The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is one of those anomalous films that result when one takes the style of a brilliant illustrator and translate it to live action. All sorts of psychological concerns not so evident in the illustrated, cartoon work of Dr. Seuss become more readily apparent when live actors are substituted for cartoon characters. For example, the lack of a father figure for a young boy and the resultant feelings of loss and loneliness are very strongly expressed in this work. Young Bart's father has died prior to the start of the film and the discipline of Doctor Terwilliger's piano practice methods seems to serve Bart's mother as a means of providing the masculine element missing in Bart's life.
The problem is that Dr. Terwilliger's take on masculinity, as the film makes abundantly clear, is rooted in megalomania and, worse, has strong suggestions of sexual perversion. Many commentators have pointed out Dr. Terwilliger's obvious gay affect. Remember, this film, as an artifact of the 1950s, would not have viewed this sexual preference favorably. Mr. Zablodowski, the plumber, is presented as the representative of so-called "normal" sexuality, i.e., heterosexuality.
I suspect Dr. Terwilliger's gayness stems from American ambivalence about high culture. On one hand, Bart's mother sees merit in his practicing the piano. Even Mr. Zablodowski concurs with that at one point in the film. On the other, there is the suspicion underlying this film that anyone committed to a career in high art, has to be bent sexually. (This was graphically shown in a recent episode of the police drama, Law and Order, Special Victims Unit, where a piano teacher was a predatory pedophile. The allure of high art was that piano teacher's bait to catch children for sexual purposes.) Dr. Terwilliger embodies these suspicions and anxieties. Clearly, as flamboyantly unpleasant as Dr. Terwilliger is, parents send their children to him to introduce them to high art. Yet, it is up to Bart to liberate the children from Dr. Terwilliger's hold.
It's an ironic position: On one hand, the film argues that kids should be kids and do kid things like run with their dog and play ball and look up to salt-of-the-earth men like the local plumber, Mr. Zablodowski. On the other hand, very real artistry went into the depiction of Dr. Terwilliger's institute as well as the songs that served to bolster the story. So, art is desired yet deprecated. Like I said, an intriguing artifact of the 1950s.
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