The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1952) ***
I was born in 1974. I myself never had this reaction to it, but a lot of people in my age cohort can tell you tales of how they were permanently scarred by the experience of seeing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at an early age. Perhaps that’s to be expected, too, seeing as that movie came out in 1971— the 70’s, after all, were a banner decade for warped and disturbing movies, and I can think of no very good reason for children’s films to be categorically exempt from that generalization. The 50’s, on the other hand, were an innocent era, or so the conventional wisdom would have it. Family entertainment in those days was wholesome to a fault, and you’d certainly never find high-octane nightmare fuel like the Oompah-Loompahs in a children’s movie from the age when Donna Reed and Andy Griffith walked the Earth— right? Wrong. You see, while the 50’s were indeed the age of Donna Reed, they were also age of Dr. Seuss. Go and re-read The Cat in the Hat or I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew; focus not on the good doctor’s characteristic verse style or on the tale’s uplifting moral, but rather on the bare facts of the plot. Meanwhile, really look at Seuss’s drawings. It’s a world gone utterly mad, isn’t it? Yes, a place where Tim Burton and the Chiodo brothers— and Terry Gilliam, too, for that matter— would be perfectly at home. And more to the point, it’s a world which Seuss himself, in collaboration with co-writer Alan Scott and director Roy Rowland, was once permitted to bring to cinematic life. Mind you, I’m not talking about stuff like the cartoon version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas here. The key point about Columbia’s The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T is that unlike the various Seuss adaptations that aired on television in later years, it was a live-action film. That meant an effort to translate Seuss’s distinctively strange and often physics-defying illustrations into real-world sets and props, with the key role of production designer going to Seuss himself. Combine that with plot, dialogue, and song lyrics of his devising, and the result is a movie that is startlingly bent, from front to back and top to bottom.
Of course, since this is the early 1950’s we’re dealing with, it would have been pretty much out of the question for a movie simply to drop the audience straight into Seussland to fend for themselves. Hollywood was desperately allergic to out-and-out fantasy back then, so The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T begins by establishing that most of what we’ll be seeing for the next 80-odd minutes is the product of a young boy’s subconscious mind. Eleven-year-old Bartholomew Cullins (Tommy Retting— and note the nod to recurring Seuss character Bartholomew Cubbins… he of the Oobleck and the 500 hats) dreams of being chased through a landscape of greenish, metallic mounds by an army of men in strange hats, wielding a rainbow-colored array of giant butterfly nets. When he awakens, he finds that his real-life circumstances are not much more to his liking— he’s still sitting at the piano before which he nodded off. Bart’s mom, you see, is one of those parents who stand four-square behind the bizarre idea (which was more or less universally held in 1952) that it builds character for children to spend long and arduous hours acquiring skills which they not only don’t want, but are of absolutely no practical value. In particular, Heloise Cullins (Mary Healy) is hell-bent on making a world-class piano player of her son, and to that end, she has engaged the services of one Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried, from The Twonky and The Monster that Challenged the World), founder of the Happy Fingers School of Music, to instruct the boy. Terwilliker is a man obsessed, and so far as Bart is concerned, he’s probably also a sadist and a lunatic, but what’s the boy going to do? As every kid knows, mothers cannot be reasoned with once they’ve got some cockamamie notion lodged firmly in their heads. The best Bart can hope for is a few unsupervised minutes in which to gripe about his plight to August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), the plumber who has evolved into his special adult friend, and who is just then messing around with the pipes out in the kitchen. The respite doesn’t last long, however, and soon it’s back to the old grind for Bartholomew. Still, the kid’s about at the limit of his stamina, and soon enough, he nods off again.
Now comes the fun part. Bart dreams that he has been, for all practical purposes, kidnapped by Terwilliker as the first step in some sick, diabolical scheme to subject the children of the world to a Hell-on-Earth of eternal piano practice. No longer content to inflict the tortures of Happy Fingers on one little boy at a time, the devilish Dr. T is getting set to open the Terwilliker Academy, a boarding school cum prison built around a monstrous piano with two 300-foot keyboards, designed to accommodate 500 players simultaneously. Once Terwilliker gets his hands on 499 more kids, the lot of them will be forced to spend the rest of their days plinking out the doctor’s own maddening little ditties— and what’s worse, Terwilliker’s hypnotic powers will fix it so that none of those children’s parents ever see fit to complain. Dr. T already has Bart’s mother so securely wrapped around his finger that he has entrusted her with the number-two post in his operation, and it seems that he’s even attempting to maneuver her into marrying him. Nor is there any hope of escape from Terwilliker Academy; the grounds are ringed by an electrified barbed-wire fence and the building itself is patrolled constantly by a goon-squad under the command of the loathsome Sergeant Lunk (Radar Men from the Moon’s Noel Cravat). More terrifying still are Terwilliker’s cousins, Whitney and Judson (John and Robert Heasley), ancient Siamese twins joined at the beard, who prowl the corridors on roller skates, ever vigilant against efforts by boys like Bart to break free of the doctor’s hold.
All in all, it’s a good thing for Bart that even evil geniuses occasionally need to hire outside contractors to get their bases of operations up and running. In Terwilliker’s case, it’s the plumbing that’s causing the holdup— 500 captive children are going to require a hell of a lot of sinks and toilets if Terwilliker Academy is going to be up to code. And whom do you suppose Terwilliker has hired to do the necessary work? Why, it’s August Zabladowsky, of course! Altogether, it means that Bart still has a little time in which to break the teacher’s hypnotic hold on Heloise, and that his grown-up pal will be close at hand to help out… assuming, that is, that Bart can somehow pry him away from all those sinks he’s supposed to be installing. Bart’s first attempt to enlist August’s aid doesn’t go terribly well. Though the plumber succeeds in infiltrating Terwilliker’s private apartment (which is where he’s been keeping Bart’s mother), Dr. T arrives on the scene soon thereafter and charms August into joining him and the hypnotized Heloise in a sappy song-and-dance number about friendship. (Tommy Rettig’s exasperated sulking and eye-rolling during this scene is a joy to behold.) It takes a sullen counter-song about how adults never take anything kids say seriously to make up the lost ground, and from that point on, both Bart and August become far more cautious about taking on Terwilliker directly.
