The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953)
User ReviewsReview this title
There's only one way to have the seemingly absurd pieces to fall into place. This film is a highly sensitive depiction of a little boy's hopes and fears--occasionally wildly fluctuating between the two. Just try and find another logic behind "Didn't you know? This makes you my old man." "Yeah, I guess it does, at that."
Yes, Tommy Rettig's singing voice was dubbed by Tony Butala. After all, there's only so much one person can do. Hans Conried probably sang himself. After his double voice role in Disney's "Peter Pan" he went on to play the Magic Mirror in several Disneyland TV shows. "5,000 Fingers" must be the finest showcase of his talents.
Repeating the last words of the previous speaker was not a mannerism of Tommy Rettig's. All that is in the script, and Tommy was simply doing his work. The previous year, he was incredible in the neglected b/w movie "Paula" which is basically a two-person drama with Loretta Young. (If anyone watches "Paula" and does not have a lump in their throat at the end they are beyond all hope.)
The "Hassidics" with the Siamese beard ("Or you will get choked by the beard of the twins With the Siamese beard With a terrible twin on each end" as it says in a deleted song) are simply the boy's two great-uncles--their photos can be seen on top of the family piano.
Originally, Dr. Terwilliker did not appear in the parlor scene at the beginning. Some stills are in circulation--one on the VHS tape box--where Bart Collins darkens the eyebrows on the sheet music portrait with a pencil. The same version includes an alarm clock which Bart attempts to set ahead. In the final movie the clock still remains in one scene, at the high end of the piano keyboard. Late in the production, an immense risk was taken; having anyone speak directly to the camera is problematic, let alone a child. But this worked superbly. Some lines were obvious afterthoughts. I've seen a script with the line "One hundred per cent perfect gold plated fony [sic], double fony" added in Tommy Rettig's hand.
The musical score goes to show what years of experience can do. Friedrich Hollaender--Frederick Hollander in America--composed music for pictures as early as in 1931. The simplistic ditty "Ten Happy Fingers" is developed into many superb variations in the film score. As someone who plays himself, I found Bart's "hundred pianos" rendition under the baton of Dr. Terwilliker a sheer delight. (Characteristically, Dr. T. is not satisfied...)
Films like this also remind us about the ephemeral nature of life. At least Peter Lind Hayes, Hans Conried, and Tom Rettig have passed away. Tom--a highly esteemed computer programmer--later said these words in his dBase language, "IF its_time EXIT ENDIF." But they will live forever on film. And when "Bart and the excited dog run lickety-split down the street" you will want to see it all over again... I did.
The whimsical world of Dr. Seuss first saw expression in a Hollywood feature film in this fast-paced fantasy which examines a child's musical nightmare. Although it was a financial & critical disappointment when initially released, it has established itself comfortably as a nostalgic favorite for Baby Boomers who first discovered it decades ago.
Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-1991) wrote the original story, co-authored the script and penned the lyrics in his own inimitable style. The action plays itself out over vast, curvaceous sets which will immediately seem familiar to readers of his books, while the brightly colored costumes make the players look like characters from the good Doctor's stories come to life.
Completely dominating the movie in the title role is the marvelous character actor Hans Conried (1917-1982), gleefully breathing life into the part of the mad piano teacher who schemes to force 500 little lads into performing his compositions at a gigantic keyboard. Conried is wonderfully funny, striding about, leering, snorting & chortling as he plots his nefarious plans. He attacks the role with relish, nasally enunciating every syllable with his unique diction, softening his villainy with a thin veneer of unctuous civility. This was Conried's finest on-camera performance, but 1953 would also present him in the part for which he is perhaps best remembered, voicing Captain Hook in Disney's animated PETER PAN.
The other three performers in the movie: Tommy Rettig as the much beleaguered boy attempting to thwart the evil Terwilliker; Mary Healy as his lovely, albeit mesmerized, Mom; and Peter Lind Hayes as a friendly, deadpanned plumber, all do very well with their roles, but their ordinariness, like that of Dorothy in Oz, make them pale in comparison beside Conried.
The film, which delivers perhaps an unnecessarily nasty knock to piano teachers, does come across with some fine songs, ranging from Rettig's plaintive 'Because We're Kids' to Conried's hilarious 'Dressing Song.' Also on view is the bizarre Dungeon Dance, in which kidnapped male orchestra members present one of the most unusual terpsichorean displays ever seen in a kiddie film.
