I remember reading that Dr. Seuss had written a movie, I jumped at the chance to view it. Of course, that means that I put it to my Netflix DVD queue and wait patiently for it to reach number 1. But, we have finally come to the day that it arrived and I have to say that it’s pretty much exactly what I would have expected from the writer of visually inventive and weird children’s books, but with less rhyming.
It’s a story set in a dream world that follows dream logic. A young boy is sitting at the piano and receiving instruction from the overbearing Dr. Terwilliger with his mother offering nothing but support to the lesson. There’s also a plumber in the house for reasons. After Dr. Terwilliger leaves in a huff, the boy falls asleep and enters his dream that looks a whole lot like a Dr. Seuss book brought to life.
The visual design of the film is really the star. It really does look like the sort of thing that would populate a book by the Dr. Seuss himself. It’s a great use of huge sets, including the central giant piano, matte paintings, composites, and costumes that sells the unreality of the world. As we watch little Bartholomew escape his captors and run around the world, he’s running in and around a wonderful variety of sights from tall, looming towers to a door that has an articulated set of hands for no apparent reason. It’s somewhere between a wonderland and a nightmare, much like I would expect a Dr. Seuss book come to life would feel like.
The problems really arise with the story. It’s made up of little pieces that feel like world building expansions rather than story beats. It’s also a musical (that had most of its musical numbers cut because of bad test screenings) and carries a lot of the baggage of a musical. I like the songs a good bit, but the numbers range from productive, like when Bart gets the plumber to Dr. T and Dr. T convinces him, though song and dance, that he’s a good guy, to pointless, like the dungeon sequence of prisoners (none who play the piano) doing a long number. That dungeon number is quite fun, but Bart just squeezes past without ever engaging and we never see the prisoners again. It reminded me a lot of the “Portobello Road” number from Bedknobs and Broomsticks in that it was the best number of the film but also the most pointless.
The story itself is Bart trying to escape the clutches of Dr. T who’s maniacally opening a new center for music (only pianos) and is focusing his attention on the giant piano on which will play 500 boys (hence, the 5,000 fingers). Bart escapes and runs around, meeting the plumber who will be liquidated once he finishes installing the final sink to get the building up to the county code, and they plan on rescuing Bart’s mother who is Dr. T’s assistant and under his hypnotic spell. That quest involves a lot of running around from Dr. T’s henchmen and not a whole lot else. There are two henchmen, a pair of twins connected by their long beard, that are interesting to watch, at least.
I would be curious to see the pre-test screening version of the film. I’m not sure it would make it better, but it would certainly make it more cohesive from a purely technical point of view. There are very obvious cuts where songs were, and considering the fact that I do like the songs that are there, at least there could have been more songs to enjoy, whether useful or not. One of the side effects of the cuts, though, seems to have been the thinning out of characters, in particular Bart’s mother. Her big number is obviously one that was cut, and she ends up feeling very waifishly thin as a result.
It was an interesting little film that reached for the stars in terms of visual fancy but its cuts and possibly basic construction beforehand (hard to tell without seeing the original version) made it a more disjointed experience than it needed to be. Still, I’m not disappointed that I watched it.
7 thoughts on “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T”
I remember it being quite interesting, and Hans Conreid is always fun whatever he’s in. And the elevator song by the executioner guy was pretty cool. I remember reading years ago that some fans were trying to put out a deluxe DVD that had as much cut material as they could find; maybe it’s all gone.
If anyone ever makes a practical time machine, rescuing lost bits of film (and episodes of Doctor Who) would be a pretty good use, and wouldn’t risk much in the way of paradox.
This seems like the perfect kind of movie for Criterion to pick up, if they can find the lost materials. It’s right in line with weird stuff they’ve released like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but there’s no real point if they can’t find anything substantive in some archive somewhere.
I’m pretty confident they’d never touch it, but I think that’s the sort of thing that would need to happen (a boutique label with some money decided to pursue it) for any sort of rediscovery to happen.
No one remembers this movie.
Criterion has released stellar DVDs of “Fiend Without a Face,” “Hausu,” “The Atomic Submarine” and “First Man into Space.” I think they all contained commentary tracks but not much else. I don’t think they consider any film beneath them, with fairly obvious exceptions like Uwe Boll.
The producers at Criterion have a wide series of tastes, and ownership seems to encourage that sort of eclectic behavior. It’s one thing that makes them such an appealing label.
I’m not a fanboy. I don’t get everything they release, but they obviously put a lot of love into everything they put out and their overall design aesthetic is really pleasing. Just lining up the spines next to each other looks nice, though not every cover is, er, great. Cluny Brown’s cover was…something else.
Ha, I remember it. I think it’s been something like 50 years since I saw it (really), all that stuck with me over all these years is the impression of a visually weird, dream like movie, can’t recall much more than that. But it is memorable just for how off beat it is if nothing else.
It’s literally a dream in the movie, and it almost works on that weird logical level.
The one movie that seems to use the logic of a dream most effectively to me is Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
I used to own a lot of Criterion’s laserdisks. Many of their covers were quite awful, in a “What were they thinking?” way.
Some were nice, some were even great, but a lot of them seemed designed to turn off a potential buyer.
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