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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

Dr. Seuss has to be the most recognizable name in children’s literature, countless kids learned to read by studying the complex nuances of Green Eggs and Ham, so it is no surprise that his books have supplied a surplus of material to Hollywood. To this day there are only two Christmas Specials I refuse to miss; A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and that is only the tippy-top of awesomeness that is Dr. Seuss as there have been many more animated specials from the great Doctor.

But what of live action adaptations? Can the somewhat Daliesque worlds of Dr. Seuss be brought into theaters with actual actors and sets? With the advent of modern special effects, improved make-up artistry and computer generated images one would think this is no problem, but you would be wrong.

Oh so very wrong.

So we have has established bringing Dr. Seuss’s stories to life isn’t all that easy, even with the all the advances the movies have made in technology, but way back in 1953 Theodor Seuss Geisel got together with Columbia Pictures to bring an original story to the big screen, and it was amazing.

"None shall pass."

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was directed by Roy Rowland and produced by the great Stanley Kramer and remains the only movie written for the screen by Dr. Seuss, and that is a shame. Theodore Seuss Geisel wanted to make a movie that would take into account "Themes of world dominance and oppression coming out of World War II” and the result was a whimsically fun story about a boy and his evil piano teacher.

Or a boy and his beanie.

Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) does not want to learn to play the piano, he would rather be out playing baseball or one of other countless more fun activities a young boy could be doing, but he is forced by his widowed mother Heloise (Mary Healy) to spend countless hours tickling the ivories under the demanding tutelage of Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried).

"Ten Happy Fingers"

The movie starts off with a the weirdest of dream sequences, and in this particular movie that is saying something, as young Bart is chased around by a group strange figures that attempt to nab him in their colorful nets. This opening sets the tone of the movie and is I’m sure what lost many people back in 1953.

A Nightmarescape.

Bart is yanked out of his dream and admonished by Dr. Terwilliker for not being better focused on his piano playing. With a resigned sigh Bart returns to his practice while still wishing for some form of escape. His one hope is that local plumber August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) could someday intervene and rescue both him and his mother from the Rasputin like Terwilliker. Sadly Zabladowski seems more interested in sinks than in the beautiful widow.

The Widow and the Plumber. 

Mere moments later Bart is dozing at the piano again, one must wonder if Bart possibly suffers from narcolepsy, and he enters the dream world of the  “Happy Fingers Institute” where Dr. Terwilliker has created a massive two tiered piano that is designed to be operated by 500 boys.
Bart wants no part of this and refuses to return to his cell so he runs and tries to enlist the help of Mr. Zabladowski, who has been hired to install al the required sinks for the institute, but the plumber doesn’t want to get involved.

Bart finds out from August that his mother is at the institute and currently in the Number Two spot and seems to be running things for D. Terwilliker.


“Dr. Terwilliker does not believe in baseballs, golf balls, basketballs or tennis balls, ping-pong balls, snowballs, croquet balls or hockey pucks. Dr. Terwilliker believes only in the piano!”

Terwilliker finds out that Bart has not returned to his cell and immediately orders he be found and sent to the dungeon.
Searching for Bart.

Squad “A” begins to hunt for the poor kid as Heloise activates the searchlights. One would immediately assume this eliminates her from ever earning mother of the year but it turns out that Terwilliker is a master hypnotist and keeps her entranced most of the time.

Doctor Caligari was clearly an architect here.

Bart must run from numerous patrols, dodge searchlights and avoid the roller-skating twins who are conjoined at the beard. If that’s sounds weird I’m understating things.

The Twins 
The Twins.

Of course the greatest moment in this film is duel between Zabladowski and Dr. Terwilliker. Bart finally convinces the ever blasĂ© plumber to go and check out what’s really going on and rescue his mom, this leads to a mental showdown that is just glorious.

It’s this kind of thing that gives one hope for humanity, that a beloved children’s author and a major motion picture studio could come together and creates something so monumentally abstract and wonderful is just incredible.

Ladder to nowhere.

Of course the sad note is that the film was a box office flop, some audience members left after the first fifteen minutes. Now this was the early fifties so I’m betting expressionistic filmmaking in family features wasn’t something audiences were ready for, hell I doubt if released today it would get much of a better reception as the film is really for a viewers open to the delightfully bizarre and I’m not sure if there are enough of us out there to make a film like this break even.
Now the film is not without its flaws, some of the musical numbers aren’t all that great and tend to go on too long, but for me that is a minor quibble and didn’t lesson my enjoyment in the least. 

Note: There were originally 18 songs but wisely nine of them were cut out. *shudder*
Musical numbers on acid.

The movie does rest heavily on the acting chops of a kid and overall young Tommy Rettig does a fine job but the standout performer here is the great Hans Conried as Dr. Terwilliker, his brilliant performance as a mad musician bent on piano players to rule the world is simply inspired.

Hans Conried, genius!

One truly can’t do this film justice with mere words; this is something that has to be experienced, from the design and craftsmanship of the sets to all the talented performers who poor their heart and souls into this truly magical project.

Thank you Theodore Geisel, wherever you are.

1 comment:

egads said...

Those who will be in the San Francisco Bay Area this mid-October can see 'Dr. T' as part of an 'Altered Realities' film series being shown Friday evenings at the Mechanics Institute Library: