Saturday 15 April 2017

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)

Director: Roy Rowland
Writers: Dr. Seuss and Allan Scott, from a story by Dr. Seuss
Stars: Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy

Index: 2017 Centennials.

I’d seen The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T before, but it’s by far the most interesting movie starring Hans Conried, so I knew I had to choose it for his centennial. What I hadn’t realised until a fresh viewing is that this bears some similarity to another cult feature released in 1953, namely Robot Monster. That film unfolds as the fever dream of a young boy, who imagines the entire world destroyed by an alien who appears as a gorilla in a diving helmet, who rules the planet from his cave which is otherwise occupied only by a bubble machine. The remaining survivors are Johnny’s family and a couple of archeologists, so he pairs them off with his mum and sister. When I reviewed Robot Monster, I highlighted how weird it was that a young boy would be dreaming about such perverted ideas as replacing his father, killing one sister and having the other kidnapped by an alien ape with a bondage fetish. This film helps me to realise that it’s just a imaginative boy dealing with his hopes and fears in a dream sequence.

Because that’s exactly what The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is, or at least without the perverted angle. Little Johnny is now Little Bart or, to use his full name, Bartholomew Collins, who we can only assume does not grow up to appear on Dark Shadows. He recently lost his father, to death rather than divorce because this is 1953, and he’s practicing as hard as he can on the piano to take part in a recital in a month’s time. Well, not really. He doesn’t like playing the piano at all and he’s only practicing for two reasons: one is that his mother, Heloise, whom he likes a lot, wants him to; and the other is because his piano teacher doesn’t acknowledge the existence of other instruments. He hates the autocratic Dr. Terwilliker with a passion and imagines him to be a racketeer. As Bart can’t be a blink over ten years old, this is all a lot of pressure for him, so when he falls asleep at the keys, his feature length dream sequence directly addresses his hopes and fears: how he can find a new dad and how he can cope with the recital.

While this is clearly much better than Robot Monster, which is often described as one of the worst films ever made, it’s not without its share of problems. Had a certain person not been heavily involved, it’s relatively safe to suggest that few would still remember it today. The presence of that certain person, however, changes things absolutely, and it’s difficult to imagine this picture without him. He’s Theodor Geisel, better known to one and all as Dr. Seuss, and he came up with the concept for the film, wrote the story and, with Allan Scott, turned that into a script. What’s more, he clearly designed many of the costumes and sets and he wrote the songs too. In fact, there were many more songs than made it into the final picture; 24 were filmed and 11 were cut. The songs are readily available today on a 3 CD set, but the excised footage is believed lost. It’s fair to say that without Seuss, this picture either wouldn’t exist at all or it wouldn’t exist in a form that anyone would care about today.

There are some other names of note. The director was Roy Rowland, who had made a number of short films in the thirties before progressing up to features in 1943. His films prior to this are varied, with the most notable probably the Edward G. Robinson film, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. Whatever takes Rowland didn’t shoot, Stanley Kramer did, though his only credit was as a producer; his directorial career didn’t official begin until 1955 but his string of important films started almost immediately after that. While the real leads are Tommy Rettig as Bart Collins and Hans Conried as his ‘only enemy’, Dr. Terwilliker, the acknowledged leads are Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, a married couple who rarely appeared apart, whether that be on stage, film, radio or television, where they had their own shows and frequently guested on others; they were two guest hosts of The Tonight Show in the run-up to Johnny Carson taking over in 1962. Rettig would become famous for his three years as the human co-star on Lassie.
Hans Conried, as recognisable a face as his was and as talented a lead as this film demonstrates, took a long time to find his place in Hollywood. Initially a radio actor, his first film roles were in the late thirties, in films as important as It’s a Wonderful World and The Great Dictator, but he was rarely credited and his characters rarely had names; for some reason, he played a lot of desk clerks. They kept him busy, at least, until 1953 when a set of seven memorable parts suddenly came his way all at once. A fantastic voice actor, he gave voice to both George Darling and Captain Hook in the Disney adaptation of Peter Pan; he played a major supporting role in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis as Prof. Amos Pomfritt; and the lead in Siren of Bagdad as a travelling magician, among a few others. Yet it was this film, looking back, that he described as ‘the film that might have changed my life’. Playing the title role in something so utterly memorable after a decade of bit parts and nothing roles, we can understand why.

