The Scoop: 1953 Approved (whatever that means), directed by Roy Rowland and starring Tommy Rettig, Hans Conreid, Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy, Jack Heasley, Robert Heasley and Noel Cravat.
Tagline: The Wonder Musical of the Future!
Summary Capsule: Dr. Seuss had a fever dream and slapped it onto the big screen for us to see. At certain points, pianos are involved.
Deneb’s Review: The precise definition of what makes a movie ‘cult’ or not is a fiddlesome matter, and much given to individual interpretation. Here on MRFH, we tend to take rather a loose hand with it, including a number of movies which, while perfectly worthy of reviewing, might be shouted down by purists as too mainstream or too… well, ‘un-cult’ in some way to qualify. (The Star Wars films, for instance – there’s no doubt that they have a cult-like following, but do they still count as ‘cult’ when they’re so wildly popular and influential? I dunno. They’re on here anyway.)
This blurring-the-lines business applies to just about every reviewer on the site, including me. I can’t speak for anyone else, but personally the reason why I do it is simple – while I’ve seen an awful lot of stuff in my life so far, only a relative handful of it is ‘true’ cult. I’m still watching new movies all the time, of course, but in the meantime, I don’t want to play all my cards at once. I spin out the genuine, no-doubt-about-it cult reviews by peppering them with a number of borderline cases, so that I have some favorites to look forward to down the line.
Every now and then, though, one runs across a whopper. One runs across a film that not only qualifies as cult, it inhabits its own semi-category – a film so odd, so surreal, so freakin’ strange, that, upon first seeing it, the only logical response is to cock an eyebrow, hang the mouth open slightly and go ‘Eh?’
Such a movie it is that I have the rare opportunity to review for you today. Such a movie is The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.
As our story opens, young Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig) is not a very happy boy. It’s not that he’s starving or mistreated or anything; on the contrary, his mom (Mary Healey) loves him very much – it’s just that his dad died a ways back, and ever since then, she’s been struggling with the burden of single-parenthood. After all, she wants to bring her boy up right – and in the ‘50’s, one of the things that apparently meant was piano lessons. Lots and lots of piano lessons.
This is what’s got Bart’s nose out of joint, and it’s hard to blame him. His teacher is one Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conreid), a rather harsh taskmaster who tends to get annoyed with him, because drat it all, the kid will keep getting bored and drowsing off during the lesson – and it’s the rare teacher who doesn’t get a bit ticked off by something like that, especially when there’s a recital coming up. Practice, dammit! Practice, practice, practice!
Overall, it’s an exasperating time of things for poor Bart. He wants to please his mother and everything, but dang it all, he doesn’t like practicing that dumb ol’ piano. True, he’s got his pal Mr. Zabladowski the plumber (Peter Lind Hayes) to talk to on the apparently frequent occasions when he’s fixing their pipes, but the guy’s too busy to get roped into much of a conversation, and then he’s got to go back to the piano again. Phooey.
So it’s not too terribly surprising that he dozes off again, and this time runs smack-dab into the grandpappy of all weird dreams. How weird is it? Read and learn.
It seems that in Bart’s subconscious, Dr. Terwilliker is not merely the petty tyrant he is in the real world – on the contrary, he’s much more sinister than that. He’s a piano-obsessed madman who, as the dream starts, is about to open the music school to end all music schools, the Terwilliker Institute!
Sounds innocuous enough, right? After all, everyone wants to branch out into the big time, and how bad could the place be? As it turns out, pretty darn bad, because this school has a little something different – namely, a gigantic, two-level piano, designed to fit not one, not two, not even three, nay, a full five hundred players! Not willing players, either – these will be helpless kids like Bart, forced by Terwilliker to practice with their (as he puts it) “five thousand little fingers” on the piano day in and day out! The fiend!
What makes things still worse is that he’s roped Bart’s mom into this – she’s been hypnotized into service as his second-in-command, and soon – horror of horrors! – his wife! The piano stuff was bad enough, but this new twist our hero will not stand – he’s got to put an end to all this, and fast!
Unfortunately, that won’t be easy. The Institute is a sprawling monstrosity of a complex, equipped with an electric fence, lots and lots of armed guards, and, just to top things off, Judson and Whitney (Jack and Robert Heasley), a pair of Siamese twins joined at the beard who prowl the hallways on roller skates looking for runaways – all of which, of course, are sicced on Bart the moment Terwilliker learns of his rebellion. Just navigating the place won’t be easy, let alone retaining his freedom. Thankfully, he does have one ally – Mr. Zabladowski, who’s been hired by the doctor to install the plumbing. Just like in the real world, however, Zabladowski is all business; so far as he’s concerned, Bart’s exaggerating things, and he wishes the kid would stop bugging him so he can go back to earning his pay.
