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


Director: Roy Rowland

Starring: Mary Healy, Hans Conried, Tommy Rettig

Release Date: 26th October 1953 (UK)

Back when I was a kid, a show called Disney Time formed a staple of the BBC’s TV schedule on public holidays. Disney Time, as its title suggests, compiled musical numbers or famous scenes from the likes of Mary Poppins (1964), Jungle Book (1953) and One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). Such was the impact of Disney Time and its ‘Greatest Hits’ approach, I recall when my mother took me to a matinee showing of Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), I wondered why we were going all the way to the cinema just to watch a couple of minutes of jungle animals playing a soccer match. Disney Time sprung to my mind while I watched The 5000 Fingers of Dr T, and briefly wondered why I’d never seen a clip of this movie in any Disney Time show. Then, I reminded myself this wasn’t a Disney film, rather the best Disney film old Walt and friends never made.

The 5000 Fingers of Dr T was written by a different legend of childhood, Theodore Giesel, better known as Dr Seuss, author of The Cat in the Hat (1957), Horton Hears a Who (1954), How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), and sundry other marvels still loved, read, and occasionally adapted for cinema, to this day. What Dr Seuss created for his first film project, along with producer Stanley Kramer and director Roy Rowland, was ahead of its time – a fantasy musical slanted towards children yet also made for adults to enjoy. Dr Seuss’ trademark wacky rhymes were present in the twenty-four musical numbers in the original cut of the film, and Kramer provided a lavish budget to ensure T5FODT looked as good as it sounded. Such was the interest in T5FODT and its expenditure, the US national press followed the movies’s production in much the same way as they did with James Cameron’s Titanic (1998) in the late 1990s. The comparisons end there however, aside from the idea of something sinking out of sight and remaining undiscovered for decades, for T5FODT became the great box office flop of its time.

T5FODT fell victim to one of the perennial curses of Hollywood film-making, the test preview. The story goes that of the audience for the T5FODT‘s first screening in its original form, only one little boy remained watching by the end, and then only because he’d no choice but to wait for his mother to pick him up. Production company Columbia took an ax to the film, chopping out eleven songs and ordering Kramer to film a new opening and closing sequence, to place Dr Seuss’ fantasy into an everyday context so as not to ‘scare off’ audiences.

All to no avail, as T5FODT, now marketed inaccurately as a children’s movie, bombed, unable to find its market. Yet my main thought while watching T5FODT was how on earth it hadn’t become a holiday regular, or one of those DVDs kids until they know the whole movie off by heart. What did those early audiences in 1953 see that so turned them off from Dr Seuss’ vision?

What the preview audience did not see was a little boy named Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig), Bart to his friends, running through a strange, misty realm of metallic mushroom-like structures, while chased by men in baggy green fur costumes; this opening sequence formed part of Columbia’s restructuring efforts. These sinister shenanigans serve only to remind the viewer of another 1953 film, Invaders from Mars, to which T5FODT bears a number of resemblances, not least that the green figures chasing Bart look uncannily like the lumbering Martian soldiers seen in the William Cameron Menzies classic.

Bart is shaken awake from his nightmare by Dr Terwilliker (Hans Conreid, star of The Twonky (1953)), an imperious piano teacher dressed in one of Doctor Who’s old hand-me-down suits, unimpressed by Bart’s snoozing at the keyboard. Terwilliker reminds Bart of the grand concert featuring all of his students, to take place in one month, and demands constant practice from Bart.

Our young hero breaks the fourth wall to address the viewer, often a sign of film-makers who don’t trust the audience. “That’s my problem,” Bart explains, “Dr Terwilliker is the only enemy I’ve got.” We see Mrs Collins (Mary Healy) busy in the kitchen: “I try to be everything she wants me to be, especially since Dad died.” Darn, Korea really did for the Dads, didn’t it? Mrs Collins is keen for Bart to learn the piano, believing the discipline is good for him in the absence of a father. “Sometimes I think Dr Teriwilliker has Mom hypnotized,” bemoans Bart, and of course in Invaders from Mars, the parents are hypnotized. The begrudging Bart plays and sings ‘Ten Happy Fingers’, the key song to Dr Teriwilliker’s teaching method, a twinkly yet unpleasantly self-reflexive ditty about the happiness of one’s digits in playing a tune about one’s digits playing a piano tune.

