Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Once Over Twice: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

(1953) Directed by Ray Rowland; Written by Dr. Seuss and Allan Scott; Starring: Mary Healy, Hans Conried, Tommy Rettig and Peter Lind Hayes; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

One of the common criticisms about the recent glut of Dr. Seuss-themed flicks is that they don’t adequately capture his signature visual style or wit.  They seem to have captured the words, but not the music.  How about a movie that actually involved the actual Dr. Seuss in the creative process?  Audiences probably had no idea what hit them in 1953, when The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was released.  There was little frame of reference for the bizarre imagery that was presented on screen, so it’s not surprising that this weird, surrealistic musical wasn’t embraced by critics or audiences at the time.  Seuss himself saw the film as a failure, and essentially disowned it.  The funny thing about cult movies, however, is that they tend to take on a life of their own, regardless of their initial reception.  Something about this odd brainchild of Dr. Seuss connected with those who could appreciate its unique charms.

Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) is an average boy who’d rather be daydreaming or romping outside than playing music.  When we’re first introduced to Bart, he’s practicing under the watchful eye of his over-zealous piano teacher Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried).  He dislikes his teacher, but practices for the sake of his mom (Mary Healy), who’s doing her best to fill the role of father and mother (It’s established early on that his father is deceased).  Despite his best intentions, he succumbs to boredom and falls asleep in front of the piano.  We’re then treated to the elaborate dream world created by Bart’s psyche.

In this alternate universe, his piano teacher takes on sinister tones, as a musical despot intent on enslaving Bart and 499 other kids so that they can play his 5,000-key piano.  It’s the sort of batty premise that only makes sense from the perspective of a Dr. Seuss book.  Screenwriters Seuss and Allan Scott cook up a Freudian/Jungian soup that’s comprised of every child’s deepest fears.  Dr. Terwilliker manages to ensnare Bart’s mother and keep her under his control through various means.  Meanwhile, Bart is being held captive so that he can perform around the clock for Dr. T’s amusement.  Taken from a child’s point of view, these imaginary fears seem very tangible.  What child hasn’t felt oppressed at one time or another by a well-meaning parent or self-serving teacher to do something that he or she finds meaningless and absurd?

Help arrives under the unlikely guise of friendly plumber August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), who’s first seen working on the Collins household kitchen sink, and somehow ends up in Bart’s elaborate dream.  Bart’s only ally, he states, “We should always believe children. We should even believe their lies.”  He represents a child’s ideal concept of an adult – kind, wise, and willing to entertain even the silliest of notions.  August treats Bart as an equal, and is viewed as a surrogate father.  Of course, this begs the question: How frequently does he come around to the Collins house, anyway?

Dr. Seuss also wrote the lyrics for the whimsical songs (with music by Friedrich Hollaender).  Some standouts are “Because We’re Kids,” where Bart laments not being taken seriously, and "Dressing Song: Do-Mi-Do Duds," where Dr. Terwilliker celebrates his evil scheme coming to fruition.  The playful lyrics are prime examples of classic Seussian wordplay, filled with equal doses of profundity and nonsense.  Unfortunately, half of the songs were cut from the finished film, and at least one song was edited.  “The Dungeon Song,” featured when Bart and August descend in an elevator through several hellish subterranean levels, is only left partially intact.  References to third-floor torture devices were deleted from later releases of the film.  Even presented in its compromised form, the songs from the film are a fun crop of ditties.

To say that there’s little else like The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, would be an understatement.  The closest comparison would be to the German expressionist films of the 20s and 30s, albeit if they had been done in color.  The 3-strip Technicolor process adds another delicious layer of unreality, presenting vibrant, larger-than-life hues.  The net effect resembles a live action cartoon.  The inspired art design, sets and matte paintings bring Dr. Seuss’ fanciful illustrations to life.  Everything is full of curved lines, with nary a straight edge.  The scenes are populated by numerous eccentric flourishes, such as Dr. T’s henchmen – roller skating twins that share a single long beard.  In one visually impressive scene, Bart climbs an impossibly tall, curving ladder that looms precariously over the Terwilliker compound’s landscape, hundreds of feet below.

In a lame attempt to break even Columbia Pictures re-released The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T a few years later under the decidedly less imaginative title, Crazy Music, but that generic moniker probably only confused people further.  The film never quite gained the recognition it deserved, wallowing in movie history as sort of a bastard stepchild of Seuss’ fertile imagination.  Thankfully, home video and subsequent re-releases have afforded the movie a second (and third) look by new audiences, and it’s well worth seeking out for Seuss aficionados, lovers of the delightfully absurd and families looking for something beyond the usual watered-down gruel that typically gets passed off as entertainment these days.  I’d like to think that in some alternate reality it’s as well regarded as The Wizard of Oz, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or the Toy Story movies.  Just one viewing will leave an indelible impression.  Love it or hate it, it’s easy to agree that there’s been nothing else quite like The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T before or since.

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