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

“Tomorrow, down below me, I will have 500 little boys, 5,000 little fingers — and they’ll be mine, all mine!”

5000 Fingers of Dr T Poster

Synopsis:
Fatherless Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig) dreams that his nefarious piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), plans to enslave 500 boys and force them to play an enormous piano with 5,000 keys. He enlists the help of a plumber (Peter Lind Hayes) to convince his brainwashed mother (Mary Healy) of Dr. T.’s frightening agenda.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this cult musical (panned upon its release) is “exciting, scary… and visually dazzling.” Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) co-wrote the script (based on a clever premise), which has overtones of Roald Dahl in its presentation of a young boy fighting against a cruel, non-understanding world of adults. (Click here for an amusing spoof by The Onion about the “hideous treatment” of children at the hands of their parents.) Hans Conried is perfectly cast as Dr. T., and has great fun hamming it up; it’s likely his greatest role. Equally impressive (and eminently memorable) are the spectacular sets and costumes, which come across exactly like a Dr. Seuss book brought to Technicolor life. Even Rettig himself (who’s not a bad child actor) looks like a character straight out of one of Dr. Seuss’s illustrations.

With that said, as much as I enjoy discrete elements of Dr. T., I’m ultimately more in agreement with DVD Savant’s review (see link below) than Peary’s. While I can see its cult appeal, I find the movie as a whole to be surprisingly dull: the songs are insipid, the pacing is off, and, for the most part, the direction is uninspired. In addition, Hayes isn’t all that appealing as Rettig’s would-be father figure, and Healy is eminently bland (her colorful costumes are the best thing about her). Although I understand that Seuss and co-screenwriter Alan Scott meant to posit Healy as a sort of emotionless Stepford widow, easily brainwashed by Dr. T., she doesn’t play this for camp (as she should) — indeed, Conried is the only character who seems to recognize that the film’s scenarios are literally crying out for laughs. (It’s unfortunate, as Conried himself has lamented, that so many of his scenes were cut, because he’s the most interesting character in the film by far.)

P.S. In his review, Peary points out the “anticommunist propaganda” of Dr. T., noting that “these children are being turned into obedient automatons”. But there are multiple other possible readings as well, including its valorization of the 1950s nuclear family (Bart wants nothing more than to secure Hayes as a father-figure who will take him fishing), and its latent fear of homosexuality (the evil Dr. T. dresses in lavender and pink, and is surrounded by a cast of equally effeminate men).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hans Conried’s deliciously over-the-top performance as the effeminate Dr. T.
    Conried
  • Tommy Rettig as Bart
    Rettig
  • Truly surreal set designs
    Set
  • Some memorable characters — including the silent, rollerskating, Siamese-bearded twins
    Twins
  • Effective use of shadows
    Shadow
  • Conried singing “Do-Mi-Do Duds”
    Dressing
  • The marvelously campy “dungeon sequence”
    Band

Must See?
Yes, simply for its cult appeal. Check out Bill’s tribute page (see link below) for a site devoted exclusively to this film.

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5 Responses to “5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., The (1953)”

  1. For me, the scene that hints at the potential for greatness this film had is the one in which Dr. T and Lind first meet and instantly try to mesmerize each other. For just that brief moment, Lind comes across as something more than a cardboard cut-out. More scenes like that and this movie would probably be higher on everyone’s lists.

  2. Funny you should mention that scene, because I almost included it as an additional “Redeeming Moment” — it is indeed utterly bizarre!

  3. An absolute must! – this is the first time I am actually baffled by the assessment given.

    A work of playful genius, ‘…Dr T.’ is unique in that it is among the number of feature films ostensibly made for kids yet heady enough for adults as well. However, adults present may have some explaining to do; like:

    a) Why are all these men – only men (aside from Mary Healy, who is actually a slave) – devoted to Dr. T?
    b) Why are there two men dancing as they put ‘the whammy’ on each other?
    c) What’s with Dr. T’s…colorful…costume design when he’s supposedly putting designs on the mother?
    d) Is ‘Get-Together Weather’ implying a menage a trois? (Of course, no kid would ask this – but I don’t recall seeing this kind of three-way outside of ‘Cabaret’!)
    e) What’s with that crazy centerpiece? – the homoerotic (sometimes downright gay) ballet for the ‘damned’ who don’t play piano? (I doubt that kids will ask if Fosse choreographed this number, though his stamp is there.)
    f) What’s with ‘Do-Mi-Do Duds’??? (A number that really should have been titled ‘Dress Me, Dress Me, Dress Me’…Has anyone written a thesis – not on ‘…Dr T.’ in general, but on this song ALONE?!) [The admin at http://www.1000misspenthours.com actually quotes the entire song – worth doing a search!]
    g) Etc.

    I guess I just don’t find this film dull in the least! I’ve always been a huge Dr. Seuss fan and I’m grateful that we have at least one film that brought some of his genius to the big screen. His mastery is successfully transferred via the amazing production design (lots of visual jokes; with a dab of Dali?), and Seuss reveals real deftness as a lyricist (though, technically, he always was one; and I’m esp. fond of ‘Because We’re Kids’). One thing this film captures most brilliantly in many sequences is ‘the dream state’ (sung about in the delightful number ‘Dreamstuff’).

    True, Conried does steal the show (in a performance somewhat reminiscent of Claude Rains’ in ‘Deception’!). I especially like him early on when he’s talking to Rettig about perfection: “It takes time. It takes years. Sometimes it actually does take forever.” But I think the entire cast is simply perfect.

    All told, a gem – a real gem!

  4. ‘Dr. T’ is one of those titles I really, really want to like, but can’t find myself getting very excited about. The narrative just doesn’t sustain interest for me; I think DVD Savant puts it well when he says: “… The dream world has no consistent relationship with Bart’s reality… Beyond the message that Bart Doesn’t Like The Piano, there’s not even a hint of what one world means to the other.” So much energy and care is put into creating this magical, bizarre, surreal world (one of the best cinematic set designs ever) that it’s frustrating not to understand more about it — or about Conreid’s character. Such potential!!

  5. Hmm… To me, the dream world has a rather consistent relationship with Bart’s reality; in fact, a number of things echo what we see and hear in the real world before Bart dozes off (i.e., Bart tells Zabladowski that his mom is just like Dr. T in her zeal – in the dream, she’s Dr. T’s accomplice; Bart refers to Dr. T. as a “racketeer” – in the dream, Dr. T refers to himself as such, etc.). I feel there’s quite a bit that connects one world to the other – Bart is just a boy who wants to play baseball (note the final scene) and his dream life is filled with exaggerated visions of the odd taskmaster who’s keeping him from playing ball. Therefore, I don’t think we need to understand more about Conried than we do. It’s not a deep movie – I admit I was tempted to think “Paging Dr. Freud!” (and, yes, I did joke some in that vein). But I don’t think that’s really what Dr. Seuss is all about. Just my opinion. (Then again, it IS a product of the repressed ’50s, so…)

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