Quick — name all the Doctor Seuss film adaptations you’d gladly watch more than once. The list is, of course, very short: in fact, unless you’re an easily pleased eight-year old, there’s only one, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
This musical fantasy classic screens at 3:10pm on Wednesday March 2 at Pacific Film Archive as part of the undergraduate course, Film 50. Tickets will be available to the public as space permits.
Directed by the otherwise forgotten (and, truth be told, forgettable to all but his close friends and relatives) Roy Rowland, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. is one of the Technicolor wonders of the world. Shot in 1952 and penned by Seuss ghost writer Theodor Geisl, it’s a delightfully outré reminder of the importance American society placed on the concept of the ‘nuclear family’ during the early years of the atomic age.
Future Lassie star Tommy Rettig plays young Bartholomew Collins, an All-American lad with two problems: he’s being raised by single mom Heloise (Mary Healy, who began her film career in 1938 and is still with us today), and is taking piano lessons from prissy Doctor Terwilliker (Hans Conried). Bart would rather be outside playing with his dog Sport, but mom is in cahoots with Terwilliker and insists that practice will one day make perfect.
The closest thing to a father figure in Bart’s life is plumber August Zabladowski (San Francisco native Peter Lind Hayes), currently around the house unclogging Heloise’s sink (literally, not metaphorically). Heloise is not so impressed — though she acknowledges he’s the best plumber in town, she doesn’t consider Mr. Zabladowski a good role model for her son, telling him “you certainly aren’t helping to maintain discipline. It’s not easy thing to bring up a boy without a father”.
After establishing its reality-based parameters, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. then gets down to serious business. Bart drifts off to sleep mid-practice and finds his sub-conscious self trapped at the Terwilliker Institute, an imposing building featuring twisting passageways, staircases that go nowhere, and a giant piano, upon which five hundred of Dr. T’s pupils will play the most beautiful piece of music ever written, Ten Happy Fingers. To make matters worse, Dr. T. has hypnotized Heloise, who he intends to marry, and she’s now helping him run the Institute. Of such stuff are little boys’ nightmares made.
Mr. Zabladowski, of course, is also in Bart’s dream. He’s been hired to install sinks at the Institute, which can’t open unless it’s up to code. Bart tries to convince him to down tools, but Zabladowski is happy for the business (it’s made clear he’s an independent contractor, not a union plumber). Can Bart win over Mr. Z. to his cause, break Dr. T.’s hold upon his mother, and save hundreds of small boys from a fate worse than death? You won’t find any spoilers in this column, bub.
There may be no such thing as a perfect film, but I’ve seen The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. many times on screens both big and small and still cannot find fault with it. Perhaps the colors are not quite as rich as they could be — though that might be the fault of the bare bones DVD currently on the market, which clearly wasn’t mastered from pristine source material and is plagued with dirt and scratches.
This minor quibble aside, however, what’s not to like? Geisl’s writing will delight and amuse audiences junior and senior, the cast is perfect (though it might have been fun to see what Ernest Thesiger could have done in the title role), the songs memorable (you’ll be humming them for days –even Dream Stuff, the film’s one concession to drippy balladry), the dance sequences superbly choreographed (oh yes, there will be dancing!), and the art design a sublime blend of Weimar expressionism and Seussian whimsy.
And then there’s the film’s gay subtext, which, intentional or otherwise, can be taken or left depending on your taste for camp. Dr. T. wears, shall we say, ‘non-traditional’ outfits that were then and remain today the polar opposite of traditional masculine garb. This is a man who chooses to wear silver garters, undulating frilly undies, peekaboo blouses, lavender spats, and chamois booties—at work. This is NOT a man any red-blooded American boy would want his mother to marry, at least not in 1952.
As with The Thief of Bagdad, which PFA screened earlier this year as part of the same series, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. fails the politically correct smell test miserably. On the other hand, it’s one of the most unique, imaginative, and entertaining films ever made. As long as you aren’t insulted by Dr. T.’s wardrobe, you’ll love it.
(Footnote: am I alone in suspecting that the scene in which Terwilliker’s prisoners play a giant xylophone subsequently influenced TV comedy pioneer Ernie Kovacs?)
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.