“As to who was most responsible for this debaculous fiasco, I will have nothing more to say until all the participants have passed away, including myself.” –Theodore Geisel on The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
DIRECTED BY: Roy Rowland
FEATURING: Tommy Rettig, Hans Conried, Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy
PLOT: Fatherless Bart’s well-meaning mother forces him to practice the piano when he would rather be playing outside like a normal boy. He falls asleep and dreams of an institute ruled over by the dictatorial piano teacher Dr. Terwilliger, who keeps his mother in a hypnotic bondage and plans to enslave 500 boys to play his massive piano. With the help of a plumber, Bart must thwart the evil Dr. T and his henchmen and bring his mom back to her senses.
- The script and lyrics were written by Theodor Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss). The first draft he submitted reportedly weighed in at 1,200 pages (100 pages would be an average script length).
- Geisel disowned the film after it bombed at the box office, and refused to mention it in his biography.
- Hans Conried said that eleven musical numbers were cut before the final release.
- In “The Elevator Song,” the stanza referring to the “Third Floor Dungeon” was cut out of the film after the initial screenings (and does not appear on television screening or home video versions). The original lyrics read “Third floor dungeon: Household appliances. Spike beds, electric chairs, gas chambers, roasting pots, and snapping devices.” It’s speculated that the reference to “gas chambers” was deemed inappropriate in a movie released so soon after the Holocaust.
- Producer Stanley Kramer is rumored to have directed some of the sequences himself.
- Frederick Hollander’s compositions were nominated for a “Best Scoring of a Musical Picture” Oscar.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is saturated with surreal Seussian imagery, from roller skating Siamese twins linked by their beards to an elevator operator with no nipples and no face. Even the uniform Dr. Terwilliger requires Bart and the boys to wear—a simple blue beanie with five yellow fingers pointing skyward—is a candidate for most bizarrely memorable image. Throwing up our hands in despair, we’ll go with the obvious choice: the mile-long, two-tiered winding keyboard that the diabolical doctor plans to make his 500 charges play.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hypnotic whammy battle, underground musical cacophony, executioner elevator operator [selections provided by reader “Gargus” as part of a 2016 contest]
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In books like “Horton Hears a Who” and “The Cat in the Hat,” Dr. Seuss’ fuzzy characters speaking singsong nonsense and cavorting across landscapes with implausible fauna make for children’s classics. But imagery that’s merely whimsical on paper in ink turns positively weird when fleshed out in Technicolor, with live actors singing and dancing. The backdrop of Cold War paranoia, before which flits a fey villain with a fabulous wardrobe, only adds to the oddness.
Joe Dante on the reissue trailer for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
COMMENTS: Theodore Geisel, the Philistine, notably hated The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, considering it an embarrassment and a low point in his career. He liked to tell a story about one of the child extras eating a bad hot dog and vomiting all over the movie’s giant keyboard prop: “the critics reacted in much the same manner,” he quipped. Today, it’s difficult to comprehend the nausea this peculiar but ultimately sweet movie engendered in the audiences who walked out on early screenings; but, based on its box office shortfall and unfavorable notices, it’s clear that Eisenhower’s America was in no mood for a fantastical musical staged on sets that looked like Salvador Dalí had been commissioned to make a children’s film in the style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. If there was ever a movie that was ahead of its time, it’s Dr. T, which was too avant-garde for 1953 populist entertainment, but has proven to be a timeless pleasure for the lucky generations who’ve grooved to its odd beauty since its initial failure.
The art design in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is unrivaled, and my guess is it’s probably the element that most turned off contemporary audiences. In storybook form, Dr. Seuss’ illustrations may have looked like harmless childish doodles, but when given physical existence they became the uncanny cityscapes of the subconscious. The slanted, tottering turrets that ring the Terwilliger Institute look like they’ve been cut out of heavy construction paper. Impractical stairways and cluttered architecture serve mysterious agendas. A red ladder hangs in a blue void, leading to nowhere. The interiors are deliriously kitschy: Mrs. C’s chambers are done up in shades of pink and rose, with decorative bows everywhere and plush shag carpeting. Dr. T’s room is a shade more masculine, with a cigar tray that slides out of a wall panel (the cigars are already lit) and a cocktail cart hidden in a floorboard. Disembodied hands and fingers show up everywhere, even atop the beanie Bart and the other boys are forced to wear as a sign of servitude. For orientation, the institute uses giant three-dimensional pointing fingers, helpfully labeled “up” and “down.” Dr. T’s henchmen, dressed in royal blue and with yellow skullcaps, tote giant hand standards for ceremonial occasions. The elevator to the dungeons lies behind an explicitly Caligari-esque slanted doorway, with the ever-present finger motif making another appearance as the floor-indicator.