Also recommended: The Brave Little Toaster, Time Bandits, Happily Ever After: a Snow White Tale, The Never Ending Story, Nightmare Before Christmas and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
And the curved ladder into the sky... And all of he strange and wonderful musical instruments played by the prisoners in the dungeon. And the costumes that possibly inspired the makers of Star Trek, the hoods in this film look like the Original Klingons (Without the forehead makeup).
And the wonderful music and dancing and the insane lyrics written by Dr Seuss! Seeing this film at an early age definitely affected me... And it also made me afraid of music teachers. But it was not music teachers but Normality and Forced Peer Pressure I despised- The being told. HOW to dress, HOW to talk, HOW to walk, HOW to live! This film is, as Groucho Marx says: Is "Against That." What this film is for, is free musical expression, and free speech. This film teaches us, that not all people talk or look the same way. And the ever growing popularity of this film shows us a great deal about our societies: 30 years ago, freedom of expression was NOT encouraged, but now it is.
This film will forever be on the front lines of free speech, and it is probably one of the most important films ever made, due to the fact that a child can figure this out about the film, that it is about freedom.
And the biggest mistake regarding this film is by parents who insist that "This is a movie not intended for children" or that the film is not appropriate for children: I can say with 100% assurance that this is false, that I saw this film when I was a small child and I believe I benefited from the experience. This film should be shown to small children, but with discretion because some of the images can frighten a child: But because my parents were in the room I did not get frightened by the imagery.
The way this film is shown to a child can affect a child's creativity forever- And if the child is frightened, well then they can always watch it later. I was mortally afraid of Mr. Magoo cartoons until I was about 3 years old, the noise frightened me. But about 1 year after I was frightened by the introduction to a Mr. Magoo cartoon, I saw this, with my brother and parents, and we all loved it.
What is amazing was the almost 100% negative reaction to this film by the critics of the time, and we can thank whatever deities that they were 100% wrong.
Only in 1953 did he get a clear shot at stardom in this film, which fortunately survives and flourishes. His Dr. Terwilliger, the demonic piano teacher, is the center of this fantasy. He will prove his method of piano teaching is foolproof, even if he breaks the spirits of all the little boys in the world to do so. Conried relished the role (just like he would relish Snidely Whipflash on the Dudley Do-Right cartoons, and later his Professor Waldo Wigglesworth in the lesser remembered Hoppity Hooper cartoons). He also has a real chance to strut his singing abilities in the number "Dress Me Up". One wonders if that number, where Dr. T. sings and dances while he puts on his music conductor / leader's costume, influenced a spoof on "The Simpsons", where Mr. Burns sings a song (to the music of "Be Our Guest") in which he revels in all the clothing he has made from endangered species.
The rest of the cast (Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy and Tommy Retig) are better than competent, but it is definitely Conried's show. Interestingly enough Peter Lind Hayes had a role in "The Senator Was Indiscreet", and one wonders if his and Conried's casting together here has anything to do with that (they really did not interact together in the other film).
Theodore Seuss Geisel (a.k.a. "Dr. Seuss") has not been greatly served in the movies. Only this film, "The Cat In The Hat", and "How The Grinch Stole Christmas", have appeared on film. The last film was pretty well done, but there was a lot of complaints about "The Cat In The Hat". On the other hand television specials based on his works are more frequent. What many people don't know is that Geisel/Seuss was a life long liberal and he questioned many establishment views (which may explain his continued popularity). He was also a complete opponent of fascism, Nazism, and Communism, which he fought with political cartoons up to 1944, and which colored his early works. His book, "Yertl The Turtle", about a turtle who forces his fellow turtles to form a pyramid throne for him on their backs, which finally collapses at the end, was actually an attack on Hitler (in the original cartoon Yertl has a small mustache under his "nose"). My guess is that when he wrote "The 5,000 Fingers" Geisel/Seuss was likewise attacking totalitarianism. It was 1953, and the Nazi and Fascist Italian and Japanese regimes were gone, but Stalin's Russia was still around. It certainly looks like the use of labor/concentration camps and torture were on his mind when looking at "Dr. T's" establishment.