Also at work in the kitchen is Mr Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), a plumber and friend of Bart: “he thinks Dr Teriwilliker is a racketeer.” Mrs Collins overhears and disagrees, telling Mr Zabladowski of the difficulties of bringing a child up on one’s own. As the adults talk, Bart grumbles about piano practice, yawns unconvincingly a few times, and before you know it, our somnolent pipsqueak dozes off again.

So far, so routine, though this added sequence serves only to convince the audience Bart eats a lot of cheese and suffers from sleeping sickness. If the idea was to set the rest of the film in context before the lead character’s journey, as with The Wizard of Oz (1939), then the intention is defeated by the sheer lunacy of Bart’s subsequent excursion into the world of Dr Seuss, now undermined by knowing all that we see – and all is seen through Bart’s eyes – is just an ordinary boy’s dream. Contrast this with Invaders from Mars, which gains its strength from our uncertainty upon the reality of what a powerless child is experiencing.

Bart finds himself seated at a long, curving double-decker piano. Dr Teriwilliker (a more exaggerated, grandoise version of his real-life counterpart) is conducting, with ‘Ten Happy Fingers’ again the tune. “Not bad,” concedes Dr T, “but not good either. Too quiet, too slow, and still missing the beat.” According the the doctor, to obtain competency at the piano takes “years…sometimes, it does actually take forever.” Bart is horrified, as nothing is scarier to a child than boredom forever, but worse is to come, as Dr Teriwilliker outlines his plan for tomorrow, “the dream of a lifetime…the Teriwilliker Institute’s grand opening. 500 little boys, 5000 little fingers, mine all mine, practicing all year round!” The demented piano teacher orders Bart back to his cell, while he prepares for the next day’s great event.

As Bart leaves the grand piano room, an impressive set and shot to emphasize Bart’s loneliness and diminutive stature, we get our first look around the wonky corridors of the Teriwilliker Institute. For a few moments, T5FODT takes the appearance of an annoyingly modern Shakespeare adaptation, with TV screens filled by hands or faces reiterating the need for constant piano practice. “The Teriwilliker Institute is surrounded by electrified barbed wire,” we learn, while the interior of the castle-like structure is filled with blocky spiral staircases, warped arches and windows, and empty rooms without obvious function. It’s as if E E Holmes, Spike Milligan, and Hieronymous Bosch collaborated on a designing a hotel, yet the look of the Institute, topped off by turrets and gargoyles, is straight out of a Dr Seuss book. If nothing else – and there’s plenty else – T5FODT is a design triumph.

On his way to the cells, Bart meets Mr Zabladowski, busy fitting the 500 sinks needed for tomorrow’s arrivals. On mentioning Mrs Collins, Bart is told she’s “second in charge of the whole Happy Fingers racket.” Bart determines to find his mom, with Mr Zabladowski not much bothered one way or the other. One theme of T5FODT is how children perceive adults as inconstant, capricious, and acting upon obscure motivations, and here Mr Zablodowski personifies the adult indifference to what feels important to a child.

Clambering up a vertiginous grand stairway, Bart peers through a hole in the floor of the Institute’s HQ, where Mrs Collins fields phone calls from parents of boys on their way to the Institute: “Dr. Terwilliker does not believe in baseballs, golf balls, basketballs or tennis balls, ping-pong balls, snowballs, croquet balls or hockey pucks. Dr. Terwilliker believes only in the piano!” Bart’s appearance softens Mrs Collins, but before she can speak, Dr Teriwilliker enters, dressed as if in tribute to The Master in Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966): “Why do you stand there with a null and void expression on your face?” Realizing Mrs Collins thinks of her son, Dr Teriwilliker reminds her “you should think only of me, your future husband.” The piano teacher has “graciously condescended” to marry Mrs Collins after tomorrow’s grand opening. Now Bart has two fiendish Terwilliker plots to stop!

