Tag Archives: Dr. Seuss

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966) AND A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965)

Chuck Jones’ 1966 adaptation of ‘ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a rarity: a film that both surpasses the source material and is itself flawless—which is why the 2000 live-action remake was a pre-certified disaster.

Chuck Jones made his name with “Looney Tunes” and although he had a lot of competition (Tex Avery foremost), Jones, with his modernist sensibilities, was the best of the lot. Wisely, Jones filters Dr. Seuss’ seditious surrealism through his own pop aesthetics, bringing to the tale superior narrative pacing (it moves like quicksilver), wry wit, expertly judged tension, a gift for expressiveness, and the narration of , voice acting of June Foray, and raspy singing of Thurl Ravenscroft.

The story is a variation of Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” but  that’s just a springboard for Seuss, Jones, and company.  With his melodious British lisp and résumé in Gothic fairy tales, Karloff is a masterful storyteller, perhaps the best in animation since Bing Crosby narrated “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1949). Voicing the Grinch, Karloff snarls delightfully, and as the narrator he is an impeccable bedtime story host. Balancing those two makes for his last great role, one that ranks with the Monster, ImhotepHjalmar Poelzig, and Cabman Gray.

Still from How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)Casting Karloff was an intuitive coup. Jones, like and , was astutely aware of the connection between Christmas and Halloween. Both come from the Church; one uses the “seen” symbolism of horror as a counter to “unseen” divinity of the second. And of course, both involve children. June Foray is a delight in her small role as Cindy Lou, who could be no more than two. Her sense of wonder is authentic—never saccharine—staring right through the Grinch’s nastiness with big anime eyes (that predate anime). She actually has us rooting for her, as opposed to child stars who we might have been tempted to wish death on (e.g., the tyke in Son of Frankenstein). Ravenscroft makes an art out of insulting the title character in song—which must have been a first—and his work steered the short into a rightly deserved Grammy win for best soundtrack.

Although secular, its anti-consumerism message is as subtle as the Grinch himself—and is still needed today, before we have yet another Black Friday trampling death at Walmart.

Charles Schulz fully embraces the religious tradition in tackling the same anti-consumerism message in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from the preceding year. There’s little doubt that Schulz’ “Peanuts” series eventually became tiresome and repetitive (remember, “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown”?) but, with the perfection of this and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” perhaps the great comic strip artist deserved to be allowed to coast. Again, it’s no surprise that these parallel holidays brought out the best in Schulz. The bald-headed, existential Charlie Brown waxes angstfully over the hypocrisy of false Christmas Capitalism, until blanket-toting Linus takes on the role of a Lukian sage to set Charlie, Lucy, Schroeder, and Snoopy right. Curiously, Linus later mixes up that “unseen” of Christmas with the “seen” of Halloween by waiting for a Great Pumpkin that never arrives, but that’s part of the the sublime, idiosyncratic beauty of Schulz’ best characterizations. The Peanuts gang are children, yes, but they have adult-like complexities and inconstancies, too.

Still from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)Smartly, director Bill Melendez chose actual children to voice the Peanuts gang and deliver that Gospel of Luke message. What  could have been rendered agonizingly pretentious or overbearing proselytization is instead filled-to-the-brim with simplistic, joyous charm. There’s nothing at all contrived or bullying about the message which seeks (it doesn’t demand) a Christmas that isn’t shorn of a Christ child.

The musical ribbon that ties it all together is supplied by that tragically short-lived jazz miniaturist Vince Guaraldi who, like Haydn before him, finds a wealth of exhilarating fun in sanctity.

161. THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T (1953)

“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

Recommended

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

BACKGROUND:

  • 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 Continue reading 161. THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T (1953)