The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953) Poster

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Nightmare for children, heaven for adults!
haddock20 June 2004
Of course this is not really a movie for children. The structure of the movie is similar to "Wizard of Oz", beginning with a child which seems to be frustrated with the real life and then dreaming into another world, full of magicians, witches, fabulous adventures and so on. But while "Wizard of Oz" is funny, the characters can simply be divided in "good" and "bad", the adventures can be understood - in "5,000 Fingers" the little boy enters a nightmare! Funny and helpful characters are emotional disturbing. A witch can be recognized as fabulous being, but a piano-teacher is close to real life, and Dr. T. is much more frightening than the evil witch from Oz! The decoration and especially the musical numbers are fantastic, think of the bearded twins on skaters! Fantastic! The psychology of the movie is excellent: A boy suffering from the lack of a father is afraid that his beloved mother is hypnotized by a strange man and will marry him. Certainly thousands of children at any time are fearing such a situation. Literature and cinema are full of this theme, think of "Alice in Wonderland", "Fanny and Alexander" and so on. Really interesting is the time at which this movie was made. During the 50s almost everything was nice and perfect, and here you have a nice and perfect Musical showing frightening, fear, the "other side" of everything. - Here in Germany I am desperately waiting for getting it on DVD or TV! This movie is quite unknown and perhaps unpopular for its content. But believe me: It's one of the "pearls" in movie history!
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Surreal, funny, poignant... and there IS a logic to it
markkufin9 August 2002
I am a European who hasn't read one single book by Dr. Seuss, but I am magically captivated by this movie. I've seen the DVD four times by now, first having seen it twice at film archive shows.

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.
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Odds Bodkins.
pedrodave28 October 2005
Well I never. I have just had the pleasure of watching this film on Channel 4 in the UK. Its a damp and dreary Friday afternoon and this wacky exercise in surrealism has just been broadcast and has certainly put a smile on my face. What a storyline. What a set. What acting. This is a gem of a film which I had never heard of till today. It is a real departure from your average 1950s family film. Through the whole duration the film swings between brilliance and total whack. The madness of Dr Seuss comes across so well, especially when you jack up the colour a few notches :-) I am led to believe that Dali had a hand in the design of the sets. That in itself is enough to get me watching. I was surprised at the amount of reference to this movie I have actually experienced without realising it. For example, the Uk is presently showing an add for "frank" which is a recreational drug use/misuse information service available to the public. It uses a character who is undoubtedly based on Bart to do so. As a fan of surrealism I totally enjoyed the spooky weirdness of this mindbending musical. Just sad I didn't record it as I see it isn't available in European pal DVD format. Doh.
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? Very Atomic!!!
boris-2619 March 2001
It's sad that this enormously entertaining children's fantasy film goes almost unseen today. It is the only live action feature film that the late great Dr. Suess was involved in. The story involves young Bart, a free spirited little boy who is forced into piano lessons dictated by the pretentious, snobby Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried at his nasally best!) In his dreams, he imagines this horrible teacher runs a prison like institute where prisoners are forced to play a silly, large piano meant for 500 piano players all at once. The film has wonderful dialog, crazy musical numbers with great lyrics. Two of my favorite songs in this film is the baratone executioner, and Dr. T's gleeful song about dressing up. Oh, and there's a reference to the atomic bomb that is just too gosh-darned funny! This loopy classic has a nice message, mostly aimed at adults- take children more seriously, and let them be children. The last shot of the film has Bart running off to play sports. A perfect happy ending.
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Happy Fingers
Ron Oliver15 April 2005
A small boy plots to upset the grand performance by THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T. to be held in the sinister Terwilliker Institute.

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.
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It will leave you feeling rather uncomfortable
bteigen3 January 2005
This movie is one of the most bizarre and random films I have ever seen. It combines a mind-boggling storyline (a kid dreams he's trapped in a castle ruled by his satanic piano teacher who is setting up a piano camp for 500 players), intriguing characters (the heroic, down-to-earth plumber, the helpless, beautiful, damsel/mother in distress, the all-American kid on the block, and the disturbing, foppish, freak of a villain, Dr. Terwilliker) weird costumes and sets, and the most outrageous songs ever conceived. Among my favorites are the "Doe-me-doe" dress up song, "The Dungeon Song," and "We are Victorious!" Any orchestra geek will get a kick out of the dungeon ballet. This is a terrific film to scare your friends or corrupt your children. I highly recommend it to anyone with an unbalanced imagination.

