For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

Beautiful Disasters: "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T"

The first in a series of articles on films that didn't turn out exactly as they were intended.
We spend years viewing the world through the eyes of a child before abandoning it. Not the world, that is—but we grow into players in the game of Life, rub our heavy eyelids, and take to ever-trippy existence from a heightened perspective in which our formative fears and fantasies are filtered through a scope less blurry, unadulterated. And then in doing so we leave a little something behind. For a grown-up to be considered “childish” comes with more negative connotations than posi, but to retain one’s inner child is a paramount strength. So what is the difference?
Theodore Geisel, also known under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss, authored the most celebrated children’s literature of his time. He presented generations upon generations whimsical visions which, in proper auteur style, require just a single glance to recognize as work of his. Geisel’s simply-worded fables were praised for encouraging youth to learn to read while simultaneously being wrought with moral and sociopolitical undertones. If you haven’t spent the 2000s dwelling under a rock or in a mountaintop cavern overlooking Whoville, you’re likely well-aware of and have had your go at the Hollywood adaptations of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat. Yet only those who travel in certain circles know this underrated piece of trivia: That back in the 50s, the Dr-who-wasn’t-really-a-doctor Seuss penned an original live-action musical film. Why has this information largely eluded us? It’s because the picture was a bit of a bomb that exploded nowhere but inward on itself. 
The film is entitled The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and tells the tale of an all-American lad trapped in the clutches of the nefarious Dr. Terwilliker—whose music academy is luring in young boys to practise their playing on an oversized piano, assembly line-style, until the end of their days. Geisel originally submitted a 1200-page screenplay with “themes of world dominance and oppression following World War II,” but over the course of the production this epic-to-be was whittled down into a Freudian fever dream that didn’t particularly score well with either the youngsters or critics of America. Dr. T has since gained a late-night-TV sort of following, but upon its 1953 release experienced less than rapture in vain of his picture books’ reception. During the shoot on a particular day, one of the 150 kid extras the budget allowed for ate a spoiled hot dog and vomited all over the Seussian instrument—inciting a chain reaction among the 149 others, who followed suit in covering the piano keys in puke. Geisel claimed that much the same occurred among those who reviewed his one-and-only real involvement with the movies. Thus an overwhelming feeling of embarrassment ensured that not even 1 of Doctor Terwilliker’s 5000 fingers made an appearance in his official biography. So what was it? Was The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T a childish misstep on the parts of a studio on the rise, the kid who would go on to star in Lassie, and one beloved author?
The fact of the matter may be that the musical fantasy came out the eensiest bit too adult. The Dr. Terwilliker character, played by Hans Conried, harnesses the two greatest fears of a juvenile male: That his mother be brainwashed and hidden away in a castle like Mario’s Princess Peach; and that an active adolescent mind be coerced into eternal discipline firmly planted on a piano’s bench. This mad villain plays the J.K. Simmons role from Whiplash, terrorizing students into mastery of their craft by working them to the bone. The doomed protégé subject to it is little Bart Collins, played by Tommy Rettig, whom applies his Boy Scout determination to foil Dr. T’s evil plot while also acting as matchmaker to his mother and the handsome plumber Mr. Zabladowski. Lacking a father figure, Bart cannot bear to see his mother under the tyranny of Dr. Terwilliker, mimicking Alexander’s gaze toward the devilish mom-marrying bishop in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In a sturdy proud citizen’s voice, Zabladowski delivers the coda: “After all, motherhood is the noblest institution in our land.”
Such political undercurrents might be the skeletal basis for a story which seems to have been conceived as one elaborate metaphor. The scenario of an ally propagandized by an evil authoritarian is certainly a Cold War era paranoia—the term ‘brainwash’ only dates back to the 50s, having entered our lexicon after usage by the United States military during the Korean War. The concoction mixed by Bart and Zabladowski to eliminate Dr. Terwilliker’s map is, although appearing severely more innocent in the film, a variation on a weapon of mass destruction. Today’s audience must find it a bit laughable when Bart is asked if the solvent is atomic and he responds “Yes Sir, VERY atomic!”, as if these are the most lethal words that could ever be spoken. It’s ceased to resonate, because visions of mushroom clouds aren’t dancing through our heads during routine duck-and-cover exercises at school. But the 1950s climate was tense, and the overarching anxiety—and the means by which any problem could eventually meet with its solution—was the big, beautiful bang.
