Monday, December 26, 2011

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (1953)

Seen: On dvd on our big screen/projector set-up, rented from netflix.

I'm pretty sure I first heard about this movie on the Frankly, My Dear podcast, the episode about messed up kids movies. The mere notion of a Dr Seuss-penned and designed live action movie excites me, regardless of its box office failure and general lack of now-classic status. Accentuated with frilly outfits and twisty setpieces, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T primarily takes place in the daydreams of Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig), a young boy terrorized by his pompous piano teacher Dr Terwilliker (Hans Conried). He envisions a future in which his tutor builds a school for his students that will actually imprison them, hypnotizing their parents and forcing 500 boys to play his songs on a massive piano. Bartholomew's mom (Mary Healy) is the first to fall under the Doctor's spell and so the boy enlists a wise-cracking plumber (Peter Lind Hayes) to help save her and prevent the school from opening.

Seeing Dr Seuss's candy-colored, Escher-esque nonsense worlds come to life on a complex soundstage is pretty magical, and a big part of what makes this movie so interesting. Story-wise it's a bit jumbled and at times oddly cliche (oh no a lady needs to be rescued, how troubling), and I wonder if Seuss was just more suited to shorter-form narratives, but with memorable characters and some fun tunes it's salvageable. I loved the nefarious Dr T, played with malicious glee by Hans Conried. He's flamboyant and evilly British and has a strong vocabulary, all traits I look for in a villain. He's also the most cartoonish of the actors, which of course is fitting for Seuss's exaggerated sensibilities. Peter Lind Hayes is enjoyable as well, playing a self-serving plumber with a heart of gold and some killer skill on roller skates.

The songs are goofy and over the top (well everything about this movie is, really) and several of the musical numbers are damned impressive. That huge piano-less band sequence? Dang. I can't find it on youtube but I'd argue the film is worth viewing just for that. I loved the terrifying implications of "Elevator Dungeon", and of course there's the gloriously frivolous fashion frenzy "Do-Mi-Do-Duds". Adorable.

I have to say though: I know it's the 50's, but did anyone except for white dudes play instruments back then? I mean it's just dudes dudes dudes, even among the students- all little boy piano players. As a former orchestra geek, I totally object.


Pair This Movie With: Several weird kids movies come to mind, mainly Return to Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. If you want a more grown-up movie I think some of the imagery is reminiscent of The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. Plus they've both got doctors.

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