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Savant Review:

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
Columbia Tristar
1953 / Color / 1:37 / 89m.
Starring Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healey, Hans Conreid, Tommy Rettig
Cinematography Frank (Franz) Planer
Production Designer Rudolph Sternad
Film Editors Al Clark, Harry W. Gerstad
Choreography Eugene Loring
Original Music Frederick Hollander, Hans J. Salter, and Heinz Roemheld
Writing credits Dr. Seuss and Allan Scott
Produced by Stanley Kramer
Directed by Roy Rowland

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

It's not easy to make a lighthearted, whimsical children's fantasy; for every Wizard of Oz triumph there's a dozen skeletons left on the trail of ponderous, unfunny, unentertaining movies, like the a couple of versions of The Blue Bird, or the 1972 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  In 1953, tough-minded indie producer Stanley Kramer decided to round out his string of Columbia flops (the terrible Eight Iron Men, the good Member of the Wedding) with a lighthearted original children's musical.  He rounded up the sensationally successful 'Dr. Seuss', aka Theodore Geisel, and proceeded to spend a lot of Columbia's Technicolored money transforming the odd world of the Seuss books to the big screen.  The result was another flop that has since gained the reputation of an artsy classic - a real cult film.  It's colorful, energetic, and indeed can boast fine work by a cadre of talented Hollywoodians.  But it's not very good.


Forced to practice piano by his widowed mother (Mary Healey), every time little Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) closes his eyes, he daydreams about a dark and mysterious world, where his priggish piano teacher Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conreid) is transformed into a maniacal arch-villian who wants to stage a concerto with 500 captive piano-playing boys.  His number one assistant is Bart's mother, transformed by Dr. T's unreliable hypnotic spell into a mindless slave.  With veteran plumbing contractor August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), another 'version' of a person Bart knows in the 'real' world, Bart must somehow defeat the terrible Dr. T and free the 500 piano slaves.

Forever the champion of the underbudgeted, and even the undertalented, Savant ran into a brick wall with 5,000 Fingers.  The film's heart is in the right place, but it's heavy when it should be light and cold when it should be warm.  It's also disorganized, paceless, and somewhat pointless.  The talented moppet Rettig (excellent in The Raid) almost holds it together.  His asides directed to the camera are open and fresh, and his face even has a Seussian, Who-like sense of wonder about it.  That's about the extent of what works.  Apparently a husband and wife team, Hayes and Healey make a weird pair whose relationship never seems to focus.  (Please don't tell me it's intentional). Hayes in particular is rather unlikeable, totally lacking in the charm some loveable guy (Donald O'Connor) might have brought to the role.  It isn't just the writing - Hayes is unfortunately just a lump.

Speaking of writing, the script has to be seen as the main culprit here.  The characters are never established, and the dream world has no consistent relationship with Bart's reality.  I'm not looking for a rigid blueprint, but beyond the message that Bart Doesn't Like The Piano, there's not even a hint of what one world means to the other.  Poor August Zabladowsky is a thoughtless roadblock to Bart's plans one second, then a booster, then a wet blanket - all with no rhyme or reason.  Playing at being a potential father with a hokey, 'let's pretend we're fishing' routine, Zabladowsky also comes out with lots of cynical anti-kid statements.  All this would be okay if there was some kind of thread to follow.  The structure of the film is also crippled by the musical numbers, none of which are really good, especially the operetta-like solo songs with their unusually uninspired Seuss lyrics.  1  The major dance number, which goes on as long as a ballet in an MGM musical, is actually pretty clever and rather well danced (a young George Chakiris is said to be dancing in there somewhere), but collapses under the weight of an unmemorable score and the absence of anything meaningful.  Bart goes to the main dungeon and witnesses the dance of the outré instruments, but doesn't get involved with any of the 'damned' musicians or learn anything .. the number could be excised without touching the story in the least.  All of the music, etc. doesn't tell us much new about the nightmare world or the Doctor except to let us know he's a pretty prissy individual.  There is one effective singing moment, with a black elevator-to-hell operator who sings from inside a creepy black felt helmet, just his huge white eyes seen through its visor.  It at least makes some impact.