Oh yes – and the Institute is due to open tomorrow, just a few short hours away. Will Bart be able to free his mom, convince the plumber to pay attention to him, and foil the plans of the evil Dr. T before it’s too late? Well… possibly. I’d say a definite possibly.
If this film is known for anything, it’d be for the involvement of just one man – a certain Theodor Seuss Geisel, i.e Dr. friggin’ Seuss. There were plenty of other features that he was later involved with, of course, but those were all short animated films based on his earlier work. 5000 Fingers is not only the only live-action film he was ever personally involved with, it’s a 100% original creation – he wrote the screenplay, designed the sets, and acted as lyricist to boot. (Oh, did I mention it was a musical? Well, I guess I did now.) Lots of other people were involved as well, of course, but creatively speaking, this puppy is pure Seuss from start to finish.
And believe you me, it shows it. Short of putting the actors in make-up to simulate the usual cast of creature-people who populate his books, this is probably the closest we will ever get to a live-action version of the Dr. Seuss universe. Everything, from the weird, distorted architecture to the strangely-designed, brightly-colored outfits to directions being given by pointing-glove signs is darn near letter-perfect, and the few bits that aren’t are only because physics wouldn’t cooperate. For all intents and purposes, this is Seuss-land incarnate. One half-expects a Who to walk by in the background, or for Dr. T to call up the local Solla Sollewian restaurant for some takeout.
If that were all that 5000 Fingers had going for it, it would be worth seeing for novelty value, but not much else. Thankfully, there is more.
To start with – this is a dream. It’s not even ‘arguably’ a dream – there’s a little boundary-blurring in spots, but it is set up most definitively as something happening entirely within this little boy’s head. I’m not sure whether this was entirely Seuss’s original intent or not (there was some studio interference, as I’ll discuss later), but as it turned out, this was quite a wise choice.
Why? Hold on and I’ll tell you.
A problem I’ve always had with a somewhat better-known movie, The Wizard of Oz, is that there’s really no reason for Dorothy’s adventures to be a dream. In the original story, Oz was very real, and there’s any number of things she encounters there that don’t correspond in any way to the prologue in Kansas.
I bring this up because Fingers is often compared to Wizard due to the dream-framework – and yeah, I can see how you could make the comparison. The major difference, though, is that while Wizard could dump said framework entirely without changing a lot, the whole reason Fingers works as well as it does is precisely because it is presented as a dream.
Even leaving aside the Seussian look and feel of the film, which is dreamlike enough on its own, the entire plot, from start to finish, only makes any sense at all if it is viewed through the subconscious of a young boy. There’s no good reason whatsoever for a freakin’ piano teacher to have achieved as much power and influence as Terwilliker has if looked at from a real-world perspective – but from Bart’s POV, it’s perfectly logical. After all, the Doctor is already his nemesis while he’s awake, so of course the same would be true while he’s asleep – him achieving supervillain status is practically inevitable. Why wouldn’t he be the head honcho of a place that’s a combination Bond villain lair and medieval castle – he’s the bad guy! Don’t all bad guys live in places like that?
And really, all that is just the framework. Dr. T and the Institute are basically there for the sole purpose of giving Bart an opponent to go up against and a cool location to run about in. The real meat of the story – and the part that seems most clearly taken from a child’s subconscious – lies in his dealings with his erstwhile ally, Mr. Zabladowski.
I’ll go into Zabladowski’s character in more detail a bit later on, but his main role in Bart’s life – or rather, the role Bart is trying to convince him to play – is that of a surrogate father. This isn’t just my interpretation of things, either; it’s stated outright.
Outside of this crazy messed-up dreamworld, Bart Collins is a lonely child. While his actual father’s death is clearly something he’s moved on from (which is really refreshing, by the way; you just know that if they made this movie today, he’d still be in mourning), he misses having a dad. He loves his mom and everything, but he misses being part of a more ‘normal’ family, and clearly also thinks it’d be good for his mother to have a man in her life who isn’t Dr. T. (Looked at in a somewhat more selfish light, it’s also implied that if she did, she might stop worrying so much and lighten up on the darn piano lessons.) And heck, Bart likes Zabladowski – why wouldn’t he be eager to play matchmaker?