I remember it best for its plaintive song "You Have No Right to Push Us Kids Around" later revived by Jerry Lewis in his TV appearances. The song is a cry about the angst of childhood. Part of the lyrics goes something like this: "Just because you have hair on your chest doesn't mean you're the best. Just because you have stayed longer on this planet doesn't mean you own it. You have no right to push us kids around just because we're closer to the ground." Under the megalomaniac piano teacher's plan, all children would be condemned to an eternity of piano practice trying to catch up with the ever increasing beat of a metronome. Spectacular "blow up" endings such as in James Bond movies satirized by Don Adams (Maxwell Smart) or even Mike Myers (Austin Powers) must have taken inspiration from this very early attempt at such.
Much belatedly did I find out that this story is by the revered "Dr." Seuss (he is not a real doctor you know) famous for witty, whimsical stories written in cute rhyming verses about outlandish animals (Green Eggs and Ham, Cat in a Hat)but praised by educators for their effectiveness in getting children to read. Seuss deserves Ph.Ds in education, psychology and literature even posthumously.
One of a kind fantasy. It was written by Dr. Suess himself and the actors talk like they came out of one of his books. The sets are incredible...they look EXACTLY like the drawings in Suess' books. It's shot in blazing color and most of the actors wear very interesting costumes. All the sets are larger than actor Rettig but it fits...this is a child's view of a fantasy world where the adults are in charge. For whatever reason there are some musical numbers (and songs) shoved in. They're intrusive and bring the story to a screeching halt...but they're so inventive visually that they're lots of fun. There's a long musical number in a lower dungeon that's a jaw dropper! The acting is as good as it can be. Rettig is good in his role but Healy and Hayes are pretty bad--but they're given little to work with (especially Healy). Conried, on the other hand, REALLY chews the scenery and has a whale of a time playing the evil Dr. T. He's WAY too over the top but he's lots of fun.
This was a bomb when it was released and was trashed by critics. It's easy to see why--this was WAY ahead of its time. Well worth catching. I think this is a perfect movie for adults AND children. This should be rediscovered. An 8 all the way.
The story reminds us a bit of "The Wizard of Oz", since it involves the vivid imagination of a young boy who is terrorized by his piano teacher. Since Bartholomew Collins doesn't have a father, his mother is the most important figure in his young life, until August Zabladowski, the best plummer in town, comes to the rescue and becomes a male role figure in the young boy's eyes.
The musical numbers, while not magnificent in comparison to MGM standards, are still well staged and the music by Frederick Hollander is tuneful to the ears. The amazing color cinematography by Franz Ploner gave this movie a great look and Al Clark's editing helped the story immensely.
The principals in the film do good work under Mr. Rowland's direction. The sweet looking Tommy Rettig, wearing his saddle shoes and beanie, steals the heart of the viewer with his earnest approach to the role of Bartholomew. Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy are seen as Mr. Zabladowski, and Mrs. Collins. Hans Conried's villainous Dr. T is one of the best assets of the film.
"The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T" is rarely seen these days, but it's worth a viewing for the sheer pleasure of the use of color and Dr. Seuss' wonderful timeless story.
What struck me the most about seeing this film (after about a 30-year gap) was the brilliance of color: big swatches of primary colors and every shade in between. And if you're a fan of Dr. Seuss's illustrations, you will love the sets which seem like the pop-up book version of his surreal landscapes. This film delights the eyes with mind-boggling props and Daliesque sets which Fritz Lang would have loved.
Tommy Rettig is a child actor with just the right amount of "cuteness factor" to make him watchable without being unbearable. And Hans Conreid (here in his mid-30s) steals the show with his bombastic delivery and expressive face.
Some of the songs drag on a bit too long, but all in all this is a delight to watch for pianists of all ages.
