The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) Blu Ray & DVD (Indicator)
Ten happy little fingers and they’re mine all mine!
In this musical fantasy co-written by Dr. Seuss, Tommy Rettig plays Bart Collins, a young boy forced to learn the piano by his tyrannical teacher Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried). While he loathes this overbearing man, he continues to practise under encouragement from his gentler mother Heloise (Mary Healy).
One day, after a gruelling session on the ivories he drifts off into dreamland, where he imagines himself playing an extremely long piano while Terwilliker tells him of his scheme to kidnap 500 boys and force them to play the rest of the keys.
After he is done, Bart is sent back to his cell. On the way there he bumps into handyman August Zabladowski, who is installing sanitation in Terwilliker’s wacky complex. Zabladowski explains that Bart’s mother is “Number 2 in the operation” - meaning she is in on Terwilliker’s villainous scheme. The boy doesn’t believe him, so he sneaks off to spy on her.
When he goes through the circular trapdoor into her room, he discovers that she has been placed under a form of mind control by the evil piano teacher. He rushes away to seek Zabladowski’s help in defeating him.
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The strangest Hollywood musical?
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was a major critical and commercial flop on its release, but has since gained a considerable cult following over the years. It’s easy to see why it has followed this trajectory of recognition. It’s a strange mixture of musical, dark comedy and fantasy adventure - simultaneously playing from a child’s eye view while nodding at themes which children may not pick up on.
The most obvious attraction here comes from the colourful and imaginative production design, the huge sets composed of futuristic architecture swathed in primary colours, curving illogically and jutting out at off-kilter angles in the manner of a Warner Bros cartoon. The costume design is equally batty, featuring every character (with the exception of the perpetually shoulder-shrugging Zabladowski) bedecked in the sort of wildly flamboyant outfits that even circus entertainers would balk at.
There are plenty of standout sequences within this impressively lysergic dream world, in particular those involving an impossibly tall red ladder, a pair of elderly twins named The Heasleys (who rollerblade in pursuit of Bart, conjoined together via one insanely long beard), a key stuck behind the pendulum of a metronome, and a dungeon filled with reprobates who dare to play frankly alien-looking variations of a number of non-piano instruments. That’s without even mentioning a sound-stealing liquid called “AirFix”.
Doesn’t fully satisfy
The dark side of Dr. T is that it doesn’t fully satisfy as either a musical or, more broadly, as a movie. While the Oscar-nominated score features some classic songs like “Ten Happy Fingers” and “The Dressing Song”, the production's sour and wantonly bizarre tone means that it lacks the sense of rainbow-flavoured escapism provided by the finest classic Hollywood musicals.
There’s a little bit of black comedy and satire here, for instance during the scenes revolving around Zabladowski’s jobsworth side and his initial apathy towards Dr T’s blatant corruption. The trouble is that it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough; apparently a considerable amount of material was cut following a disastrous test screening, and has since become lost to the world. It seems to fall between two stools: wanting to be subversive on one hand, and escapist on the other.
At the same time, the theme of children being pushed around and marginalised by a mean, hypocritical adult world despite them possessing what their older counterparts have less of - an unbridled imagination - is interesting.
The overall vibe of 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is one of a wonderful, highly imaginative movie that’s had its teeth capped - reducing it to merely a somewhat diverting, highly imaginative movie. As a fantasy musical it’s a wilder, but weaker and less charming companion piece to The Wizard of Oz. Even so, as a cult curiosity it’s well worth a look.
Runtime: 89 mins
Dir: Roy Rowland
Script: Dr. Seuss, Allan Scott
Starring: Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy, Hans Conried, Tommy Rettig, Jack Weasley, Robert Heasley
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The Technicolor visuals are a fabulous eye-candy treat in this HD remaster, and there’s nothing to complain about in the sound department either (which, coming from a man who complains constantly about poor Blu Ray sound mixes, is surely an accolade).
Highlights amongst the extras
Audio commentary by Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton
Kenny and Pinkerton contribute another enjoyable and informative commentary. They reveal (amongst many other things) that piano playing was such a bane of children’s existences back in this time due to the repetitive and uncomfortable teaching methods.
We also learn a lot of interest about both the film itself (a whole 11 musical numbers were reportedly cut from the original version to make the one we see today) and the cast. The best comments are reserved for Tommy Rettig, who got his best-known part in the Lassie TV series while on set for this film, and later went on to become a controversial mind-altering drugs advocate.
Musician Michael Feinstein talks about his mission to reassemble the Friedrich Hollaender songs which were lost from the released cut. His quest took some fascinating turns, including him catching a studio staff member throwing music in the dumpster based on whether the film got 2 stars or less in Leonard Maltin’s film guide. Maltin, incidentally, was horrified when Feinstein mentioned this to him. He also managed to get some snippets of music from the personal collection of actor Peter Lind Hayes. He released the results in a 3 CD set.
A Little Nightmare Music
This archive doc again has Michael Feinstein discussing the music - but this time looking at the compositions of the various songs and their influences. Another worthy piece for fans of the film’s score.
This wonderful interview with Roy Rowland’s son Steve begins with him showing us the original bound script for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. He talks about his father’s life, beginning as a bag man for the mob in Hell’s Kitchen, and then through his body of directorial work. Steve recalls that, during shooting of Dr. T, he was close friends with D.r Seuss, but clearly didn’t enjoy making the film itself. He was even more upset when Stanley Kramer went into the editing studio without his prior knowledge and cut a lot of material.
Trailers and an image gallery round out the on-disc extras.
The beautifully-compiled enclosed booklet features several essays. The first one is “Those Happy Fingers are Yellow and Terrifying” by Peter Conheim. He discusses how he originally saw the film on a black and white TV set, and then had a starkly different experience when he saw it again on home video in glorious Technicolor.
“Wonderama, Dr. Seuss and the Cast of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T” takes a look at Columbia Pictures’ rather inaccurate original press book. “Exploiting the First Musical of the Future!” looks at the film’s promotional campaign, which included a series of unusual publicity stunt suggestions, including a “make your own musical instrument” competition, and putting up 5,000 finger-shaped street signs pointing at the local cinema. The article ends by saying that there is no evidence that any cinema exhibitor utilised any of the techniques, “sealing the film’s box office fate”.
“Critical Response: Re-evaluating Dr. T” looks at snippets from various reviews of the film over the years.
The film’s not entirely successful but it’s so wildly unusual that it has to be experienced. The disc is another great one from Indicator, with plentiful extras.