Mind you, he’s not too caught up in the precise details of how this sort of thing works – and why would he be, at his age. So far as he’s concerned, if he can convince his plumber pal to help him and his mom, love and marriage are right around the corner – and even if things are a little more complex than that, said complications are more to do with the evil piano teacher and his gang of thugs than, you know, mutual matrimonial attraction between a man and a woman not always being 100% signed, sealed and delivered at first sight. To heck with the nitty-gritty details of all that mushy stuff – this is his dream, and he knows that all happy-family time needs to blossom and grow is for the three of them to beat the villain and go home. Now, how to work that one out…
OK, OK, so enough with the psychology lecture already. Is it any good? Oh, heck yeah. 5000 Fingers is packed with sublime little moments of Seussian weirdness. From Zabladowski and Terwilliker’s strange little battle-of-the-whammies (which is part sorcerers’ duel, part schoolyard fight, and part dance-off), to the signs that lose their own way, to the triumphant villainous ditty that turns into a college pride song, to the ever-mounting oddities of the dungeons and their prisoners, to the extremely memorable and not a little creepy elevator sequence, there is always something going on at the Terwilliker Institute, and it’s generally something interesting. (Not to mention, without giving anything away, the most out-of-nowhere reference to atomic energy I think I’ve ever seen. Yep, it was made in the ‘50’s, all right…)
So who inhabits this interesting place? Well, my instinct would be to start with Terwilliker himself, as he dominates the movie, but honestly, I think the heroes make a good enough showing for themselves that they deserve their moment in the sun up front.
Therefore, let’s start with Bart. Tommy Rettig was already a relatively seasoned actor for his age (he would go on to play Timmy on the Lassie TV show), and he gives a pretty good account of himself. It’s not that Bart is a particularly deep character or anything, but he comes off as a believable, intelligent kid, a thing that is not as easy as it sounds, given how many child actors mess it up. A fair amount of his acting is simply reacting to the more flamboyant characters and events surrounding him, but he does that well, and he’s good at making his body language expressive enough to carry him through the quieter scenes where he doesn’t have much to say.
The scenes where he does have much to say largely involve his dealings with Mr. Zabladowski, so it’s a good thing that the two actors have good chemistry. (See that segue there? Masterful, I tell ya.) Peter Lind Hayes is what you might call a middle-of-the-road actor, but he’s certainly not bad – he’s got a good sense of comic timing, as well as… well, I suppose you might call it an element of ‘plays well with others’. The more intense his fellow cast members’ performances get, the more he picks up on their energy and translates it into a more energetic performance himself. He works well as part of an ensemble, is what I suppose I’m saying.
This is good, because he’s the closest thing the film has to a ‘standard’ hero – that is, if he could just be convinced that yeah, his employer really is an evil mastermind who’s got Mrs. Collins in his Svengali-like grasp. Zabladowski is a decent enough fellow, but slow to act – just like in the real world, he likes horsing around with Bart when he’s got a spare moment or two, but goldarn it, those sinks are not going to install themselves and he’s being paid good – well, decent – well, OK, money for this, and he can’t just take the kid’s word on all this crazy stuff without some solid proof. In many ways, he’s the incarnation of adult skepticism as it applies to children – one of the less-than-lovely parts about being a kid is that it’s sometimes difficult to get grown-ups to take you seriously, and Zabladowski definitely has that as a character trait. He does eventually rise above it, but it takes some doing.
Rounding out the hero group – well, for all intents and purposes, anyway; it’s not her fault she’s hypnotized – is Mrs. Collins. She’s a little underwritten, but that’s not the actress’ fault – I got the impression that Mary Healey could have done a bit more with the material if she’d had more to work with. Still, she’s a trooper, and does the best she can with what she’s got, being fairly believable as a loyal-yet-wavering minion while under the Doctor’s spell, and as a worried mother while, eh… over it. She probably gives her best performance while still in the real world, giving a good account of herself as a somewhat harried but still loving single mom.
Which brings us, of course, to the villain, Dr. T himself. If the name Hans Conried sounds familiar, you probably know him from his career in voice acting – he voiced, among others, Captain Hook from the Disney Peter Pan and Dudley Do-Right’s nemesis Snidely Whiplash on Rocky and Bullwinkle. Basically, the man made a nice career for himself playing gigantic hams, and oh my heavenly days, does he ever live up to that here. It may be exaggerating somewhat to say that this is the role of his career as a whole, but of his career in live-action, it certainly is.