But, as solid as Rettig and Conried are as Bart Collins and his nemesis, Dr. Terwilliker, it’s Dr. Seuss who dominates this film with a real sense of style, whether visual, in dialogue or just through the surreality of the story. Everything we see reminds us of classic Dr. Seuss children’s books, but it’s worth pointing out that this predates most of them and all the most famous ones; Horton Hears a Who! saw print in 1954, The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in 1957 and Green Eggs and Ham in 1960. In fact, while he had published ten children’s books prior to 1953, he was primarily known as an illustrator at this point, drawing political cartoons, advertising campaigns and comic strips. During the war, he wrote the Private Snafu cartoons and a pair of propaganda pieces, Your Job in Germany and Our Job in Japan, which grew into 1948’s Design for Death, an exploration of Japanese culture, narrated by Conried, which won an Academy Award. So did Gerald McBoing-Boing in 1950, which had been based on his original story.
After the success of that short, Geisel threw himself into this project, submitting to Columbia in 1951 an insanely long 1,200 page script with a host of dark themes that were clearly the product of his experiences during World War II. He relocated from La Jolla to Los Angeles to be closer to the production, so that he could be more directly involved with it. That worked well, given what we see on the screen, but there was a lot going on behind the scenes: there were many delays, the budget was slashed and the script was eviscerated. In his dream, Bart plays a crazy piano that stretches off as far as the eye can see, curving away into the distance within a large room; Dr. Terwilliker’s goal is to have five hundred boys playing it all at once, their ten fingers each comprising the five thousand of the title. Budget restraints meant that only 150 were hired for that scene, but one bad hot dog meant one kid got sick and a vomit chain reaction ensued onto the keys. Geisel later joked that critics later responded ‘in much the same manner.’

This piano keyboard which, like most of Seuss’s illustrations, entirely avoids straight lines isn’t even the first quintessential Seuss visual. The film began with Bart navigating a landscape of spheres; he’s wearing a Happy Fingers beany, with its hand sticking out of the top and the men who chase him have multi-coloured nets. Surfaces at the Terwilliker Institute, however, large, are painted a single colour, while guards alternate blue and yellow. There are signs by doors that read IN or OUT and by ladders that read UP or DOWN, each accompanied by exactly the pointing hand that we expect. One such ladder rises impossibly high but goes exactly nowhere but up. Staircases rise or fall through holes in the floor, some ending in slides, and there are vents and pipes all over the place. While all of these are instantly recognisable as designs of Dr. Seuss, there are influences apparent, such as Salvador Dali and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the fact that those rhyme adding an extra level of synchronicity.
Through these sets, we follow Bart Collins as he tries to one-up his nemesis, Dr. Terwilliker. He’s figured out that his teacher is an egomaniac megalomaniac, whose institute is surrounded by an electrified fence and whose stairway walls carry video screens for propaganda broadcasts like ‘Practice Makes Perfect’. He soon discovers that this villain has kidnapped his mother, hypnotised her and made her his Official Number Two. He’s even ‘graciously condescended’ to be her new husband, so Bart refuses to hide out in his ‘nice comfy cell’. He can outwit the inept guards easily enough, but he needs help to rescue his mother and the only man who can help him is the plumber, August Zabladowski, if only he can convince him what’s going on around him. With Terwilliker able to hypnotise people and willing to play the gracious host, while shovelling bundles of cash into his safe, that’s a hard task but Bart is a determined soul and, if we’ve learned anything from Dr. Seuss books, it’s that we should never underestimate a child.

