | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Kids that hate piano lessons may grow fascinated with drums and Hamlet.

When Horton Hears a Who came out in 2008, (most) critics hailed it as the first feature-length Dr. Seuss adaptation worthy of his name and the first to properly capture his zaniness (obviously Chuck Jones’ half-hour Grinch cartoon qualified, too). They cited recent failures such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, but clearly forgot about this quirky and colorful cult classic, which mostly unfolds within a 10-year-old boy’s surrealist nightmare that would make Freud’s jaw drop.

As the movie opens, a boy is running 5000-fingers2away from a group of mysterious men carrying colorful nets. We soon learn, however, that it was a harmless daydream and the boy awakens to a far worse fate: a dreaded piano lesson. His overbearing (fascist is more like it) piano teacher Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried) demands perfection and says, “Why can’t you be dreaming about playing the piano?” Hint hint wink wink. The 10-year-old Bart (Tommy Rettig) loves his mother, he tells us, but she insists he play the wretched 88 keys. His only friend, who doubles as father figure, is the plumber Mr. Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hays). After no more than five minutes of practice, Bart drifts off once again and we become part of his nightmare in which the Big Brother-esque Dr. T establishes his own institute for 500 boys (or 5,000 fingers). The children will be forced to wear ridiculous beanies with a dishwashing glove protruding from the top, stay in cells or dungeons, and play piano 24-7 with no hope of escape. Bart’s mother (Mary Healy) is there, too, hypnotized under Dr. T’s spell. “The sole purpose of our endeavor is the musical betterment of American youth,” she dictates as if programmed like a Speak-n-Spell. With the help of sink-installing Mr. Zabladowski, Bart must prevent the institute from opening, save his mother, gain a father, and avoid the hundreds of Dr. T’s color-coordinated minions.

Both the story and screenplay for this oddball musical-fantasy came from the pen of Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Geisel), who put a strange twist on the traditional love story and eventually becomes more closely linked to Hamlet. If our 10-year-old protagonist is the knight, I guess that makes his mother the damsel in distress and Mr. Zabladowski his sidekick or trusty steed. Even more odd is Bart’s out-of-the-blue transition to start calling the plumber “pop” and his mother as “your wife.” Dr. T is obviously the villain (Hamlet’s uncle), and an excellent one at that. In his most revealing moment, Dr. T literally shovels bundles of cash into his safe, while explaining that he stole it from unsuspecting mothers using his racketeering tactics and rapier’s wit. And just to make clear that Bart is “the good guy,” when he steals $30 from Dr. T he makes sure to leave an IOU. Since a great deal of the movie (all but 10 minutes or so) is a dream, we start to forget or question if it’s real or not. But telling moments remind us that this must be a dream, such as Mr. Zabladowski saying, “People should always believe kids. They should even believe their lies.” Then we see the reference to the popular B-movies at the time with an “Atomic solution” and an ending that seems out of The Twilight Zone.

Not only did Seuss write the story Fingers2and screenplay, but also the lyrics to its many songs. While the lyrics are often wonderfully insane, many of the tunes and dances can only be described as tacky and odd, such as the square-dance tune Get-Together Weather. The only songs with expositional purpose seem to be the cheesy Dream Stuff and complaining Because We’re Kids. The others, which are also the best, have little or no purpose other than giving Seuss a chance to describe crazy clothes (Do-Mi-Do Duds) or make some sly political satire (Terwilliker Academy). While its lyrics recall the Freedonia anthem in Duck Soup (“Terwilliker thy name we praise/we love thy foul and loathsome ways/thy crummy criminality/Terwilliker Academy”), the tune itself sounds like the Munchkinland melody in The Wizard of Oz. And I’d say the film itself lies somewhere in between. Perhaps the best song-and-dance number, and the one that likely got Frederick Hollander an Oscar nomination for score, is the Dungeon Song. Dr. T’s dungeon holds loads of non-piano players, who look like the Morlocks from The Time Machine. As they reveal themselves in groups, playing instruments like trumpets, drums, accordion, xylophones, and even some Seuss-truments, it turns into an epic dance extravaganza like Portobello Road in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but far less tiresome.

After he covered the story, screenplay, and song lyrics, Seuss found himself helping out in the film’s most endearing aspect: its production design and sets. The film presents a world on a grandiose scale similar to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with endless pianos, towering staircases, chutes, ladders, tubes, poles, and holes. Like 1984, the world has screens shouting mantras (“Practice makes perfect!”) and logos/hands/faces around every corner. Dr. T’s penthouse is draped in velvet and sheer curtains, with wacky contraptions such as a cigar slide, cake tower, entrée shelf, and vintage pickle juice cellar, not to mention the embarrassingly large portrait of himself. Some may find its bright colors and strange shapes loud and garish, but that is the essence of Seuss and acid flashbacks. Though it’s a live-action production, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. I felt as though I’d jumped straight into a Seuss-illustrated children’s book, as every last detail is clearly his doing.

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