Sgt Lunk (Noel Cravat), leader of the Institute’s various grunts and goons, reports Bart as missing. The enraged Terwilliker sends out search squads of soldiers dressed in baggy blue and yellow costumes, resembling the uniforms of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds as seen through several banana daquiris. Aside from Lunk and company, Dr Teriwilliker’s main source of protection is Uncle Whitney and Uncle Judson (Jack and Robert Heasley), a pair of elderly twins conjoined by a long beard, who transport themselves upon roller-skates. Although the twins seem to have sprung from an especially challenging interpretation of Chekov, the ‘real world’ source of this odd fellow(s) is a pair of sepia framed photographs on top of Bart’s piano, although thanks to Columbia’s re-edit, any further explanation is lost to the ages.

After evading Teriwilliker’s goons, Bart escapes up a huge ladder leaning perilously off a ledge and way up into empty space, the kind of improbable structure anyone with a fear of heights has had had nightmares over at some point. The ladder goes up and up and up until it doesn’t, and Bart is left high and dry with Lunk waiting for him at the bottom. Bart’s a bright boy though and untucks his shirt to uses himself as a parachute, floating gently back onto solid ground. This world of Seuss has a cracked logic all its own, but here Bart cleverly uses it to his advantage.

Bart finds his way back to Mr Zabladowski, via a funnel. “They’re after me!” cries the boy. “Who?” “Practically everybody.” Bart explains his predicament: “if only you knew the truth. Dr Teriwilliker has got my Mom buffaloed,” a sentence that, in true Dr Seuss fashion, makes perfect sense while sounding ridiculous. Mr Zabladowski, who as plumbers go is as much help as Luigi, cares little for Bart’s problems. “I’d hate to have you as a father,” remarks Bart, though it becomes clear the boy needs a father figure and Mr Zabladowski is the best bet around.

The juvenile slyboots Bart sits in an armchair and pretends he’s in a rowboat, out fishing. Mr Zabladowski, his paternal affections plucked, can’t help but mansplain the best way to fish for bass, and before you know it, Bart is snuggled up to the plumber as they sing ‘Dream Stuff’, an icky song the fast forward control on your DVD remote was made for, if only you knew how it worked. Promising to leave Mr Zabladowski in peace if he’d only come and see Mrs Collins for himself, Bart and the plumber head up to HQ.

“Wow!” Mr Zabladowski is smitten at the sight of Mrs Collins, but Dr Teriwilliker is on hand to prevent any romance, and engages the plumber in a mesmerizing fight played out through gestures and mime, more in keeping with an ice-skating routine than the usual Hollywood brawl; Hans Conried shows a surprising aptitude for performing the splits.

Once our protagonists have fought themselves to a standstill, Dr Teriwilliker commands the plumber to “resume your labors.” Mr Zabladowski refuses to install any further sinks until he’s convinced matters at the institute are above board. “But then we won’t get our certificate from the county sink inspector!” warns Mrs Collins. Dr Teriwilliker claims mistaken identity and praises the plumber as “a cog in this great operation.” Counters Mr Zabladowski, “I’m an independent contractor.” Yes, even in the fantasy world of Dr Seuss, American individualism is alive and well, and Mr Zabladowski’s proud claim isn’t the last time T5FODT will invoke the red menace, a more pronounced theme in its original version.