Not only does Tommy Rettig do a great job as Bart Collins, he must have earned the trust of his colleagues. At one point, he needs to climb the headboard of Dr. Terwilliker’s bed in order to steal the key to his safe. The catch is that Dr. Terwilliker is asleep at the time and Hans Conried gamely lets him slip and slam his foot into the pillow right next to his head. It’s worth mentioning that the key is secreted behind a ticking metronome and the theft of it is only made possible by Bart’s sense of rhythm keeping the sounds going while stopping that metronome. Suddenly, we see him coming to terms with his piano practice. Another direct tie to that is the scene that unfolds in a dungeon, where players of other instruments are confined. Echoing Dr. Terwilliker’s earlier words, it’s ‘for scratchy violins, screechy piccolos, nauseating trumpets etc. etc.’ The six minute musical number which follows, with its host of imaginative instruments and fantastic choreography, is perhaps the best scene in the movie, surreal but utterly enticing.
And yes, this is a musical. This particular scene unfolds without lyrics but the other songs are as playful with Seuss’s comedic lyrics as this is without them. Some are relatively straightforward, like Terwilliker Academy, with verses like ‘Terwilliker, we sing to thee; our cruel black hearts we bring to thee for crime and slimy villainy. Terwilliker Academy!’ Others, however, are so flamboyant for 1953 that the visuals couldn’t remotely live up to the wild words. There’s the Doe-Me-Doe Duds, which accompanies Dr. Terwilliker’s dressing for the big recital. It’s like a drag queen wish list, so just imagine Hans Conried dressed like this: ‘I want my pink brocaded bodice with the floofy fuzzy ruffs and my gorgeous bright blue bloomers with the monkey feather cuffs.’ I have to say, though, his hat is utterly fabulous, darling. No wonder this had problems at the time; this was two decades before blaxploitation allowed pimp stylin’ on the big screen. And what pimp would wear a ‘polka-dotted dickie with the crinoline fringe’?

And we wonder why Hans Conried was the star of this show! Mary Healy is entirely capable as Heloise Collins but she’s playing an everyday suburban mother in the fifties, which means that every minute away from cooking dinner or vacuuming the carpet is a wasted minute; she’s simply not allowed to do much. Her real life husband and potential new screen husband, Peter Lind Hayes, is downbeat but decent as August Zabladowski. He gets some good potential stepfather scenes, especially the one with the imaginary fishing trip. He also skates pretty well, a skill needed for a battle scene with a pair of twins with long joining beards, given that the Heasley brothers were taught ice skating by Sonja Henie. These are the most obvious hint that Bart’s dream ties to his reality, for there are photos of his uncles on the top of the piano with long beards. Compared to Healy and Hayes, Conried is able to strut in a series of amazing outfits, pose outrageously and pronounce disintegrations at dawn. Who were those leads again?
It’s a shame that this wasn’t a commercial success, because I’d have dearly loved for the face of musicals to change. I liked the sort of musicals that thirties Hollywood put out, with the surreality of Busby Berkeley and the class of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I never found much joy in the interpretative style of Gene Kelly, though, the genius of Singin’ in the Rain excepted, and most fifties or sixties musicals bored me to tears. This film, for all its flaws in pace and consistency, made me wonder what it would be like if they had choreography and set decoration, not to mention lyrics, by Dr. Seuss. I’m already imagining what he could do to The King and I and An American in Paris might actually be tolerable with him spicing it all up. But the failure of this film meant that what Seuss had in store for the future of cinema was restricted to others adapting his books, with varying degrees of success. It also meant that an actor of the calibre of Hans Conried never got to play something this wild and wonderful again, at least not in live action film.

Of course, his career didn’t stop, he just moved on to where the money was, which was for him increasingly in voice work. With a role as successful as Captain Hook behind him, he was in demand and many know him best today as Snidely Whiplash in the Dudley Do-Right of the Mountains segments of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. He also contributed voice work to The Phantom Tollbooth, Woody Woodpecker and Hoppity Hooper. His film roles continued in titles as varied as the sci-fi drive-in picture, The Monster That Challenged the World; the Jerry Lewis comedy, Rock-a-Bye Baby; and the live action Disney movie, The Cat from Outer Space. He also guested on a slew of TV shows, including 21 appearances as Uncle Tonoose in Make Room for Daddy. He remained active until the day before his death in 1982, meaning that a few appearances were therefore posthumous. He had a fantastic career, but I wonder how it would have been different had The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T succeeded in 1953.

1 comment:

EmpressDR said...

Thanks for this fine tribute review. It was excellent, thanks for the info, glad you appreciated this wonderful film.