My fascination with The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T started a year ago. Like all memorable achievements made in movies, it was Svengoolie who introduced me to it. It had to be when something starring Lon Chaney, Jr. was on: either Man Made Monster or one of his Mummy sequels.
(Just a quick Hollywood Babylon detour: according to legend, Lon Chaney, Jr. rigged a tube under the Mummy bandages so he could drink while filming. Chaney was a notable alcoholic; the makeup artist icon Rick Baker spent his childhood buying him drinks, and in turn, Chaney would tell him about his time in monster films. Chaney’s great invention allegedly led to him being too intoxicated to carry his Mummy’s Ghost co-star Ramsay Ames up a staircase, and he dropped her. Don’t drink heavily while weighed down by Jack Pierce’s makeup, kids!)
It was during the commercial break for whatever great Chaney film currently airing that Svengoolie teased the following week’s film. Suddenly I was hit with a wave of blue and yellow, tinted in that way you only find in faded Technicolor reels. Soon after that, Hans Conried as Dr. Terwilliker marched towards the screen in a getup I can only describe as possibly being the inspiration for The Beatles in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
These vibrant visuals playing before me in the dead of winter were incredibly stimulating, and it’s the most antsy I’ve ever been while waiting for next week’s episode of Svengoolie, which is saying something.
Keeping the conversation on my schlocky hero momentarily, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is such a unique and divisive experience that even Svengoolie is repulsed by it. Multiple segments in the weeks following that first screening, Svengoolie referenced the film in a “remember when we had the audacity to show that?” tone. Even his loyal viewers who willingly spend a Saturday night watching stuff like Village of the Giants scream like Shavar Ross in Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning at the mere sight of a “Happy Fingers” hat.
When Columbia Pictures decided to make the first live action feature film fueled by the imagination of Dr. Seuss, I doubt anybody involved realized it’d be found repulsive by so many at the time, and cherished by a very questionable group of folks decades later.
Before we dive into the movie, here are a few “facts,” aka what can be read on Wikipedia about The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
- Following a successful adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ work being put into a short film titled Gerald McBoing Boing, the children’s author was so energized by the possibilities of his work being presented on the big screen that after pitching the concept for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, he sat down and wrote a 1,200 page script. On top of that, he moved from La Tolla, California to Los Angeles so he could be as hands-on during filming as he possibly could.
- The film found the first of many enemies in an early test audience. The reception was so terrible that nine out of the twenty original musical numbers were removed, and a new opening scene was shot. Since this back when entertainment was considered very disposable by those making it, everything cut out following the disastrous test screening is lost to time.
- Even with all the alterations made, the Hollywood premiere for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was as soul crushing, if not more. It’s reported some viewers walked out after fifteen minutes. Dr. Seuss referred to the film as a “debaculous fiasco,” and left out any mention of it in his official biography. Seuss also said regarding this moment in time, “Hollywood is not suited for me and I am not suited for it.”
- This would be the first and final time Seuss’ work was used for a full length feature film until the early 2000s when his widow, Audrey Geisel, opened the Seuss estate to Hollywood. Following two films with the most unintentionally frightening makeup the world has ever seen, Geisel experienced the same disappointment her husband felt in 1953 and just like him, refused to allow another live action project to be made.
That wraps the history lesson, now onto the movie.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is The Wizard of Oz meets Whiplash, as we follow Bart Collins, a young boy forced into taking the strict piano lessons of Dr. Terwilliker. For any fans of The Simpsons reading this, you might notice some similarities with a boy named Bart and a villain whose last name is Terwilliker, eerily similar to Sideshow Bob’s last name, Terwilliger. While there are other things rumored to have influenced Sideshow Bob’s last name, you’ll notice this film’s rivalry between Bart and Terwilliker is reminiscent of Bart attempting to survive the schemes of Sideshow Bob.
Exhausted by the grueling lessons, Bart falls asleep and descends into a magical world where Terwilliker is a dictator scheming to bring 500 children to his castle on a long and winding keyboard path to do his bidding. Within this magical world, Bart’s mother is Terwilliker’s right-hand partner, hopelessly lost under hypnosis. Between that and an army of the dirtiest blue and yellow-attired goons, it’s up to Bart and the man he hopes will become his father, August Zabladowski, to put an end to Dr. Terwilliker’s villainy.
As soon as you experience this film’s opening scene with green men with spotlights on their head dancing around with multi-colored butterfly nets, you’re either immediately on board or repulsed. That number is the introduction to what possibly rubbed a lot of people the wrong way: interpretive dancing. It’s introduced in the film’s first scene, and later on there’s an interpretive dance sequence between Dr. Terwilliker and August. As Terwilliker attempts to hypnotize the plumber, August fights him off while wiggling his fingers in Terwilliker’s face. Later on there’s an interpretive rollerskating number, and if there’s anything Gene Kelly learned almost thirty years after this film was released, the last thing people want is a musical on rollerskates.
