by Nathan Sacks
Not quite a children’s classic or a stoner cult flick, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is located somewhere in the middle of that Venn diagram. Its story has the rigorous simplicity of a fable, and yet the expressionistic, psychedelic sets and visuals make the film hard to forget. It is perhaps best known for being the sole screenplay contribution of Theodore Geisel, better-known as Dr. Seuss, and yet its subtext may make it a darker and weirder story than any book Seuss put to paper.
Director: Roy Rowland
Producer: Stanley Kramer
Writers: Dr. Seuss, Allan Scott
Cinematographer: Frank Planer
Editor: Al Clark
Music: Frederick Hollander, Heinz Roemheld, Hans J. Salter
Cast: Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy, Hans Conried, Tommy Rettig, Jack Heasley, Robert Heasley, Noel Cravat
US Theatrical Release: July 1, 1953
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
The Dr. T of the film (not to be confused with Robert Altman’s Richard Gere vehicle Dr. T and the Women) is Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), piano teacher of a young boy prone to outrageous bursts of imagination named Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig). In the beginning of the film, Dr. T is trying to get an unenthusiastic Bart ready for a recital, with little luck. Bart naturally rebels against the doctor’s rigid, uniform style of playing. Dr. T also seems to have an interest in Bart’s mother Heloise (Mary Healy), but she has another suitor, the very Seussian-named plumber August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), who understands Bart’s hatred of Dr. T but lacks the confidence to involve himself between them. After broadly introducing each of these four characters (the only four named characters in the entire movie), Bart falls asleep at the piano and starts dreaming.
In his dreams, Bart enters the Terwilliker Institute, a constantly-changing dreamscape centered by a gigantic, never-ending piano that is meant to be played simultaneously by 500 children (500 kids = 5000 fingers). Dr. T rules the institute with an iron fist, and his goal is to trap and force children to play this piano indefinitely. Bart also imagines that his mother Heloise is under hypnotic control by the doctor, while August Zabladowski is the Institute’s meek plumber who disagrees with Dr. T’s authority but reluctantly performs his duties anyway.
Pretty much every moment after the five-minute mark (when Bart starts dreaming) is full of exhilarating visual spectacle, set in a landscape that constantly reinvents itself. Like many early children’s entertainments (including many of the old Disney movies), Dr. T borrows liberally from German expressionism, using elaborate painted sets to provide impossibly skewed perspectives and landscapes that change color and shape. The effect is actually the closest thing to a real-life version of a Seuss book we will probably ever see (certainly, it dwarfs recent Seuss adaptations like The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat). Even the actor who plays Bart, Tommy Rettig, looks like the Platonic conception of the young Seuss protagonist, with his wide eyes, striped shirt, and colorful fingered hat.
Ecstatic visuals like this abound—I personally will never forget the dance fight between Zabladowski and two rollerblading guys conjoined by their beards. Also of note is a ten-minute-plus instrumental dance interlude, where Bart finds himself in a “dungeon for scratchy violins, screechy piccolos, nauseating trumpets, etc. etc.” It includes dancing synchronized boxers wearing purple gloves, green painted men dancing around a hookah while smoking it, someone shooting a gong for target practice, and a guy playing xylophone on radiators.
That is merely one of many musical scenes, and honestly the original music is not among the most memorable of its time (the music was reportedly one of the reasons Seuss was unhappy with the final project). Hidden among a number of odd, psychedelic songs with weird Seussian lyrics is a lonely ballad by Bart, singing of adults, “You have no right/you have no right/you have no right to push us little kids around.” It’s the anti-adult, pro-kid protest anthem you never knew the world needed.
As I said, the film has the simplicity and universality of a fable, using only four major characters in a changing environment. But it also has plenty of thought-provoking stuff to offer adults. There is weird subtext all over this flick. For instance, one would expect that August Zabladowski, the rational adult whom Bart hopes his mother will end up with, to be a hero. Instead, Zabladowski is a complete coward of an adult, only standing up to Dr. T after numerous scenes of cajoling by Bart. Zabladowski is a useless wet blanket of a protagonist and perhaps Seuss’s ideal personification of the adult as an ineffectual follower and conformist (as opposed to Dr. T, who represents the tyrannical, oppressive aspects of adulthood).
The subtext goes even deeper. Zabladowski might have been meant as the personification of Neville Chamberlain. Reportedly, Seuss’ original script for Dr. T was 1,200 pages long (!) and dealt far more clearly with what he saw as “themes of dominance and oppression during World War II.” Seuss (who worked on American propaganda during World War II with the likes of William Saroyan, Frank Capra, and Stan Lee) clearly had lofty ambitions for this children’s film, which did not appear to be shared by the film’s director, Roy Rowland, or its producer, Stanley Kramer. In its time, Dr. T was a critical and commercial flop, and made Kramer somewhat of a pariah until he became better-known for liberal Oscarbrow entertainments (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones, etc.). Kramer directed a few of Dr. T’ scenes instead of Rowland, which is enough for me to technically label this Kramer’s masterpiece.
Believe it or not, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a children’s film that actively encourages children and parents alike to think deeply about the nature of tyranny and totalitarianism, all while guised as a lightweight entertainment. It shows in a particularly Seussian manner how adults are flawed people with ridiculous thinking, and why children have a right to disagree and rebel. Even if the film was no good (and it is very good), Dr. T would be one of those rare and special children’s flicks that inspires radical and rebellious thought, and for that reason alone it should be considered a precious resource.