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.
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The most underrated film of all time
XweAponX15 April 2009
I saw this when I was about 5 years old and the images were burned into my brain. Images created by Dr. Seuss! I especially remember the Twilliker Institute, with it's electrified Barbed Wire Fence...

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.
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Real adventure, real entertainment, and a real message.
shneur18 October 2005
What a pity they don't make films like this anymore for children, and an even greater pity that if they did no one would watch them. This wonderful music-and-dance fantasy tale harks from the days when there actually was a "culture," and at least some movie makers, and some parents, felt it was their responsibility to pass that culture on to the next generation. The screenplay for "Dr. T" was written by none other than Dr. Seuss, including the songs, and is delightful from beginning to end. The story, about a boy who dreams that his mean piano-teacher runs a surrealistic prison-school, is an adventure that holds the attention of young and old, and the excellent performances of Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy provide the "love interest" for those who find that necessary. The protagonist is played by Tommy Rettig -- "Jeff" of the original "Lassie" TV series -- at 12. It's interesting that so many of his pre-Lassie roles were in musicals, especially since apparently he couldn't carry a tune. (Tony Butala, one of the founding members of "The Lettermen," provided his singing voice in this film.) One number, way ahead of its time -- in fact way ahead of THIS time -- makes as clear a protest as I've ever heard against adults who "push and shove us little kids around." A VERY YOUNG Hans Conried as the conceited villain will have you laughing out loud, and references to the atomic bomb should be understood in the context of a year when thousands of people were digging large holes in their back yards. Watching this movie is a real and rare treat.
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Hans' greatest acting role, and Dr. Seuss's politics
theowinthrop5 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Hans Conried was a marvelous character actor, usually in comedy parts. He was possibly the first non-regular to appear on a popular television series ("Make Room For Daddy" - later "The Danny Thomas Show") whose appearances were so welcomed that he became a leading regular to the extent that he stayed for the entire run of the show. But he was tall, had a nasal voice, and while striking looking could not be called handsome. So when he appeared in films it was (for most of the 1940s) in bit parts, although he usually was very effective in them. Take a look at his ill-fated magician in "Journey Into Fear" or his possibly communist agent/waiter in "The Senator Was Indiscreet".

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.
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Busby Berkely On Acid
Schlockmeister28 August 1999
Others have commented on this but I just have to add after seeing this again today that the prison for orchestra members number looked like Busby Berkely on acid.. not to be missed!! A great goofy fun movie that has Dr. Seuss written ALL over it...
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Calling Tim Burton....
ptb-821 February 2004
Accurately described elsewhere as a bridging film between WIZARD OF OZ and the 1971 WILLY WONKA, this Technicolor Halloween treat is one of Columbia's best children's films. Uncompromising in its clever and psychologically disturbing child's nightmare, it is a great Theodore Giesel adaptation and unforgettable for any intelligent child. One shudders to think it will be remade into multiplex junk like the disgraceful CAT IN THE HAT of 2003, this original and deliciously unsettling 1953 masterpiece deserves to be 'up there' with OZ and WONKA in the foremost influential kids films of the 20th century. Find it and lap it up.....and I dare any adult not to scream and climb backwards up their sofa when the elevator operator (the eyes in the square helmet guy) takes us all for a ride.Probably what FOX were trying for in MONKEYBONE and wasted $70 million dollars in the attempt. Maybe Tim Burton is the only person we can trust with a remake....given his success in many ways with the CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY release this year. DR T has production values and a Technicolor palette of perfect 50s imagery and is a stand alone classic in it's own right. I think really it is a boys version of The Wizard Of Oz. Sadly Tommy Rettig did not seem to have had a happy adult life and died in the last decade only in his fifties. Find Dr T on DVD and relish its lunacy and sense of style. Also, it is very camp with, as one friend said " an incredible amount of poncing about" by Hans Conreid...especially in his 'dress me up' song sequence...and sequins......The avant-garde dungeon number with the rejected players and their squarky boom-boom instruments is an astonishing and hilarious piece of choreography as modern and as idiotic as anyone in 2006 could think up. This is great fun, and even survives the horrible appearance of the genuinely uninteresting and unappealing Peter Hayes...see ZIS BOOM BAH for my insight into his (and Mommie dearest's) dreary Hollywood appearances.
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A little boy battles an evil piano teacher out to rule the world.
Deusvolt10 December 2005
An alienated boy misunderstood by his parents at home rebels against an exacting piano teacher whom he finds out has a sinister plot to rule the world.