I can't add much to the accolades already posted for this fascinating, and genuinely unique, work of pure imagination. I've never seen a bad review of it. I might only make another mention of the hilarious `dressing-up' song that Hans Conried performs near the end of the film. Much comment has been made about the items Dr. T calls for in the lyrics (`undulating undies,' `purple nylon girdle,' `peek-a-boo blouse,' etc.). However, it should be pointed out to those yet unfamiliar with this film that these items bear no relation to the outfit in which he is actually being dressed, which is a cartoonishly-exaggerated drum major uniform. I guess you couldn't do THAT in 1953, at least not in such a mainstream venue. Those sophisticated enough to get the joke will get it, though, and the rest will find it strange, but amusing. My point is that despite all the bizarre and subversive attributes people have seen and commented on in this film, it is very much of its time in style, and decidedly family-friendly viewing. Anyone with a fondness for `Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' should appreciate this, and I'm not sure it isn't superior to that film in style, wit, and pure imaginative pizzaz.
Younger children seem to enjoy it too as my kids at home have watched it several times.
An enjoyable musical fantasy that is not too far removed from "The Wizard of Oz" in its look and style. Hans Conreid is a standout as the hilariously evil Dr. Terwilliger, the mad piano teacher. The dance of the instruments and "The Dungeon Song" are musical highlights from this Technicolor classic.
I suppose there's very little to indicate that he's heterosexual, either, although if we must decide one way or the other we should conclude that he is, since he DOES want to marry Bart's mother (who alternates between looking prim and sexless and looking altogether luscious), and neither his desire for profit nor his vainglory provide him with a motivation for so doing. I'll admit he may simply wish to indulge in his lust for power.
Power is the key. What moral content there is and it's really more of a fantasia than a parable is this: it's wrong to "push people around". The more sinister interpretations people seem to have racked their brains to come up with simply do not, in the cold light of day, make any sense. Is the film really saying anything against musical education? Against piano practice per se? Even if this is what Dr. Seuss et al. were trying to do, Frederick Hollander's music subverts the enterprise. Are we being subliminally told that there's something suss about art? Even if we are the images are subliminally telling us the precise opposite. I refuse to believe that anything with such a wonderful score, such delightful and clever songs, such beguiling art direction, is REALLY telling us not to bother with the piano if we really want to learn to play it (you'll notice that one or two of the 500 children look quite upset that they don't get to play "Ten Happy Fingers"), or that artists are not to be trusted.
The score and the songs and the art, and most of the ideas, are more than enough to compensate for those aspects of the production that are merely competent (there are and were directors who could have DAZZLED us with this material, from the first minute to the last). Don't worry: it's never less than competent. The only way in which the film falls short in any important way is that it doesn't quite have the nerve embrace its own fantasy. Why does it have to all turn out to be a dream? Why can't Bart REALLY be kidnapped by Dr. T. and forced to practise on a 44,000-key piano? For decades, Hollywood was so terrified of pure fantasy that it would ALWAYS do this: it would take, say, a book by L. Frank Baum in which Dorothy goes to the land of Oz and create a film in which she merely dreams about doing so. There's no denying that this hurts the screen version of "The Wizard of Oz" even if there's also no denying that the fantasy is more than strong enough to survive the blow. So it is here.
Even though Seuss co-wrote the screenplay of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, it too cannot quite capture the mood or magic of Seuss' books. That's not to say that the film is a failure, exactly, but speaking as a big Seuss fan, it would have been much better if it had not tempered its Seussian characteristic in such odd ways.
The story is basically one long nightmare (literally, that's not stated as a criticism). It is the story of Bartholomew, or "Bart", Collins (Tommy Rettig). Bart is the child of a single mother (relatively unusual for a film in 1953), Heloise (Mary Healy). He is taking piano lessons from a Dr. Terwilliker, or "Dr. T" (Hans Conried). Dr. T is egotistical--he seems to teach only out of his own instruction manuals--and quite the disciplinarian. The Collins' plumber, August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), says that Dr. T is a conman, or "racketeer". Naturally, Bart is not a big fan of his lessons with Dr. T.
When the film begins, we're in a brief dream of Bart's. He's being chased by colorful men holding colorful nets in a surreal but sparse landscape. He wakes up and we see that he's been sleeping at the piano. There's a relatively short scene introducing all of the characters as they are in the "real world", but before long, Bart is asleep at the piano again. This time his dream makes up the bulk of the film. It features Dr. T as something of a mad scientist. He's built a huge, double-decker piano at which he plans to torture--er, uh, teach, 500 students at the same timehence, 5,000 fingers. Dr. T has hypnotized Bart's mother. Can Bart save his mother while saving the world from the evil Dr. T?
