Thursday, July 28, 2016

Film Review: THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T (1953, Roy Rowland)

Fingers: 5,000.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
Tag-line: "The Wonder Musical of the Future!"
Notable Cast or Crew: Tommy Rettig (LASSIE, RIVER OF NO RETURN), Hans Conried ("Captain Hook" in Disney's PETER PAN, THE TWONKY, Hitchcock's SABOTAGE), Mary Healy (SECOND FIDDLE, THE YANKS ARE COMING), Peter Lind Hayes (ZIS BOOM BAH, THE SENATOR WAS INDISCREET), George Chakiris (WEST SIDE STORY, THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT).
Best One-liner: "You have no right, you have no right, To push and shove us little kids around... Now just because your throat has got a deeper voice, And lots of wind to blow it out, at little kids who dare not shout, you have no right, you have no right, to boss and beat us little kids about... just because you've whiskers on your face to shave, you treat us like a slave.."

THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T might be the most unhinged children's movie ever released by a major studio. Hell, it might be the most unhinged movie ever released by a major studio.

The studio in question was Columbia Pictures. The film carries the "Hollywood prestige" heft of producer Stanley Kramer (HIGH NOON, THE DEFIANT ONES, JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER?). It was written by Allan Scott (IMITATION OF LIFE, TOP HAT) and Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, who helped envision some of the visuals. I must also mention that it is a live-action piece, and a musical as well (with music by Friedrich Hollander, a Weimar-era composer who escaped the Nazis in 1933).

I was just writing on here the other week about INNERSPACE, a Joe Dante film from 1987 that presents a well-earned anarchic world. Essentially, that film places the visual style of Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones into a live-action format. THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T does the same, but for Dr. Seuss. Let me show an inkling of what that entails:

The result is a labyrinthine nightmare that must have scarred many minds over the years, young and old. Its plot is nearly like a Kafka fairy tale––an evil piano teacher, "Dr. Terwilliker," a.k.a., "Dr. T," is obsessed with making young boys practice the piano, and in his bondage-obssessed dystopian-fantasia-world fortress (called the "Happy Fingers Institute"), he plans to capture 500 boys (hence 5,000 fingers), strip them of their identity,

and force them to play a giant piano in his... basement, I guess?

"Practice... practice... practice..."

I don't want to think about it too much. But don't worry, all of this is presented as a "bad dream"––although 97% of the movie takes place within the dream, so the frame story feels kinda tacked on, as if by a studio too skittish to release this morbid tale without qualification.

Its visuals are Seussian by-way-of Salvador Dali, like a kitschy TALES FROM HOFFMANN. It definitely held the mantle of the "creepiest and most aesthetically creative" children's movie until WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY came out in 1971.

Dr. T is played by Hans Conreid, who plays it in a lovingly "over the top" fashion, like a 1950s John Lithgow. I'm pretty sure that his performance and costume inspired another finger-obsessed character: "The Master" from MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE.

Tom Neyman as "The Master" in MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE.

It bears mentioning that the film often feels like it's addressing institutionalized pedophilia in an off-kilter way; when our hero (child actor Tommy Rettig, of LASSIE fame) comes to his mother and father figure with allegations of Dr. T's abuse, they confront the doctor but are charmed by his gifts of free cigars, cocktails, and hypnosis (!), all while he shovels money into his wall safe.

This is sufficient for the parental figures to shrug off the accusations, whereupon our hero is returned to his dungeon cell, the unnervingly named "lock-me-tight."

Yeah... I don't think I'm reading too much into this.

There's another terrifying scene, the "Elevator Song," whereupon an S&M elevator operator announces the floors of the dungeon complex (through song) like he's announcing the departments at a Macy's during Christmas season.

I told you this was scary
He goes on to describe the sorts of punishments in store for our hero:

This is no joke: after test screenings, they cut the elevator operator's references to "gas chambers" and "scalping devices."

But the dungeon's not all bad. You see, Dr. T hates every musician who is not a pianist, and has therefore imprisoned the rest, who spend their days performing nightmare ballets. This particular scene is a creative tour-de-force, like something out of THE RED SHOES or AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.

WEST SIDE STORY's George Chakiris is actually in there somewhere, under that green paint.

Mouth-trumpets. As in, "trumpets fused to your mouth." It's H.R. Giger-esque whimsy!

On the left is a man wearing antlers with bells hanging from them. He plays his instrument when he is choked by the man beside him.  The gents to the right are playing some kind of horn made from plungers and hookah parts.

I'm pretty sure this gong scene is referencing the Rank Organisation's logo: 

which played before all the Powell & Pressburger films, like THE RED SHOES and TALES OF HOFFMANN, both of which clearly influenced this film.

Just look at how many people are on screen at once! Damn, I love it.

It's Technicolor dance mayhem, and one of the most startlingly artistic and bizarre sequences I've ever seen. I might also refer you to THE BAND WAGON, a Vincente Minnelli musical from the same year that traffics in similar levels of beautiful madness. Apparently in 1953 Hollywood, outré was in!

Beyond the aforementioned MANOS reference, DR. T has influenced many disparate works: for instance, the title character was the inspiration for THE SIMPSONS' "Sideshow Bob," and a basket chase set-piece may have sparked Spielberg's imagination for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK:

In closing, I must say that this THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T is a tremendous achievement in filmic and theatrical artistry. It's forward-thinking and heavy-hitting in its condemnation of unchecked authority and institutionalized child abuse. In any event, I wish they'd have let Dr. Seuss put his grotesque stamp on more live-action films!

–Sean Gill

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