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.
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a truly bizarre experience
mjneu5918 November 2010
The rich imagination of Dr. Seuss and the suburban daydreams of the early 1950s combine to make this one-of-a-kind musical fantasy more than just a perverse novelty item: rarely has a film captured so well the unique perspective and peculiar logic of childhood. Kids will no doubt identify with the young hero, an unhappy piano student who dreams of liberating, with the help of a handsome plumber, 500 boys held captive at the mile long keyboard of his maniacal music tutor, Dr. Terwillicker (played by Mr. Fractured Flickers, Hans Conreid). But only adults will appreciate the shear strangeness of it all: the surrealistic architecture; the outrageous and colorful costume designs; and the improbable song and dance numbers, with nonsensical lyrics only Dr. Seuss could have written. At times it almost resembles a nightmare vision of child anxiety, but the passing years improve the film by restoring to it the innocence of the age in which it was made.
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Sadly ignored surrealistic fantasy
preppy-321 October 2008
Little Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig) hates his piano teacher and having to play the piano. He falls asleep and slips into a fantasy world. Here he is ruled by Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried) who is a tyrannical piano teacher. He runs the Terwilliker Institute of Happy Fingers. Here 500 little boys will be forced to play the piano...for some reason. Bart tries to escape and with the help of plumber August Zabladowski (Paul Lind Hayes) tries to help his mom Heloise (Mary Healy) who is under Dr. T's spell.

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.
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The piano teacher from hell
jotix10026 March 2006
Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, the wonderful writer of children's books, wrote the story in which this movie is based on. Allan Scott translated it for the screen and Roy Rowland directed the gorgeous Technicolor production that was shown recently on cable. This 1953 film relied on the use of color, which still shows crisp and sharp, something that other films using the technique didn't achieve.

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.
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A creative, colorful, surreal musical nightmare
LCShackley16 October 2008
As I grew up taking piano lessons, I can remember times when I attributed all sorts of evil motives to my kindly (but task-masterly) piano teacher. Dr. Seuss must have had a similar experience, because he created the perfect piano student's nightmare of oppression by and ultimate revenge on the musical establishment.

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.
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Fascinating, truly unique film - excellent new DVD
Bobs-94 May 2001
I've been familiar with this relatively obscure film for quite a few years, and while I am not familiar with the various VHS versions of it, I have had the laserdisc version for at least a decade, or more. The new DVD release is amazingly superior to that edition in picture quality, in terms of definition, color and contrast. Even the darkest, shadowy portions of the picture are rendered in sharp detail in the DVD, whereas those areas in the laserdisc picture are just an indistinct, dark grey blur. The colors are stable and vibrant, as well. All this helps tremendously in presenting the vivid imagery of this film to best effect. If you have any regard for this film, you really should have this edition.

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.
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So campy it's cool
TSMChicago11 January 2001
I showed this film to my high school music appreciation class at the end of the semester and it was the one time they were absolutely silent and attentive. I told them that the film was somewhat bizarre and they just ate it up. I think young people who enjoy the films of Tim Burton and the Monty Python troupe would get a kick out of it.

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.
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I hate to have to begin by stating the obvious, but...
Spleen1 May 2003
This is a child's dream. As such sex scarcely, if at all, enters into it. (Bart understands that both Dr. T and Zabladowski have designs on his mother of some sort, but he doesn't really know of what sort or why.) There are NO Freudian metaphors – none that resonate or shed any light, anyway; one can always find a random background level of such pseudo-metaphors anywhere, including in the patterns in the grain of the wood in the table in front of me -; and there's certainly nothing in the dream to indicate that Dr. T, or anyone in the film, is gay. That is: there's nothing in the content of the dream to determine that he's gay. He likes music? He's fond of fine, fancy clothes? He has pinched nostrils? Give me a break.

