USA, 1953. 89 min. Stanley Kramer Productions. Cast: Tommy Rettig, Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy, Hans Conried, John Heasley. Music: Frederick Hollander and Nelson Riddle; Cinematography: Franz Planer; Art Direction: Cary Odell, Rudolph Sternad; Produced by: Stanley Kramer; Written by: Dr. Seuss and Allan Scott; Directed by: Roy Rowland.
I first rediscovered director Roy Rowlandâ€™s 1953 film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T years ago, tracking it down based on vague recollections from childhood. I remembered a very strange and very dreamlike movie, and, upon watching it again, I found my remembrances confirmed. In the years since it was released to relatively little acclaim, an appreciative cult following has sprung up around 5,000 Fingers, and Itâ€™s easy to see why. For lovers of unusual cinema, this is a real find. Right from the start itâ€™s clear that 5,000 Fingers is something left of center, a more twisted take on standard Technicolor musical fare like MGMâ€™s singing sailor flick Hit the Deck, which Rowland would a direct a few years later. Where did this oddity spring from?
That would be the mind of Dr. Seuss, who came up with filmâ€™s story and collaborated on the screenplay with former Astaire-Rogers screenwriter Allan Scott. Seuss exercises his playfully wild imagination (his distinctive style can be seen in the filmâ€™s sets and costumes and in quirky lyrics like the ones referencing â€œundulating undiesâ€) and also infuses the film with one of its most memorable qualities â€“ a very real sense of menace. Like The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland before it, 5,000 Fingers is presented as a childâ€™s dream, and a frightening dream at that. Following in the footsteps of Dorothy and Alice, 5,000 Fingersâ€™ hero Bart finds himself confronted by a disturbing and unfamiliar new world. Also following in the tradition of the other films, 5,000 Fingers is not simply an exercise in oddity for oddityâ€™s sake. It uses the realm of dreams as the backdrop for a coming of age story.
Unable to trust the adult authority figures around him (who at worst can be heard snarling things like, â€œDisintegrate him!â€), Bart learns self reliance. Bartâ€™s dream revolves around the evildoings of his stern piano instructor Dr. Terwilliker (played with over-the-top relish by character actor Hans Conreid). Terwilliker plans on forcing Bart and 499 other boys to play an enormous piano (hence the 5,000 fingers of the title) at his distinctly Seussian Terwilliker Institute, a facility surrounded by an electric fence and fully equipped with a dungeon. Terwilliker has also hypnotized Bartâ€™s widowed mother into complicity. Even though Bartâ€™s plumber (and surrogate father figure) Mr. Zabladowski reluctantly provides some assistance, resourceful Bart is often faced with creating his own plans to foil Terwilliker on the numerous occasions when Zabladowski is ready to give up. The lesson that Bart must learn to survive is summed up rather neatly in what may seem at first to be a bit of throwaway whimsy. When Bart attempts to navigate the Institute alone, he reaches a set of stairs and sees a sign in the shape of an arm with a hand pointing up. He follows the stairs up and finds that they lead to nowhere. At the top of the stairs he finds a second, similar sign pointing down. Descending the stairs and finding himself back where he started, Bart finds a third sign consisting of a pair of arms that arenâ€™t pointing at all. When he approaches them, they offer only a helpless shrug. He needs to find his own way. This means facing his fears and thinking for himself. Itâ€™s significant that later on in the film, a pair of Terwillikerâ€™s henchmen â€“ twins joined at the beard â€“ are destroyed when their beard is cut and they are separated. Unlike Bart, who resists Terwilliker and trusts his own instincts, the bearded twins are pawns of Terwilliker and cannot think for themselves or survive as individuals.
Yet while 5,000 Fingers works extremely well as a coming of age story for children, trust Dr. Seuss to create a story that holds an equally important message for adults. Itâ€™s not a coincidence that 5,000 Fingers was backed by independent producer and noted Hollywood liberal Stanley Kramer. Itâ€™s a gleefully subversive film encouraging a healthy distrust of authority â€“ a stance that takes on greater significance when placed in the context of America in the 1950s. The Red Scare and McCarthyism cast a long shadow over the 1950s Hollywood that 5,000 Fingers is an unlikely product of. Some of the finest creative minds of the day were being blacklisted or harassed, and the air of paranoia and fear that gripped the nation would later simmer just beneath the surface of â€˜50s sci-fi and horror films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
That atmosphere also colors the way we view the villain of the kiddie musical in question. In the dangerous climate of enforced conformity that sprang from McCarthyism, a figure like Terwilliker â€“ who fills a dungeon with those who choose other instruments than the piano to play â€“ wasnâ€™t really so very outlandish after all. The musical number that takes place in the dungeon features prisoners playing instruments both familiar and strange, and is one of the most impressive in the film, as well as a testament to the value of freedom and individuality. There is a similar moment toward the end of the film. Bart takes over the defeated Terwillikerâ€™s place as musical conductor and commands some 4,998 fingers to play â€œthe most beautiful piece ever written.â€ A rambunctious, willfully mangled version of â€œChopsticksâ€ results, with each boy pounding the keyboard his own way, hitting or missing the notes of his own choosing. It serves as a dual celebration of both youthful coming of age and rebellion, and of the ongoing resistance to conformity that is so important in adulthood. That rebellious spirit is a major part of what distinguishes The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., and what makes it as relevant in our own dangerous age as it was when it was first released.