Dr Teriwilliker pours on the charm, yet Mr Zabladowski is unimpressed, having heard rumors about the Institute. “Rumors? Scuttlebutt!” cries the piano teacher, to the delight of people who feel ‘scuttlebutt’ a much underused word. Shoveling money into a vault, Dr Teriwilliker explains he’s made a fortune from lying, cheating, and exploiting America’s mothers. “You talk a lot,” says Mr Zabladowski, “but I don’t know how much you say.” True, but such is Hans Conried’s joyful performance, full of mellifluous twists and turns, and extravagant mannerisms, one could listen to Dr Teriwilliker say nothing all day long and let him get away with it.

After wining and dining the plumber, who partakes of “vintage pickle juice”, Dr Teriwilliker, Mrs Collins, and Mr Zabladowski sing ‘Get-Together Weather,’ a jolly show tune: “what fabulous weather, get-together weather, so together is what we’ve got to get.” The weather, whatever weather it is, is good for “schlooping, schleeping, flouncing and bouncing,” and much else besides. A pleasant musical interlude, and worth its inclusion on the strength of Dr Seuss’ loopy lyrics.

To Bart’s annoyance, the adults are all smiles, though no sooner has Mr Zablowdowski departed than Dr Teriwilliker orders the plumber disintegrated once his work is done. Concerned Mrs Collins is becoming immune to his hypnosis techniques, Dr Teriwilliker has her locked up in the ‘lock-me-tight’, a prison cell in his elaborate offices.

Mr Zabladowski calls Bart out for his ‘lies’ and refuses to believe Dr Teriwilliker has condemned him to death. Told to get lost, Bart pines in the piano room and sings the plaintive ‘Because We’re Kids’: “just because we’re closer to the ground, and you’re heavier pound for pound, you shouldn’t push us little kids around.” Bart’s heartfelt lament on the plight of children – and it’s easy for adults to forget how powerless and confusing childhood can be – causes a change of heart in Mr Zabladowski, who apologizes to the boy.

Friends with the plumber again, Bart suggests he uninstall all of the sinks, but Mr Zabladowski won’t hear of it; after all, he’s being paid 2000 postulas to do this job. 2000 what? Mr Zabladowski explains the Institute’s currency system: there are 59 drochnids to one silver zobleck, three of which are worth one golden kratchmuk – to cut a strange story short, Mr Zabladowski will get twenty US bucks. Bart promises the plumber thirty bucks if he’ll wreck the sinks, and returns to Dr Teriwilliker’s private quarters to raid his vault.

Unfortunately for Bart, the key to the vault is lodged in the metronome above Dr Teriwilliker’s bed, and any disturbance to the metronome’s ticking causes the doctor to rouse from his sleep. By using a penknife as percussion, Bart obtains the key, takes thirty bucks from the vault, and purloins Mr Zabladowski’s death warrant, only to set off every alarm in the building. Bart slides down a fireman’s pole – and slides down, and down, and down…

…ending up in the Institute’s dungeons, where all musicians who specialize in inferior instruments are imprisoned. What follows is a sparkling choreography sequence as various ragged musicians with pale green skin perform a musical number with instruments given the Dr Seuss treatment: unusual trumpets, eccentric piccolos, clarinets crossed with bellows, xylophones the size of tables, concertinas, horns several yards long, violins wrapped around their players like headstocks, all mixed in with boxers, musical radiators, acrobats on swings and much else besides. Were there any justice, this remarkable scene would be as familiar to us as ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ or the pink elephants sequence of Dumbo (1941). Even T5FODT‘s contemporary critics, who were legion, praised this spectacular as worth the price of admission.

Their musical number ended, the prisoners shuffle away in silence. Bart escapes, finding Mr Zabladowski and showing him the death warrant. Wanting more than an adult’s promise, Bart makes Mr Zabladowski take a blood oath, and pricks their thumbs and presses them together while reciting the scout’s oath. “That makes you my old man,” explains Bart, “now we’ve got to rescue your wife.”