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.
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Reflections of one of the Original Fans
cyberorc16 May 2006
I saw DR T at its original opening in 1953. As an irrepressible fan of both Dr. Seuss and Hans Conried, I found this to be a crucial moment in my adolescent years. I came away somewhat disappointed by this too-1950ish movie, but enchanted by Seuss' lyrics and Conried's performance (may they live forever!). I bought a "Dr T Songbook," but resisted the lure of a five-fingers beanie. Reading these comments has been a trip. I am delighted to find fellow enthusiasts, and bowled over by the humorlessness of some folks who do not seem to have read Dr. Seuss' books. Of course there are "in" jokes in the movie--something typical of the 50's movies that were beginning to sneak around the censorship imposed by the Hayes Bureau. But anyone who really thinks this really is anything other than a story about a kid who hates to practice the piano, likes to play with his dog, and wants a father--and that these are reasonable attitudes--probably is in need of a childhood themselves. What would some of these subtext types make of one of Dr. Seuss' loveliest books: HORTON HATCHES THE EGG? Is it really about unreliable welfare mothers and beset transsexuals? Or is it exactly what it claims to be--a moral tale (wildly presented) about caring and responsibility? As Horton says: "I meant what I said and I said what I meant./ An elephant's faithful one hundred per cent." Please, let's leave moral fantasy as it is supposed to be: an endangered but deathless species.
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Would have been better with more Seuss, less normalizing
BrandtSponseller18 June 2005
It seems like it's almost impossible to translate the artistic style of Dr. Seuss to other artforms. While there have been a couple recent films I've liked--I'm a fan of both How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and the much-loathed The Cat in the Hat (2003)--many other attempts have fallen a bit flat. And even though I liked both of those recent films, I wouldn't say that they capture the tone of a Seuss book. They succeeded more for their different approach to a twisted, somewhat-kid-oriented surrealism. A recent endeavor to put Seuss on Broadway, Seussical, was fairly awful. The only translations that have been anywhere near the tone of Seuss have been a couple of the animated shorts--such 1966's How the Grinch Stole Christmas and 1971's The Cat in the Hat.

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 time—hence, 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.
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My mom took me to see this in 1953.
eltsr-118 March 2012
I haven't seen it since but here is what I remember. I knew all the Dr. Seuss books by heart (I could read). I was taking piano lessons from our Protestant minister's wife who resembled Hans Conreid. My mom and I went on the bus to a large, metropolitan movie palace and we were well dressed. We watched the entire movie and then went home on the bus. Hans Conreid was always one of my favorites and even more recognizable as a voice. Lassie was a fixture later on our home TV. I don't think the movie had any real effect on me except that the books and my dreams were a lot better. I listened to radio every night as a child. I sometimes dreamed in black and white like most of the movies I saw as a child. I remember many of the scenes described in the written reviews and trailers. I'll see it again sometime. I'll let you know.
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A celebration of the child
mrtimlarabee3 January 2009
There are two writers of in the English Language who advocated for the youngest of readers and celebrated the power of imagination above any other: Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. While Seuss penned the 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the story reminds me more of Roald Dahl, clearly depicting the children overpowering the adults and putting the characters in rather horrifying situations (Case in point, as our young hero fears being punished by playing the drum forever, Dr. T corrects him by noting the man being punished is IN the drum).

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.
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Too Weird, But the Actors are Good
LomzaLady24 March 2006
I simply can't warm to this movie - it's just too self-consciously weird. Maybe it's supposed to look like a living cartoon, but it comes across more like a trip through the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The comment in the NY Times TV listing for this movie is that it is "Freudian," and I have to agree. There is just so much symbolism stuffed into this that it's easy to interpret it in just about any way you care to, including old-fashioned Freudian psychology, which would have probably been the interpretation of choice when this movie was released in 1953. As I watched it recently, I remembered the rumor that Dr. Seuss did not really like children, and I think this film bears that out. It is a fantasy of adult cruelty toward children which is executed with great relish. The word that comes to mind to me to describe this movie is "sour." (Another would be "overstuffed.") Nevertheless, many of the actors whom I liked very much in my youth are in this movie, notably Tommy Rettig and Hans Conried. Rettig was a very talented performer who never really got a chance to be anything more than a child actor. I remember Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy from a television morning talk show that was broadcast in New York City in the 1950s. And the fabulous, flamboyant Conried - I just loved him. In this movie he gives an over-the-top performance which is fitting under the circumstances (he is imitating John Barrymore's way of speaking, a voice Conried used often, especially when doing cartoon characters). However, the character is rather nasty, and would probably be frightening to children, as every good villain should be. But look, folks, I'm sorry -- the homosexual inference of many of the characters is far from subtle, in fact I'd say it's inescapable, and the anti-gay bias of the authors of this film is unmistakable.

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.
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