Besides the awkward script, the real culprit is the unimaginative direction, which consists of television-like coverage and loose masters.  The odd sets are simply shown, but not felt, and in some scenes the actors work themselves into a frenzy, only to be defeated by a lazy camera.  Savant is thinking in particular of the hypnosis duel between Terwiliker and Zabladowski, a nice frantic bit which just sits there because the camera barely takes note of it.

The transformation of the Seuss world into a live-action film, is mostly very successful.   The queasy, twisted storybook illustrations 'visualize' reasonably well with the help of matte paintings and strange sets.  But thanks to the prosaic direction, most of the sets come off looking oddly stagebound.

Finally, the defenders of Dr. T's brand of Dr. Seuss anarchy are welcome to their nostalgic glee, but if they wish to convert the unconverted, they need to ask themselves what it all means.  The only way to interpret the film from what Savant can observe is to conclude that Seuss is some kind of postwar anti-intellectual.  Music is something to be avoided, and professional musicians are effeminate culture hounds who gurgle about their clothes as they primp.  Behind his posing and raging fits, Dr Terwilliker is really just a crybaby, a 'Mama's boy.'  Mother is all wet about the necessity of music lessons; it's implied that America is raising a bunch of crippled sissies because the Moms are in charge.  But even the sex-role thesis goes aground with the Zabladowski character, who drives a surplus jeep and wears a Korean-conflict battle jacket, yet has the fortitude of a jellyfish.  3

 There's a lot of merry chaos in the Seuss storybooks.  Perhaps he was trying to get '50s kids to loosen up a little, maybe even consider revolt.  Who is The Cat in the Hat, if not an infiltrating agitator?  2  Fantasies need some kind of interior logic, even if it's only fantasy logic, as with The NeverEnding Story.  That film's seemingly random adventure, like Marlon Brando's diamond bullet, snaps into dynamic truth when the Wolf explains that the all-obliterating Nothing is simply the absence of childlike faith.  Overwhelming epiphanies aren't absolutely necessary, but there needs to be something there.

Columbia's DVD of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a brilliantly clear and snappily Technicolored show.  The greens and blues of Dr. T's fortress are as accurate as Tommy Rettig's freckled face and 'happy fingers' beanie.  The most noticeable flaw is a recurring problem with damage throughout the film that appears as intermittent flashes of bright blue running vertically in areas of the frame.  It's a shame these damaged-matrice flaws couldn't be painted out.  Perhaps Sony's bottomless restoration money pit has limits after all.  Also included is Gerald McBoing Boing's Symphony, a cartoon that seems related to the feature only in that its script drops Dr. Seuss's name at one point.  The short subject doesn't seem very funny now, but unlike Dr. T, UPA's McBoing Boing cartoons were a big hit when they were new.

If there's something to be praised about 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, it's that it at least better than the overproduced Ron Howard film from last Christmas.  The winner in the best Seuss adaptation race so far is the Chuck Jones Grinch cartoon from the '60s ... short, sweet, and to the point.  But fans already addicted to the Cult will find Columbia Tristar's DVD an attractive buy.

Written with help from Gary Teetzel.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Gerald McBoing Boing Cartoon
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 27, 2001


1. Savant worked with some Seuss- I mean, Geisel - written Private Snafu cartoons last summer, that had screamingly clever rhyming dialog.  The guy's talent was phenomenal, and it's too bad he couldn't translate it to the screen.

2. Raymond Dugnat pegged a sexual component of American superhero pulp when he pointed out that the creators of Batman comix orchestrated the caped crudader's foes from a selection of male anxieties: rich jerks (the Penguin), effeminate, sniggering smart alecks (the Joker), effiminate, sneering intellectuals (the Riddler), castrating black widows (the Catwoman).  Does any of this thinking illuminate the foggy non-sense of 5,000 Fingers?

3. A war widow is also prey to a less-honorable potential husband in the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still; another science fiction landmark that seems very similar in some respects is Invaders from Mars, from the same year.

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