Using a blowtorch to release Mrs Collins from the lock-me-tight, and reminding the two adults there’s no time for mushy stuff, Bart leads their escape, only to run into Whitney and Judson. Imbibing a snifter of pickle juice, Mr Zabladowski puts on a pair of roller-skates and takes on the uni-bearded twins in stylistic combat, ducking and jumping and weaving until he slices their beard in half with garden shears. Another superbly produced scene ends with the twins defeated, dead upon the floor. “We won!” cries Bart.

“I, on the other hand, am inclined to doubt that statement!” Dr Teriwilliker has awoken and watches with pride as Sgt Lunk leads his troops into ‘Terwilliker Academy’, an Ivy League-style tribute to the Institute’s and Dr Teriwilliker’s evil genius. The doctor, now clad in a violet gown with a treble clef motif and pom-pom slippers, places Mrs Collins back under the influence, then sends Bart and Mr Zabladowski to the dungeons.

Teriwilliker transports them to the dungeons via an elevator operated by arguably the film’s most disturbing character. A tanned, bare-chested fellow in striped trousers and a strange hat-come-helmet covering his entire head aside from his eyes, the elevator operator sings in a deep voice of the torments that await on the different floors: the first is home to “simple tortures: “molten lead, chopping blocks, and hot boiling oil”, while the second floor features chains of all kinds, plus “thumbscrews and nooses.” If nothing else gave the kids of ’53 nightmares after watching T5FODT, this guy did, in less than a minute.

The keeper of the basement dungeon, Stroogo (Henry Kulky), recommends Cell 22J for the two new captives, though it’s rather an anti-climax to see this is merely a rectangular metal-barred box, given we witness a man tormented within a constantly beaten bass drum, Dr Teriwilliker’s punishment for placing one ‘boom’ too many in Beethoven’s Fifth.

T5FODT is the kind of film where a deus ex machina is not so much a convenience as an expectation, so we’re not too surprised when Mr Zabladowski produces a bottle of ‘AirFix’ to neutralize the unpleasant smell of the dungeon. “I uncork the bottle,” explains the plumber, “and an invisible hand grabs the odor and it goes into the bottle.” Bart has an idea: “we need MusicFix” and mixes the AirFix with the considerable contents of his pockets: string, a yo-yo, bubble gum, a peanut, a length of chain, and so on. After much trial and error, and the addition of Stroogo’s hearing aid, the newly-made goo absorbs Mr Zabladowski’s speech when he attempts to talk. Bart can now use it on the giant piano and thwart Dr Teriwilliker’s planned mass recital. Mr Zabladowski has a warning however; the new mix “is a revolutionary principle. It might even be atomic. If it starts smoking, get away fast.” Guards arrive to take Bart back to the grand piano room.

The other 499 boys needed for the grand opening now arrive, and each has their toys, teddy bears and, in one case, a pet frog confiscated, before all are assigned a number by Mrs Collins. In what looks (and actually was) a nightmarish day or five on set for the director and crew, the 500 boys find their place at the great piano.

Before anything else, the mad doctor must get dressed, and it’s time for a song as five valets tend to his sartorial needs. ‘The Dressing Song (Do-Mi-Do Duds)’ is another highlight; the lyrics are a riot, revealing Dr Teriwilliker’s penchant for women’s clothing, such as his “purple nylon girdle” and “peek-a-boo blouse”, not to mention the “cutie chamois booties with leopard-print bows”, and the less said about “the undulating undies”, the better. The song is similar to The Simpsons‘ ‘See My Vest’, sung by Mr Burns in the 1995 episode ‘Two Dozen and One Greyhounds’, while the earlier ‘Teriwilliker Academy’ might remind one of 1992’s ‘Hail to Thee, Kamp Krusty’. Why the sudden Simpsons references? Well, we have a boy called Bart who’s a thorn in the side of a verbose criminal mastermind who fancies himself as a singer, and has an awfully similar surname…

“This is my day!” announces Dr Teriwilliker, looking like Emperor Nero had got dressed in a military surplus store, complete with bearskin hat. “5,000 little fingers, all playing together on my piano! Every finger obedient to the whim of me, the master!” Modesty plays no part in the Teriwilliker method: “We shall play the most beautiful piece ever written! I wrote it. Ten Happy Fingers!”