(Speaking of interpretive dancing and how even an accomplished legend like Gene Kelly experienced disappointment, Kelly would find out personally how much audiences don’t care for interpretive dancing in 1956 in the anthology film without a single line of dialogue, Invitation to the Dance.)
Following the opening scene, Lassie‘s Tommy Rettig as Bart breaks the fourth wall to explain to the audience what this movie’s all about. There’s a mean old piano teacher who’s adamant he master all his lessons, his mom’s fully on board as if she’s brainwashed, and the only person who realizes Terwilliker is up to no good, the local plumber, is Bart’s last hope. From the interpretive dance introduction and a haymaker of exposition so early on, you can understand why a majority of the Hollywood premiere crowd got up and left.
But if you stick around, you just might get an experience that’s easier to appreciate in 2019 than it was in 1953.
The excitement begins when we’re transported to the wonderfully insane Terwilliker Institute, a giant castle set with lime green interior walls, purple staircases and red-gloved hands sticking out of the walls. The Terwilliker Institute is loaded with multiple eye-catching props like a screen communicator that pre-dates Star Trek, a 30-40 story ladder, food and drink trays ejecting out of the floor, and a pickle juice machine, which in this world is similar in power to Popeye’s spinach.
The set design probably didn’t stand out as much then, but now with CGI becoming the norm, the simplest things that are handmade are admirable in a way they never were previously. Not only is CGI now the majority of what’s seen in fantasy films, but it’s now a rule that Dr. Seuss’ imagination cannot exist in live action filmmaking. Since The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was a rare and ambitious experiment never to be duplicated, the way the film’s characters explore such a colorful and creative set is a viewing experience unlike many others.
Similar to the set design, the costume choices are boldly flamboyant. Early on when visiting this film’s dream world, Mary Healy is wearing a bedazzled blue dress that has one long sleeve, while sleeveless on the other side. Dr. Terwilliker’s uniform reminiscent of The Beatles circa Sgt. Pepper’s era has already been pointed out, but his purple and black lounge attire is just as outrageous. Along with children walking around with beanies with a plastic hand glued on them, there’s two rollerskating villains who have their beards connected together. All of this combines to be some of the most eye-catching costume decisions outside of a period piece.
The soundtrack for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is very hit and miss. Sometimes you’ll hear a touching and sweet song like “Dream Stuff,” other times you’ll be subjected to a number as questionable as “Get Together Weather,” which comes across like a group of sleep-deprived, overly-caffeinated lunatics creating a knockoff replica of “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain.
There comes a moment in the film where we explore Dr. Terwilliker’s dungeon filled with people playing things besides the piano; it’s an astounding and imaginative display of green people playing a xylophone with colorful mitts, swinging towards an instrument, shooting targets, and even making music with purple boxing gloves. For something as stimulating and creative as this we also get something like “Because We’re Kids,” a song that features the lines, “Just ’cause you have whiskers on your face to shave, you trust us like a slave. So what? It’s only hair.”
Normal musicals tend to rub people the wrong way, and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T seems to have been twice as grating on the average moviegoer. When Columbia re-released the film in 1958 under the title Crazy Music, the elevator scene featuring a hooded man describing all of the methods of torture used in Dr. Terwilliker’s institute in a slightly melodic tone was cut out entirely.
It’s with the macabre elevator scene that we can segue into talking about how this film is so dark in a Return To Oz sort of way where you find yourself questioning if this children’s film really is meant to be seen by children.
Soon after the elevator scene, Dr. Terwilliker demonstrates one of his methods of torture when we see a man trapped in a giant bass drum screaming for help as someone pounds on it. It’s mentioned how Dr. Terwilliker intends to kill the plumber once he’s through installing all of the institute’s sinks, and we even see a certificate marked “EXECUTION ORDER.”
Along with a child witnessing his mother being brainwashed like a victim of Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, there’s a bizarre blood oath scene where Bart makes August promise a number of things as the two press their pricked thumbs together. After August promises to do everything Bart requests, Bart begins referring to him as “Pop”, a new father figure to replace the one who died before the events of this film.
If a “welcome to the family” blood oath isn’t unsettling enough, there’s a lot of talk towards the end regarding a gadget Bart uses that has the capability of becoming atomic. He threatens Dr. Terwilliker with it, and casually mentions it’ll blow everything up. Keep in mind this movie was made and released less than ten years after Hiroshima.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is one of the most colorful swirls of absurdity that film has ever seen. Few things are as much of a stimulating shock to your sight like this one. If you feel like you’ve seen it all and want something unusual and eccentric, something that feels like a group of aliens got together to do their version of an MGM musical, you won’t be sorry after putting on The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.