100 Film Favorites – #73: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
(Roy Rowland, 1953)
What happens when you let Dr. Seuss helm a live-action feature film?
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T tells the story of Bartholomew Collins (a name strikingly similar to fellow Seuss-protagonist Bartholomew Cubbins), a boy who reluctantly practices piano under the tutelage of Dr. Terwilliker. Bart sees “Dr. T” as a tyrant, and wants nothing more than to run and play outside. Forced by his mother to stay in and practice, Bart falls asleep at the piano, and, in the style of “Alice in Wonderland” and the “Wizard of Oz” film, the majority of the film presents the fantastic world of his dream.
In this Seussified dreamscape, Bart is the first pupil / prisoner of the Terwilliker Institute, a “school” surrounded by electrified barbed-wire fences. Here, Dr. T has constructed a hyperbolically large piano, intended to be played by 500 people at once. The other 499 boys (and their 4,990 fingers) are set to arrive soon. Sneaking out of his cell that night, Bart seeks help from Mr. Zabladowski, a plumber whose certification is required for the Institute to open. Bart hopes to use Zabladowski to keep the musical prison camp from opening, as well as to woo his mother away from the brainwashing influence of Dr. T.
Initially, Zabladowski is disbelieving of Bart’s claims. He is charmed by Dr. T’s genial facade and unwilling to act out against the man paying his salary (although Dr. T keeps all the “American money” to himself, doling out wages in his own currency, “krotchmooks” and “pistoolas”).
Wandering the grounds of the facility, Bart comes across a dungeon for “them who play all but the piano.” This sets the stage for possibly the best scene in the film: In a bizzare, extended musical number, droves of prisoners in tattered clothes (and painted green for some reason) emerge from the woodwork and begin performing on all manner of surreal instruments. These range from merely oversized gongs, accordions, and tubas to things like repurposed vacuum cleaners and marimbas played with oven-mitts. The strangest “instrument” of all is a man wearing a pair of antlers, from which are hung a set of bells. These are “played” by a musician strangling and vigorously shaking the man.
Eventually, Mr. Zabladowski does come around to helping Bart, and together they free Bart’s mother. When their treachery is discovered, Dr. T consigns them to the REALLY unpleasant dungeon. They are escorted there by a singing elevator operator in a scene which nearly puts the “scary tunnel scene” from “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” to shame. All that can be seen of the operator’s face are his bulging, unblinking eyes, staring out through the slits in an executioner’s hood. As they descend floors, the operator lists the tortures which can be found on each level, in the manner of a department store guide. One verse, in which the operator extols the virtues of the Institute’s “gas chambers and roasting pots,” was actually cut from the finished film, but the verses which remain still feature plenty of gruesome imagery, offering “thumb-screws and nooses of the very finest rope.”
We don’t quite get to see the Seuss version of Saw, but as Bart and Zabladowski near their cage they are introduced to some of the Doctor’s more notorious prisoners. Dr. T gestures toward one of the cells, which contains a screaming man sealed inside a drum, and says, “You know how at the start of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony it goes ‘BUH BUH BUH BOOM?’ Well, HE played ‘BUH BUH BUH Ba-BOOM.’ One extra ‘Ba.’ He’ll be here forever.”
While Bart and Zabladowski are left to rot, hundreds of other little boys begin arriving at the Institute, and Dr. T prepares to conduct his big opening concert. In yet another stirring musical number, Terwilliker commands his servants to”Dress me, dress me, dress me in my finest array / ‘cuz just in case you haven’t heard, today is Do-Mi-Do Day. / Dress me in my silver garters, dress me in my diamond studs / for I’m going Do-Mi-Do-ing in my Do-Mi-Do duds.”
Meanwhile, Bart and Zabladowski engineer a “sound-catching gookum” in their cell, using an air freshener as a base (it sucks smells out of the air, so why can’t it suck sounds out of the air too?). Bart manages to sneak the “gookum” into the opening concert, where it sucks up all of Dr. T’s sound, leaving him silent and powerless. The army of children rebel, overpower Terwilliker, and begin playing “Chopsticks,” apparently the one fun piece of piano music. Unnoticed at first, the smell-catching gookum begins to bubble and smoke…the mixture turns out to be unstable and “VERY ATOMIC.” As the gookum explodes, taking the Institute with it, Bart awakens at the piano. Bart’s mother leaves for the store, accompanied by Mr. Zabladowski, and Bart runs outside to play.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is pretty much the equivalent of a real-life Dr. Seuss book. The architecture is surreal and the supporting characters are beyond bizarre. Nowhere else will you find roller-skating “Siamese twins” joined by the beard, or a villain and a hero engaging in a hypnosis battle, fighting to a draw, and then mutually congratulating one another on the strength of their “whammies.” It was the first film shown at an official Brian Terrill Movie Night, and with good reason. Detractors of the recent feature film adaptations of The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat have suggested it’s impossible to really convey the world of Dr. Seuss in live-action. Well, not if the man himself is in charge.
Tidbits: Dr. T is played by Hans Conried, perhaps more widely known as the voice of Captain Hook (and Mr. Darling) in Disney’s animated Peter Pan.
-Mary Healy and Peter Lind Hayes, who play Bart’s mother and Mr. Zabladowski respectively, were married in real life and starred together in several films.
-It has been suggested that the full name of The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob is intended as a reference to this film. “Sideshow” Bob Terwilliger, after all, is the frequent nemesis of another rambunctious boy named Bart.