It’s in the Institute’s dungeon that the most elaborate spectacle occurs, in a scene that’s truly magical, but must have seemed off-puttingly weird and arty in 1953. It’s the strangest musical number in a movie that includes a piece where two men engage in a mock mambo duel where they try to place hypnotic whammies on each other with their waving fingers. Hating everything besides the piano, Dr. T has banished practitioners of other musical instruments (“scratchy violins, screechy piccolos, nauseating trumpets”) to his dungeons. There, Bart observes the exiles performing a hellish ballet. Men painted putrid green and dressed in rags and suspenders prance over the stone blocks of their prison, tooting multicolored flutes. Some zombies engage in synchronized boxing, while others march around with stag horns hung with bells on their head. There’s a massive hookah-like trumpet that takes three men to blow, a two-man squeeze box, and a radiator xylophone. There are percussion instruments that require a trapeze artist to play and a harp twice as tall as a man. Frederick Hollander’s melodies change on a dime, from classical to jazz to Tin Pan alley to stereotypically melodramatic film music. It’s the parade of fantastical instruments from “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” (where they blow their floofloovers and bang their tartookas) brought to life. For the damned, the musicians seem quite jovial, in keeping with the movie’s spirit of macabre whimsy.
While the spectacle of Dr. T is outstanding, the psychology, while fairly simple, is still sticky enough to catch our interest. Young Bart’s father is dead (cause unexplained—was he a casualty of the war?) and the boy is trapped between two different visions of manhood. On the one hand is the harsh discipline proposed by his piano teacher, Terwilliger, in collusion with his well-meaning mother. The counterpoint to this joyless vision of slave labor on the keyboard is his dream of a kind and supportive dad who takes him on fishing trips, represented by the plumber, Mr. Zabladowski. In a curious stereotype role-reversal that seems simultaneously progressive and chauvinistic, the disciplinarian is foppish and effeminate, while it’s the masculine working man who turns out to be the nurturing parent prototype. Hans Conried makes for a perfect villain to a child: he’s angular, aristocratic and autocratic. His distinctive sneering voice, which brought Disney’s Captain Hook and Snively Whiplash from the “Dudley Do-right” cartoons to life, is suitably exotic so that he seems foreign, without being able to place his nationality. His effeminacy turns unwittingly (and maybe unconsciously) campy in the final big musical number, where Dr. T tries to decide what to wear for his big concert (“I want my undulating undies with the marabou frills/I want my beautiful bolero with the porcupine quills…”)
The girliness of Dr. T’s character was probably meant to defang him and make him seem less scary and more risible. On a larger scale, outside of Bart’s personal psychology, Dr. T is a fascist dictator, ruling over his institute with a cadre of uniformed thugs, brainwashing otherwise sane citizens like Mrs. C and the plumber, and imposing torture on those who oppose him. As Bart wanders the halls of the Institute, he sees Big Brother as a pair of disembodied hands pounding a piano and repeating the slogan “practice makes perfect”; a creepily Orwellian moment for a kids film. Interestingly, the only thing that seems to frighten the totalitarian Dr. T is a nuclear threat. Dressed in ridiculously elaborate militaristic regalia, including a baby blue Beefeater hat and number of medals, he cowers when Bart reveals his final weapon and fearfully utters one of the movie’s most frequently quoted lines: “is it… atomic?,” met by the response “yes sir… very atomic!” Squint, and you can see an allegory for World War II (or the Cold War) embedded in Dr. T.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a messy movie that may not have lived up to Dr. Seuss’ expectations due to budgetary overruns and studio tampering. He apparently hated it so much that he not only refused to acknowledge it, but never wrote another feature length screenplay, and never authorized another live-action adaptation of his work in his lifetime. Still, besides a weak ending, the movie is consistently hypnotic, beautiful to look at, and never boring. Even Hans Conried’s campiest line deliveries, even the most strangely conceived dance sequence where grown men angrily wiggle fingers at each other, work together in the overall plan to create something uniquely bizarre and fun. It’s sad that Dr. Seuss would disown this candy fantasia, but it’s another reminder that the author is not necessarily the best judge of his own work.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
IMDB LINK: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) – Overview – The Turner Classic Movies’ page hosts five film clips along with and essay by Eleanor Quin and the usual info
A Debaculous Fiasco – Fantastically detailed article/podcast on the film’s history by writer Jennifer Noonan
‘5000 Fingers’ Sings Again: A Seuss Rarity Revisited – National Public Radio reports on the 2011 release of the restored soundtrack, with three complete songs available for streaming
The view: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T and other great lost children’s films – The Guardian‘s Danny Leigh bemoans the fact that Dr. T is not on DVD in the UK
Film/The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T – Television Tropes & Idioms – TV Tropes Dr. T entry is a typically humorous take
5000 Fingers of Dr. T Documentary – Interview with Tony Butala (who supplied Tommy Rettig’s singing voice) for an unfinished Dr. T documentary
DVD INFO: The out-of-print-but-still-widely-available 2001 Columbia DVD (buy) looks and sounds great, but isn’t as lavish as you might expect for a cult classic. The special features are a black and white still photo gallery, a bonus cartoon (Dr. Seuss’ “Gerald McBoing Boing,” which one an animated short film Oscar in 1950), and trailers for other Columbia kids films (no Dr. T trailer was available at the time?) Given the fact that a limited edition restored 3 CD soundtrack for the film (buy) was released in 2011, it seems that the continued interest in this timeless curiosity warrants an elaborate Blu-ray release. Keep your fingers crossed.
The movie is available for on-demand rental or purchase (rent on demand) in high defintion.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Kengo,” who called it a “musical fantasy with the power to frighten small children.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)