Seuss' writing in his books tends to be surreal, somewhat nonsensical (with that as a positive, playful quality) and is almost always verbally focused on crazy word play, including lots of neologisms and hilariously twisted rhymes. For some reason, dramatic adaptations of his works tend to avoid these qualities. I suppose it's because producers think that the typical Dr. Seuss style won't work in the context of a drama. However, it's a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the dreaded tempering of Seuss' style is present. The story and songs--yes, this is something of a musical--are fun so long as they are focused on Seussian "insanity". But director Roy Rowland (and maybe co-writer Allan Scott and producer Stanley Kramer) keeps reigning in the more bizarre qualities to try to make the film something of a standard drama. The combination of the two styles tends to make for awkward moments.
Likewise, the typical Seussian artwork is tempered. While there are many admirable aspects of production design in the dreamworld, the sets and costumes tend to be far too minimalistic and occasionally too mundane to capture the wonder of Seuss.
On the other hand, this film is relatively daring for its era. We should probably be happy that a live-action version of Seuss was attempted at all in 1953. On the other hand again, it might be surprising that there weren't far more films like this in the wake of The Wizard of Oz (1939). But not many films, including this one, could capture the expansive, otherworldly surrealism of The Wizard of Oz. Whether it was due to budget (my suspicion) or artistry (maybe because there weren't many people experienced in creating filmic fantasy worlds?), The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T feels like it takes place exactly where it happens to take place--on a large soundstage, on economically constructed sets.
Because color was still exotic enough to be an attraction in itself in 1953, Rowland sometimes dwells on colors in an obvious way. For example, the "nets" of the opening, or the later descent down the fireman's pole through the variously colored rooms. There are other blatant devices tying The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T to its era, such as the "atomic" substance that appears in the climax.
That a fuller commitment wasn't made to creating an authentic Seussian world on film (and why does it have to be a dreamworld?--Seuss' worlds are not dreamworlds, they're "real", alternate universes) means that a lot of dramatic momentum and suspense that feels like it should be there is missing instead, replaced by relatively random dream occurrences.
Still, there are aspects to recommend. For example, the Seussian elements that are present, including the sets, are delightful, and a long musical number featuring all of the "non-pianists" is fun and has great Seussian instruments (unfortunately the music to accompany this is very pedestrian where it should be equally surreal).
Some have complained that this film (and other Seuss works, such as the recent films) is "too dark" or "too sinister" for Seuss. If you read his work closely, Seuss was never that "innocent". There's often a crazy, almost nightmarish tone to his books. It's just that some of us, even when we were kids, love that kind of dark surrealism.
But if the story is reminiscent of anything, it's something like the Wizard of Oz in the mind of a young child. The imaginary world (or is it real, in a way?) draws parallels to the real world, while Bart deals with his overbearing piano teacher and a mother who seems all too agreeable with the piano teacher. It sounds like a child development case study, but this is way more fun. The story isn't nearly as poetic as OZ, but it's full of those gentle Seuss touches, such as puns, nonsense words, and a few memorable songs.
But if there's any failures in the film, the look of the film makes up for it. Forget the Grinch and Cat in the Hat. If Dr. Seuss was to be translated into live action, this is what it'd look like. It looks like a simple Seuss world lifted from his books. The children's hats and the many abstract but colorful set pieces aren't scary or disturbing, but rather, dreamlike and imaginative. Neeless to say, for 1953, it's a strange looking movie and it could be easy to dismiss it.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is worth a look, especially among Seuss fans. It's also an amazing visual achievement for its time. I wouldn't consider it classic Seuss or even classic cinema, necessarily, but it should strike some joyful curiosity among cinephiles and Seuss fans alike.
Reservations aside, I would say that this movie is worth a look, if only for the strangeness of it, and to see the remarkable performance of Hans Conried. Incidentally, I'd like to comment on another comment made about Tommy Rettig's lovely singing voice. I seriously doubt that a boy that age could sing like that. The voice has definite adult qualities - a boy soprano wouldn't have that kind of vibrato in his voice. I think if you listen more carefully, you will hear that the singer is a woman who has been dubbed in to sound like a little boy. Nevertheless, Rettig was such a natural performer that it does indeed seem as though he is the one singing.