Sunday, November 23, 2008

Forgetten Gems: "The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T."

It sounds like a horror movie, doesn't it? And to be honest, that's probably what made me watch this 1953 musical fantasy in the first place. Seeing "Seussical" last night brought it all back, and I was embarassed to admit that I'd left it off several previous lists.
The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T is a live-action dream fantasy from non-other than Dr. Seuss, himself. It tells the story of young Bart Collins, forced by his mother to take piano lessons from Dr. Terwilliger, whom Bart is convinced is an evil genius, bent on taking over the world (and stealing his mom). Bart's only hope is the handsome plumber, August Zabladowski, who may or may not be sweet on Bart's mom, Heloise. The action takes place when Bart falls asleep while playing Dr. T's own composition "10 Little Happy Fingers" (part of 'The Terwilliger Method').

Directed by Roy Rowland with production design by Rudolph Sternad and Art Direction by Cary Odell, Dr. T is the epitome of Seussian humor and design, from the curvy wobbly architecture to the zany, colorful costumes and so silly (but perfect) rhyming lyrics. It screams "Seuss," though he reportedly had his name removed from the initial prints (IMDb credits him for both story and screenplay - I'll have to pop in my old VHS copy to see the credits, there).
The title role is played by versatile character actor, Hans Conried, who that same year voiced Captain Hook in Disney's classic Peter Pan. The part is perfect for Conried, who is clearly having a marvelous time, as evidenced by this clip of the number "Do-Mi-Do Duds" (which is also a pretty good example of the lyrics and costumes I was just talking about):

I just love the way Conried's costume is put together like a puzzle. And while the song's lyrics are exceptionally silly, Conried attacks the song with gusto, practically relishing in its ridiculousness.
Top billing went to Mary Healy (who?) as Heloise and the incredibly generic Peter Lind Hayes (who?) as the plumber. Both are fine and have nice voices (and I can imagine SNL's Will Forte as Zabladowski in the unneccesary Tim Burton remake). Tommy Rettig plays Bart, part Dennis Mitchell and part Beaver Cleaver; a typical 1950's kid with a big imagination.
And while I could find no credit for choreography, I can't help but mention the movie's best dance number, 'The Dungeon of Screechy Violins,' in which dozens of half-naked prisoners play outrageous musical instruments in the movie's most homo-erotic scene. The music is practically Gershwinesque (Gershwinian?), but the dancing is so very gay. Watch closely and you may catch a glimpse of young George Chakiris (West Side Story):

Wow! And I'll bet you thought xylophone players were gay before you even saw that!
The movie features a chase by twins (conjoined by the their beards - I kid you not) on roller skates; hypnotism; pickle juice; uniformed thugs; a piano big enough to seat 500 imprisoned boys and a possibly nuclear weapon created with an air-freshener, the contents of Bart's pockets and and a hearing aid.
Delightful family fun, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T is bizarre and hilarious, and deserves to be seen. If you've never seen it, I urge you to seek it out. I promise you'll have fun.
More of this, anon.


Anonymous said...

I was probably 13 when I happened upon this gem one hot, boring afternoon at my grandparent's house. I never forgot the elevator operator's song: "Fourth floor dungeon - jewelry department - leg chains, ankle chains, neck chains, wrist chains, thumb screws, and nooses of the very finest rope". OK, I forgot a little, thank you google.

Prospero said...

If only you had read the previous post, DJ, you would have seen the 'Dungeon Song" in it's entirety, and you wouldn't have had to Google it at all... But I'm glad to know others love this movie as much as I do.