Conried’s Terwilliker is, appropriately enough, basically every little boy’s mental picture of a vile villain. He sneers, he snarls, he yells, he gloats, he screams, he barks orders, he goes into fits of egotistical glee at the thought of his much-anticipated “five thousand little fingers” at work. When he’s trying to endear himself to someone, he goes into an overdrive of unctuous, wheedling and complimenting and dripping with insincere ooze in an all-but-literal fashion. Basically, this guy is so over-the-top that his eccentric choice in villainous careers almost makes sense – Terwilliker is devoted enough to being evil that I can picture him turning just about any career-choice into a villainous master-plan of some sort. (“Yes, yes, I have fooled them all! Soon – soon, my genius scheme will come to fruition, and then everyone who needs their garbage taken away will come to me! To me! All the garbage in the world will be mine, ha-ha!”)
Also, it should be mentioned that at times he can come off as a tad bit… camp? Something like that? He’s not the most traditionally manly of villains, shall we say, certainly not by the conservative standards of the time when the movie was made. Of course, he is planning to forcibly marry Mrs. Collins as soon as possible, so perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but… well, come to your own conclusions. (Not to mention that one song – that song; you’ll know it when you hear it. Good grief. It’s a great song, but… good grief.)
Before moving on, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the actor who played the elevator operator. I don’t know what this guy’s name was (he’s uncredited), but he gives a memorably intense performance, considering that he’s only in the movie for something like two minutes. Unknown person with your identity lost to time, I salute you. You deserved better.
Now, I suppose I should mention the songs – given that, as I mentioned, this is a musical. They’re…. variable, I suppose you could say. There are a few genuinely great little tunes amongst them (I especially liked a rather melancholy one lamenting the mistreatment of kids by adults – it’s not a topic you hear tackled in song very often, and I honestly found it rather moving), and with Seuss at the lyrics, you know they’re going to be nifty, but taken as a whole, they’re a tad hit-and-miss. None of them are bad, but not all of them are great.
If one were in a cynical sort of mood, one could apply the same criteria to the movie as a whole. None of it is bad, but it does have its flaws. For one thing, the studio chopped and edited the hell out of it before it was released to theaters (where it flopped like a weighted-down cow pie, sad to say), so while the story still flows pretty well, there are a few parts that feel a bit incomplete. (For one thing, remember those joined-at-the-beard twins on roller skates I mentioned? Yeah, they don’t show up much. From the focus they get when they are onscreen, they were clearly a much bigger deal in the original version of things, but they aren’t in this one, and that’s a shame, ‘cause they’re awesome.) Also, for all the Seuss-laden weirdness in evidence, there’s no denying that the film is still a kid’s movie from the ‘50’s, and as such it’s just a tad on the sanitized-and-occasionally-schmaltzy end of things – while, at the same time, having an oddly menacing, nightmarish flavor that might be a little bit much for some younger kids. It’s not for everybody, and if you like your movies darker and grittier, you may not like this one.
But speaking personally, I’m not in a cynical sort of mood, and overall? I like The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. I like it quite a bit. Sure, it’s far from perfect, but what you can say for it is that it’s unique – you’re unlikely to ever see another film exactly like it, and I mean that very much as a compliment. If you like Dr. Seuss, if you like oddball musicals and strange imagery – heck, if you like corny old ‘50’s movies – 5000 Fingers is definitely worth a look. If you like it, I guarantee you you’ll want to see it a few more times.
Might not be the best idea to watch it right before playing the piano, though. Could affect your performance.
- As Seuss told it, the idea for the film came from his own childhood piano lessons, taught by “a man who rapped my knuckles with a pencil whenever I made a mistake… I made up my mind I would get even with that man. It took me 43 years to catch up with him.”
- According to Wikipedia, the film was adapted into a Broadway musical back in 2000 – however, I cannot for the life of me figure out whether it was ever actually performed or not. There are some ‘live recital’-style clips of some of the new songs that were written floating around YouTube, so I know it got that far, at least, but the ‘Net is maddeningly vague on whether it ever got further than that. If anybody knows anything about this, let me know, will ya?
- Bart’s full name – Bartholomew Collins – is a clear reference to a better-known Seuss character, Bartholomew Cubbins.
- As Bart is practicing during the pre-dream sequence, photos of Judson and Whitney are clearly visible on top of the piano.