The first opportunity for subterfuge emerges when Bart finds out just how little Dr. T is paying Zabladowski for installing the sinks— it’s such a pittance that a thrifty and diligent kid could reasonably top it by borrowing against his future paper-route earnings! Bart sneaks back into Terwilliker’s apartment, lets himself into the teacher’s safe, and writes out an IOU for the few dollars he lifts from it to out-bid his captor for August’s cooperation. Then, just for good measure, the two conspirators swear a blood oath making August Bart’s adoptive father and, by extension, Heloise’s husband. (Halfway through, the text of their vow of mutual loyalty turns into the Boy Scout oath— what else?) Having undermined Dr. T’s wedding plans and arranged for the vital plumbing work to be left undone, Bart sneaks off to hide himself in the vast warren of as yet mostly empty corridors that is the Terwilliker Academy. He evades Sergeant Lunk and his guardsmen long enough to reunite with August, and the two of them hurry back upstairs to free Bart’s mom from the big, plush cage in which Terwilliker locked her after he began to suspect that she was developing a resistance to hypnosis. But the world’s most dastardly piano teacher is not to be foiled so easily. He sends the bearded twins to intercept Bart, August, and Heloise, and though the plumber defeats them in roller-derby-style combat, the time that takes allows Lunk and his men to surround the would-be escapees, at which point Terwilliker banishes them to his deepest dungeon— a hellish place normally reserved for such despised miscreants as the players of “scratchy violins, screeching piccolos, nauseating trumpets, etc.” With the other 499 children scheduled to arrive tomorrow morning to begin their lives of piano-playing slavery and our heroes locked up in the dungeon, the game would seem to be up. Even so, there’s still one last hope. The torturer who spends most of his workdays asleep on the floor in front of Bart and August’s cell wears a hearing aid; if the two prisoners can snag it and combine it with the contents of their pockets to make an atomic anti-sound bomb, they might just be able to sabotage Dr. Terwilliker’s insidious scheme right at his moment of triumph.
To a degree I never would have imagined possible, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T really does feel like a Dr. Seuss book come to life. To begin with, the look of the movie is perfect— the set dressers captured the mechanically improbable, logically indefensible architecture of Seuss’s backgrounds exactly, and the prop department was equally spot-on in their rendering of the conceptually bizarre and grotesquely distorted objects that occupy those sets. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene in which Bart first enters the dungeon for non-pianists. While the boy looks on in escalating wonder and bafflement, the musicians file out from their cells playing an awesome array of ever more demented instruments: trombones that would seem at home among Salvador Dali’s melting watches, single-stringed violins that wrap around their players’ necks, cellos built from mannequin bodies, xylophones made out of steam radiators, two-man concertinas with bellows 20 feet long, others which I can’t even begin to describe. Also in evidence are plenty of Seuss’s trademark ladders to nowhere and directional signs in the form of huge, finger-pointing gloves. I’ve always thought there was something ineffably nightmarish about those glove signs (have a look at Marvin K. Mooney, Would You Please Go NOW?, and see if you don’t agree with me), and seeing them converted into physical objects only solidified that opinion further.
The immaterial aspects of the film are a bit wobbly, however. As is so often the case in old movies, the good guys are sort of dull (although to be fair, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T has a much milder case of this problem than most of its contemporaries), and many of the scenes which Bart and/or August have to themselves are schmaltzy in the extreme. For example, the combination of a big box of candy from the concession stand and Bart’s song about adult-kid relations could easily put you into a diabetic coma. As a general thing, there’s substantially too much singing for my taste, and for the most part, it’s only the bad guys who get to deliver the utterly deranged lyrics that make the best of the tunes worthwhile.
Luckily, we do have those villains— especially Terwilliker himself— to keep things interesting. Whether he’s holding court in the room with the giant piano, having a weird-ass dance-fu hypnosis-whammy battle against August Zabladowski, or delivering a eulogy that turns into the “Alas, poor Yorick” speech from Hamlet over the slain Whitney and Judson, Hans Conried owns this movie. And naturally, he is the central player in the scene that serves as the film’s high-water mark of sheer perversity. By the time Bart and August have been sent down to the dungeon, we’ve just about seen it all— the “nauseating trumpets,” the roller skate showdown with the twins, a duet between Bart and August that was supposed to look parental but comes across as pederastic instead— but just when it seems like The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T can’t get possibly get any more disturbing, this happens. Terwilliker retires to his apartment to get himself ready for the opening-day festivities, and during the course of his preparations, he sings to his two servants:
Yep. Undulating undies— and undulating undies with maribou frills, no less! At one level, all we’re looking at here is some typically Seussian fun with phonemes, but there’s also another level at which we’re looking at a young Hans Conried singing a song about cross-dressing, and calling for a pair of underpants designed to do his masturbating for him. Is it any wonder that early-50’s audiences turned out to be not quite ready for The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, causing the movie to sink like a stone upon both its initial release and its reissue under the deceptively sedate title Crazy Music? You’ve got to wonder what went through producer Stanley Kramer’s head when he saw the completed film for the first time— I mean, this is the same Stanley Kramer who produced Death of a Salesman and Inherit the Wind! “Christ!” I can picture him thinking, “How the fuck am I ever going to sell tickets to this?!”