Other aspects of the film feel like previews to next week’s episode in the US of A. There are the children summoned to labour away for their leader, straight out of a fascio-capitalist fantasy. There’s dashing proletariat Mr. Zabladowski, bought out of his morality to fix sinks in Terwilliker’s lair, paid only in an assortment of curious Seuss currencies he admits he’s not sure he’ll ever see. Terwilliker, striking a chord, confides he’s hauling in stacks of Benjamins courtesy of “the pocketbooks of unsuspecting mothers.” The academy promises it’ll transform its attendees into concert pianists whilst being a trap, and one must immediately recollect today’s impossible North American school system and the student debt bound to an endless number of scholastic mean-wellers with little other options.
When Bart and Zabladowski’s plan to save the day is foiled, they are sent for a ride on a hell-bent elevator straight to the dungeon. The elevator doorman is sweaty and muscular, sporting leather tights and a mask that resembles bondage headgear. As they descend into the depths of the castle he sings a morose ditty of what awaits them should he open the door on each floor they pass: 
Leg chains, ankle chains
Neck chains, wrist chains
Thumbscrews and noosests of the very finest rope
This is the darkest of Dr. T’s 5000 shades, but it isn’t the only sexually mature innuendo in the children’s flick. Each of the underground guards is leather bar hot, and the imprisoned musicians they watch over a scantily-clad band of merry men whom gyrate and prance around with a lightness of foot that almost puts the Nicholas Brothers to shame. In this air of not-so-repressed queerness however, Dr. T’s flamboyancy takes the cake. As a family production erected during the heyday of the Hays Code—the Hollywood Production Code that prohibited positive portrayals of queer characters or content—it’s no surprise that the creepy antagonist possess the mannerisms and attributes a public at large would generally constitute with homosexuality. His moment to shine arises in the musical number where he orders his minions to dress him in his finest array before takeover day, and in a way that’s camp as hell, requests his “undulating undies with the marabou frills,” and his “beautiful bolero with the porcupine quills.”
In fact, said game of dress-up provided inspiration for Mr. Burns’ silly “See My Vest” number in the sixth season of The Simpsons. As it were, the song and dance of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is pretty hit-or-miss. The aforementioned all-male dungeon escapade might resemble a clash between Kenneth Anger and Busby Berkeley, but haphazardly climbs into peaks of bliss out of chaos. These reach-for-the-top legs are the ones the entire film kind of lopsidedly leaps on. Billed as “the wonder musical of the future!”, the children’s fantasy was maybe intended to follow in the footsteps of The Wizard of Oz, but in Technicolor surreality propelled into some other dimension, landing closer to an imperfect The Red Shoes. The torrent by which I was able to view the film, after all, beheld these download instructions:  1. eat lots of acid, 2. fire up in your favorite media player, 3. enjoy!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is one of the ways the movie is now being viewed. It’s probably inevitable. Theodore Geisel’s grand dream may have warped before his very eyes into a Hollywood nightmare that soured his foray into the cinéworld forever, but always, louder than bombs is the soundless switching of our lens to take a look at things in the crystal-clear way they aren’t—or maybe are—but ever in a new light that illuminates its meaning. Matt Groening admitted to receiving countless influences from Dr. T in creating The Simpsons—Bart is named after the film’s hero and even sports a spiky yellow hairdo in reference to the Happy Fingers cap Tommy Rettig carries atop him throughout his adventure. Hats like these are rare collectors’ items nowadays, and go for sums of money whenever they arise on eBay. One man’s trash, as always, is another’s treasure.
The movie’s masterpiece moment occurs at its exact midpoint, when Tommy Rettig as Bart takes to the stage by his lonesome to sing a lament of nonexistent children’s rights. “Just because you’ve whiskers on your face to shave, You treat us like a slave… So what? It’s only hair. Just because you wear a wallet near your heart, You think you’re twice as smart. You know that isn’t fair.” Not merely as a child, but as the little guy fighting against the vast governmental evil in the world, this scene exudes what the film portrays best: the pathos of the powerless. After the picture’s disastrous reception, I’m sure many who gave it its heart and soul sat alone and thought thoughts expressed in these lyrics, among them Dr. Seuss, channeling his inner child to coo: “You have no right, you have no right, to boss and beat us little kids about.”
***
Part of our on-going series Beautiful Disasters.

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features