- Instead of the full 500 boys specified by the script, the film’s limited budget only allowed the studio to hire somewhere between 150 and 400 (I’ve read differing accounts of this) for the final sequence. Apparently, one of the boys felt sick and vomited during filming, which caused a “chain reaction” and ultimately led to all 150 boys on set at the time tossing their cookies – something that, as Seuss put it, shared similarities with the film’s reviews.
- While it’s obscured a bit by the angle, some of the guards are clearly giving Terwilliker the Seig Heil salute in one scene.
- The film was initially going to be much longer and more elaborate, with at least ten more songs and several ballet-style dance sequences. (Among other things, Judson and Whitney got a song, the reprise of which is featured during Zabladowski’s showdown with them.) There has since been a soundtrack CD released which features the uncut version of all of these – or, if you’re interested but don’t want to spend the money, there are sound files to be found online.
- Accounts are mixed, but according to at least one source, the character of Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons got his last name of “Terwilliger” from this movie. Furthermore, there are some similarities between the two characters – both are arrogant, cultured types whose arch-nemeses have the name of ‘Bart’.
- Dr. Seuss hated the way the film ended up, referring to it as a “debaculous fiasco”, and leaving out all mention of it from his official biography.
- One of the later cuts made to the film was the third verse of the infamous “Dungeon Song”, which was rather clumsily edited out. If you see the film and like it, I urge you to look up the full (or as full as it gets) version on YouTube, as it’s truly a memorable song.
Dr. Terwilliker: The most beautiful piece ever written (I wrote it)…
Mr. Zabladowski: I’m under the impression that a number of frogs, toads, and possibly dinosaurs have died and lie unburied in our immediate vicinity.
Dr. Terwilliker: Abraca-Dibrica-Dabrica Dilliker! T-E-R-W-I-L-L-Illiker!
Guards: (singing) Terwilliker, thy name we praise/We love thy foul and loathsome ways/Thy crummy criminality/Terwilliker A-Cat-A-Me!
Dr. Terwilliker: Let me see your fingers, lad! Are they limber? Are they happy?
Mr. Zabladowski: Two thousand pestulas.
Bart: Two thousand what?
Mr. Zabladowski: Two thousand pestulas. Dr. T does not pay me in American money; he keeps that for himself. He pays me in pestulas.
Bart: What are pestulas?
Mr. Zabladowski: If you must know, the currency here is a little strange. First of all, in the small money comes the drachmids. At the regular, normal rate of exchange, there are 59 drachmids to one silver zlobek.
Mr. Zabladowski: Three silver zlobeks make one golden kratchmuk. A pestula normally is, uh… 44,000 kratchmuks. But these, they tell me, are not normal times, so…
Bart: Pestulas! Kratchmuks! How much d’ya get American?
Mr. Zabladowski: Precisely twenty bucks. Show me a better job, and I’ll take it.
Dr. Terwilliker: Oh, you’re a sensitive, intelligent, and highly creative person!
Bart: They’re after me!
Mr. Zabladowski: Who?
Bart: Practically everybody!
Dr. Terwilliker: …The idiotic, cockeyed flumdummery…!
Mrs. Collins: (singing) What fabulous weather for loping and leaping!
Mr. Zabladowski: (singing) What fabulous weather for bipping and beeping!
Dr. Terwilliker: (singing) For schnipping and schnopping and schnooping and schneeping –
All: (singing) What fabulous weather, hey-hey, what a day!
Mr. Zabladowski: You talk a lot, but I don’t know how much you say.
Dr. Terwilliker: Is it atomic?
Bart: Yes sir, very atomic!
Mr. Zabladowski: You are a sly, deceiving, scheming little coot.
Dr. Terwilliker: Why are you standing there with that null-and-void expression?
Mr. Zabladowski: Everyone gets into trouble. Everyone in the world. The King of Persia sometimes even gets into trouble. But the King of Persia, does he come crawling out of my air-vent? Not at all. The King of Persia – he stays in Persia.
Dr. Terwilliker: I want him disintegrated. I want you to disintegrate him slowly. I want him to suffer. Atom by atom!
Bart: I can try.
Mr. Zabladowski: I wouldn’t try.
Bart: I know. All you’d ever try for is time-and-a-half for overtime!
Guards: (singing) We’re rough, we’re tough, we’re on the ball/We’re gruesome one, we’re gruesome all/Unthinkable, stinkable, horrible us/Hooray!/We are victorious (victorious)!
Bart: I can’t think of one nice thing to say about him – because there isn’t any.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
- The Phantom Tollbooth
- The Hoober-Bloob Highway