Bart uncorks the bottle, and the sound of 5000 not very happy little fingers dribbles away to nothing. Dr T tries again, but once more the MusicFix works its magic. Losing his temper, Dr Teriwilliker cannot make himself heard to anyone, and nor can Lunk and his goons. Noticing Bart’s bottle of MusicFix, the flustered, furious Dr Teriwilliker demands Bart hands over this “inexplicable phenomena”. Bart threatens to blow the doctor up. “Is it atomic?” asks Dr Teriwilliker. “Very atomic!” comes the reply.

A beaten man, Dr Teriwilliker agrees to release Bart’s “ma and pa”and all the boys, who rip up the scores of ‘Ten Happy Fingers’ (although at least one little boy looks upset not to get his big chance at the piano). Kids haul Dr Teriwilliker to the ground as Bart organizes a cacophonous mass rendition of ‘Chopsticks’, unaware the MusicFix is disgorging bright red (menace) smoke. The children run for their lives, yet Bart can only watch in horror as the bottle explodes in a blinding flash.

Mr Zabladowski shakes Bart awake, confused by his babbling of a bomb, and by Bart calling him “Pop”. It was all a dream of course – but both Bart and the plumber have band-aids on their thumbs. What the…?

Aside from this, all is back to normal.”Gee Mom, you sure look pretty,” observes Bart, “doesn’t she, Mr Zabladowski?” The plumber agrees, and the future happy couple drive off into town. With the grown-ups out of the way, Bart grabs his baseball mitt, and happily takes off down the road with his dog.

“This was the kind of picture Hans Conreid has been waiting for, and the one that could have made him a star,” opines Suzanne Gargiulo in her 2002 biography of Conreid, who puts in an absolute crackerjack performance as the endearingly villainous Dr Teriwilliker. Conreid won the role on the recommendation of Dr Seuss himself, and plays the part to the fullest, delivering lines with syrupy satisfaction, while dancing and capering with consummate precision. Alas, the failure of T5FODT took with it any aspirations Conreid had of becoming a major name in film, and his latter career played out mostly in the kind of television guest roles familiar to many an actor whose star never quite fully shone: The Beverley Hillbillies, The Monkees, Lost in Space, Hogan’s Heroes, Mr Ed, Gilligan’s Island, and so on, usually appearing as a stock Italian or East European character, thanks to Conreid’s aptitude for accents and his dark, stern, continental features. Perhaps his most famous TV work came as host for Jay Ward’s Fractured Flickers (1963), a kind of kiddie forerunner to Mystery Science Theater 3000, while his most celebrated film role, made great use of Conried’s vocal skills – as Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953).

Of the rest of the cast, Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, a married couple in real life, were TV regulars in the 1950s and early 1960s. Hayes, like Conreid, had a small role in The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947), and along with Healy, hosted a chat show broadcast from New York’s famous Stork Club. Healy passed away only last year, on February 3rd 2015, at the age of 96, outliving her husband by 14 years. Tommy Rettig went on to play Jeff in the first three series of the TV version of Lassie, but led a troubled life once retired from acting, becoming involved with drug use and cultivation, before finding his vocation as a software developer. Rettig died in 1996 aged 54 of a heart attack.

A wonderful excursion into the imagination of a remarkable man, Dr Seuss’ T5FODT is a unique film, a Disney musical with a college degree and some toe-tapping tunes to boot. Yet it’s a fragment of what could have been, thanks to a solitary poor preview screening. Ahead of its time and beyond its contemporary audience, T5FODT is a lost (if minor) classic and well worth sneaking into your childrens’ DVD collection should you have tired of the more recent Dr Suess adaptations, none of which can hold a twisted candle to the lunatic wonder of T5FODT.

 

 

 

 

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