The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.Dr. SeussOscar-winningHans Conried
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
Medium: film
Year: 1953
Director: Roy Rowland
Writer: Dr. Seuss, Allan Scott
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, gay subtext, musical
Country: USA
Actor: Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy, Hans Conried, Tommy Rettig, Jack Heasley, John Heasley, Robert Heasley, Noel Cravat
Format: 89 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 4 February 2010
That was extraordinary! It also sank without trace in 1953. Despite having written the original story treatment and all the lyrics, Geisel regarded it as a "debaculous fiasco" and kept all mentions of it out of his official biography. People were walking out of the cinemas after only fifteen minutes. This is also my cue to bring up the incident that happened while they were filming the finale, in which a boy vomited on his piano and caused all 150 boys in the scene to start vomiting too. Geisel said the film's reviews were similar.
Obviously they were all morons in 1953 and the film's fantastic.
You might have noticed the name "Geisel". Yup, it's Dr Seuss. There have been several attempts at adapting his work for the screen, with mixed results. Chuck Jones did some Dr Seuss animation, most notably How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but everything I hear suggests that the live-action films are best avoided. The exception would be this film, which is genius. It's mad and absurd in all the right ways, having apparently jumped out of Geisel's head to infect us with the way he sees the world. I love this story. The hero is a small boy and the villain is his piano teacher, who's evil because he wants the boy to do piano practice! It takes place in a dream world where the villain's henchmen include elderly roller-skating Siamese twins joined at the beard and an army of henchmen who you'd think must have been an inspiration for the Oompa-Loompas in the Gene Wilder Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They're dressed all in blue, except for their canary yellow boots, sashes and skullcaps. About 50% of the film's plot points are ridiculous, but in a flamboyantly joyful way that makes you want to stand up and cheer Dr Seuss for even being capable of imagining it. Their impossibility is the whole point. This film is a fantasy, but of a unique kind that's not based in goblins and dwarves but in the work of possibly the most distinctive children's writer of all time.
That's without taking into account the visuals. They're giddily Seussian, but in a natural way. Movement is a crucial part of that, with music underscoring almost every moment of the film and many of the characters' actions being accordingly choreographed. Examples of that might be what's technically a fight scene (on roller skates) and a hypnosis battle between Dr Terwilliker and Mr Zabladowski that starts out as a ballet and ends up as a rumba. It's worth watching the film just for that, by the way. My eyes were on stalks. This sense of motion is arguably more Seussian than Dr Seuss himself, if you look at the movement bursting to get out of his illustrations. Let me put it like this... when I watch a film, I take notes. Today for the first time these notes were often drawings. Words are not how one should express the opening dance number, for instance, in which a boy with a yellow rubber hand on his head gets chased around a world of curves and shapes by men waving multi-coloured gauze wind socks. The film's use of space and big strange shapes is also brilliant, though. Note also the ladder.
All that is profoundly eccentric and I adored it. What's bugnuts insane is the dungeon dance number with an army of green-skinned prisoners in rags with musical instruments that look like acid flashbacks. One of those is a bong, by the way. They all look like the Incredible Hulk, or else dancing zombies.
However at the same time as all this, there's a charming gentleness and a viewpoint that really feels as if it's written by a child. To quote Geisel himself, "Adults are obsolete children, and the hell with them." Possibly the most important song in the movie is about why adults don't have the right to push children around just because they're bigger. The film's romance is deliberately avoiding anything that might smack of realism, with the little boy being the one who decides that they're going to marry even though the man doesn't know his wife-to-be's name. That was a funny line, by the way. Then you've got the adorable morality, in which our hero writes a big IOU before borrowing what he needs from Dr Terwilliker's cash mountain, while Zabladowski prefaces his criticism of Mrs Collins by explaining that mothers and motherhood are the most wonderful thing in the world and that we should all respect them.
I'd heard before I started this film that it's known for having a gay villain. Homosexuality had been banned in Hollywood movies since the Hays Code, but Dr Terwilliker isn't an open sissy of the kind that used to get played for comic effect in pre-1934 films. If he really is gay, then he's more of a flamboyant queen. I can't say I'm entirely convinced by this argument, but it's hard to put a straight interpretation on the scene where Dr Terwilliker gets dressed up like Liberace by five dancing men while singing a musical number. The semi-clad dungeon zombies do a bit of surprisingly suggestive dancing, while it's very noticeable that the cast contains one mother figure and then everyone else is male, even the henchmen and children. There's definitely some homoeroticism here, but to be honest, I wouldn't pin it on any one character so much as the entire movie. If the director was heterosexual, I'll eat my head. If I had to assign sexuality to the film's characters then my first pick would actually be our hero's friend best Zabladowski, who doesn't seems to understand women but responds like billy-o to males. It's tempting to read this as a gay man's friendship with a small boy (in a good way!), but I think the actor's simply playing him as another child. He gets on so well with Bart because they're the same. His attitude to Mrs Collins is a small boy's.
Incidentally both Geisel and the actor playing Zabladowski were straight, or at least married. The latter's wife was the woman he's playing opposite here, making an on-screen partnership that they managed quite a lot during their careers. Personally I'd say the homosexual angle is far less significant than the child's eye viewpoint that pervades the movie from the plot upwards, but the two of them in combination make for a unique and rather charming mixture that struck me as in effect a rebuttal to the common assumption of that era that gay men were paedophiles. Seriously. The BBC would sack gay men from shows where they were sharing the screen with little boys, despite the fact that this logic would seem to require sacking heterosexual men who were working alongside girls.
I love the language. "Rumours? Scuttlebutt!" The song lyrics are most obviously Seussian, unsurprisingly since he wrote them, while there are a couple of moments where the dialogue accidentally slips into verse or rhyme. There's a playful use of vocabulary, such as in the pastoolas conversation, while even the character names are euphonious. Bartholomew Collins, Zabladowski, Dr Terwilliker... they're all four syllables. There's something satisfying about the one-two punch of Bart Collins (as he's more commonly known), though. I'm rhapsodying about a choice of character names! Then you've got the musical numbers, of which one is forgettable (the dreams song) and the others all great. The "fabulous weather" song struck me as being particularly Seussian, while "we're evil" is hilarious.
You're probably wondering about the child actor who's been entrusted with the lead role. He's Tommy Rettig, who'd go on to fame as the first co-star to Lassie in 1954-8, but who had trouble finding roles as an adult and ended up with a life of bankruptcy, divorce and convictions for growing marijuana and importing cocaine. He's risibly bad here when asked to deliver lines to camera at the beginning, but in fairness that's a surprisingly difficult thing to do and for the most part he's completely convincing in the role. I liked him.
I've just discovered a new must-watch film. It's doing a million things that films shouldn't do, starting with a wodge of introductory exposition delivered straight to camera, but it's so clearly part of the style that you'd have to be a drooling retard not to realise that it's deliberate. The solution to the plot, for instance, is so ridiculous that it's brilliant, even without the fetishistic (and mad) use of the word "atomic". The pickle juice machine! The execution fetish lift dude! It's even one of the few films that I'll admit needed to be in colour, with its saturated Technicolor being an integral part of the whole experience. Oh, and somehow there's deep rightness about seeing Dr Seuss in a fifties setting. Weird and whimsical.