Sunday, February 18, 2018

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (Stanley Kramer Productions, Columbia, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our next Hans Conried vehicle, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, is a bit more famous, and certainly is a better movie — it was produced by Stanley Kramer’s independent company for Columbia in 1953 (Columbia signed Kramer after the explosive success of his early United Artists films Champion and Home of the Brave in 1949, but the dismal box-office records of this and other flops he made at Columbia caused them to cut him loose … just before he made the “psychological Western” High Noon at United Artists, and it was another blockbuster hit!), directed by Roy Rowland and written by a man who was born Theodor Seuss Geisel but achieved worldwide fame as children’s author “Dr. Seuss.” I was a bit surprised that his credit billed him as “Dr. Seuss,” since in 1953 I’d assumed he was still using the name “Ted Geisel,” and it’s listed as the only live-action film made of anything by Dr. Seuss during his (or Geisel’s) lifetime. It was apparently inspired by a piano teacher from hell Geisel had as a kid, who rapped him across the knuckles with a pencil when he mis-fingered a passage. In the film the kid is Bartholomew “Bart” Collins (Tommy Rettig, a favored child actor in the early 1950’s), whose mom Heloise (Mary Healy) is a widow doing her best to raise him as a single parent. The one thing she’s done to him he doesn’t like is to make him study piano under the imperious teacher Dr. Conrad Terwilliker (Hans Conried), author of the “Happy Fingers Method,” which basically teaches kids to play piano by having them learn a song of stupefying banality called “Ten Happy Fingers” which they’re forced to sing as they play. (The songs for the film — there are enough of them it qualifies as a musical — were written by Marlene Dietrich’s favorite songwriter Frederick Hollander, with lyrics by Seuss/Geisel — Marlene Dietrich and Dr. Seuss, one degree of separation!) In the opening scene we see Bart Collins dancing among objects that look like alien plants, only just before the opening credits he wakes up and we see he’s only been dreaming after having falling asleep during a boring practice session. Terwilliker turns on him and viciously screams that the next day Bart and all Terwilliker’s other pupils are going to give a grand concert, and he’s not going to let the whole affair be ruined by one stupid kid who doesn’t want to practice. The next time Bart has to play the piano he falls asleep again and has an extended dream which forms the bulk of the picture; in it, Dr. Terwilliger runs a prison camp at which boys are taken against their will and forced to give up any objects they might actually have fun with and practice for the upcoming concert at which all 500 of Dr. T.’s pupils will perform that horrible song at once on a huge piano whose keyboard seemingly extends to infinity. (One wonders if Dr. Seuss got the idea for this from the huge piano art director Herman Rosse built for the 1930 film King of Jazz, in which nine pianists are shown plunking away and supposedly playing “Rhapsody in Blue.”)

In the prison he sees his mom, hypnotized to be Dr. T.’s second-in-command and also his fiancée, though Bart — proving that they didn’t break the mold after they made Deanna Durbin — wants his next father to be August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes, top-billed), the honest if somewhat naïve plumber who in the real-life framing sequence was repairing a sink in the Collins home and sighing with unrequited love for Mrs. Collins. In the dream sequence he’s at the Terwilliker compound installing 500 sinks, one for each of the pupils scheduled to play at T.’s super-concert, only what he doesn’t know — but we and Bart both do — is that Dr. T. plans to torture and execute him after the job is done. T. is also playing the nice but dumb plumber not in U.S. currency but in “pastoolas,” which couldn’t help but remind me of “doublezoons,” the fictitious currency surrealist writer Boris Vian invented for his novel Mood Indigo, though Vian carefully avoided including any information that might give us any idea of how much a doublezoon was worth in any actually existing currency, while Seuss explains that August’s fee of 20,000 pastoolas per sink is only $20. (“Find me a better job, and I’ll take it,” he ruefully tells Bart.) The plot is full of hair’s-breath escapes as Bart tries to escape the prison camp, which is essentially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets The Wizard of Oz (there’s a lot in common between Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch and Conried’s Dr. T., and he has a goon squad much like the Winkies in the 1939 Oz movie), including leaping off the top of a tall ladder to nowhere and surviving because he turns his T-shirt into a parachute (though later when he’s stuck on an equally free-hanging ledge he doesn’t think of doing the same trick again). There’s also a marvelous ballet sequence involving all musical instruments that aren’t pianos — earlier, when Bart had complained to Dr. T. in the framing sequence that “maybe the piano isn’t my instrument,” he thundered, “What other instrument is there?” (I was hoping for a sequence something like the one in the 1939 film Non-Stop New York, in which a child-prodigy violinist runs away from his parents and his manager and turns up hanging out with jazz musicians and carrying a saxophone. That would have been a bit dated in 1953, though five years later we could have expected the kid to be an aspiring rock-’n’-roller picking up an electric guitar!) Instead there’s a vision of hell in which the other instruments and their players are doomed to dance eternally; one rather kvetchy “Goofs” commentator sniffed, “Throughout the whole of the instrumental scene, with the various performers, there are so many continuity, revealing and a/v mismatch goofs that it would be impossible to record them all” — to which I responded, “It’s supposed to be a DREAM, you moron!

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T had something in common with The Twonky besides Hans Conried being in both; its first previews went wretchedly, and Columbia forced Kramer and director Roy Rowland (whose best films are quite a bit different from this — the MGM noirs Scene of the Crime, 1949, and Rogue Cop, 1954) to reshoot much of it, cutting out all the bits of social commentary (including a reference to gas chambers in Dr. T.’s torture dungeon, obviously inspired by Dr. Seuss’s fierce opposition to the Nazis well before most Americans knew or cared what horrible things they were doing to Germany) and replacing a lot of the songs. That only made the film an even bigger money-loser, though it’s acquired something of a cult in recent years because it’s the only attempt to do a live-action film of anything by Dr. Seuss during his lifetime. At that, I wondered at times during the film if it might have worked better as an animated feature, with only the real-world framing sequences in live action; animation would probably have softened the rather edgy material and put the film more into what we think of as the world of Dr. Seuss. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. has enough of a cult reputation that punk-rock singer Jello Biafra once named it as his all-time favorite movie (maybe he responded to Bart Collins’ rebellion against what Dr. T. and Bart’s own mom considered “good music”), and it’s certainly dazzling visually, while its plot lapses and surrealistic elements can be attributed to it depicting a dream. Also it’s interesting to note that Stanley Kramer originally wanted Danny Kaye to play Dr. T. (he’d have been good but wouldn’t have been able to tap the almost otherworldly evil of Conried’s performance) and Bing Crosby as August (he’d have sung better than Peter Lind Hayes, but he was too old for the part and wouldn’t have been as good for it as a personality), and that Peter Lind Hayes, who had got his start in movies in Warner Bros. shorts in the 1930’s opposite his real-life mother, Grace Hayes, playing his mother on screen, this time appeared as the wanna-be boyfriend of Mary Healy, his real-life wife at the time.