I read a couple of bedtime stories to my kids every night and there's nothing worse than a dull or insipid children's book (particularly when you're begged to read the same ones repeatedly), so I do my best to try and find books we can all enjoy. My go to author is Dr. Seuss (or, to use his real name, Theodor Seuss Geisel). His rhyming prose, complete with wacky made up words is a joy to read out loud and his illustrations are wonderfully unusual and imaginative. His work has had a troubled history on the big screen though. There are some classic animated adaptations (largely shorts), but very few live action ones. In fact only one was made before his death in 1991, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., released back in 1953 when he wasn't yet a household name. There might only be one because the special effects weren't advanced enough before the turn of the millennium to capture Seuss' wild imagination, but it might be largely down to the fact that Dr. T. was a huge commercial failure. It didn't get much critical love at the time either and Seuss called the film a "debaculous fiasco", omitting any mention of it in his official biography. So you get the feeling he didn't let anyone make any live action features after it was released.
Over the years though, Dr. T. has been embraced as a bit of a cult classic and has since been seen in higher regard. As such, our friends at Powerhouse Films have seen fit to re-release the film on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD through their Indicator label. Being a big Dr. Seuss fan, I couldn't resist requesting a copy to see whether or not it deserved this second life after being so cruelly rejected on its initial release.
The film begins with young Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig – famous later for starring in the TV series of Lassie, then infamous for his drug fuelled downfall) daydreaming about being chased by some strange creatures when he should be practising his piano. His teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), scolds him and tells him he needs to practise harder to be good enough for a concert taking place in 1 month's time. Dr. T. is a harsh taskmaster who Bart hates, but his mother (Mary Healy) believes his methods are effective, so she backs them. The only person siding with Bart is a friendly handyman, August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), who the boy sees as a father figure (his real dad is dead). As he starts practising his piano again, he quickly falls asleep and most of the rest of the film plays out in his imagination. Here, his frustration with Dr. T, his mother's support of the teacher's ways, and his desire to pair Zabladowski with his mother all come to warped life in a bizarre fantasy world where Dr. T. is a hypnotist villain who plans to have an army of 500 children play his enormous piano 24 hours a day for the rest of their lives!
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. is a strange little film and not just due to Seuss' input. I can see why it wasn't popular when it was first released as the balance between childlike fantasy and more complex, adult themes of parenthood and discipline, matched with a strangely minimal expressionistic style is quite unusual. I found myself curiously drawn to it though, even if it doesn't always gel perfectly.
Going back to the style I mentioned earlier, what I found strange was how minimal and small scale it was in some aspects. The first two-thirds of the film largely only feature the four primary cast members, but by setting much of the action on huge sound stages, they're often surrounded by empty space, making scenes feel uneasy rather than intimate. The scale grows in the final third though, with a big musical number bringing a huge cast out of nowhere and the finale delivering the aforementioned 500 children in dozens of yellow school buses.
The film looks great though. There's plenty of boldly colourful and surreal imagery to match Dr. Seuss' illustration style. You may not get the strange creatures from his books due to the limited special effects of the time, but the sets quite successfully match Seuss' signature style. I loved the enormous bendy ladder to nowhere in particular. The minimalism of the set design made sense when thinking back to Seuss' work too. His books were filled with weird and wonderful characters, but his backgrounds, although unusual, weren't all that detailed or 'busy'.
Looking elsewhere at how the film embodied Seuss' work, I was disappointed that the dialogue didn't match his famous rhyming prose style. The author wrote the song lyrics in the film's musical numbers to match this though and one of these in particular, the Dressing Song (a.k.a. Do-Mi-Do Duds), perfectly captures the feel of his more famous work.
The musical numbers in general are pretty good. I wouldn't say I went away humming any of them after my first watch, but there's a nice range of well constructed tunes, written by the renowned composer Frederick Hollander. In fact, despite the film's box office failure, it won on Oscar for "Best Scoring of a Musical Picture". In terms of choreography, I found the dance sequences a bit of a mixed bag though. Some of the small scale scenes are fairly unremarkable, but the Dressing Song is a lot of fun and most impressive of all is the epic Dungeon Ballet where the unwanted instruments (anything other than a piano) play an elaborate suite. It's a showstopping scene with wonderfully imaginative choreography. As the commentary pointed out, the scene is entirely unnecessary to the plot, so it could have been cut out without affecting the story (as was the fate of much of the originally shot material), but it's so enjoyable it's the best scene in the film.
So it's kind of a mixed bag overall, but certainly a unique experience. I found it a fun and strangely charming little romp with some striking production design and a decent soundtrack. It feels slightly lacking at times and the wonderful prose of Dr. Seuss is sadly absent other than moments in the song lyrics, but otherwise it captures the look and spirit of the author quite successfully. It's as camp as they come and might frighten or just baffle many kids these days, but I do think it deserves more recognition than it got back in the 50s.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. is being re-released on 24th July by Powerhouse Films on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD as part of their Indicator label in the UK. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality are both very good. I noticed a little digital noise here and there when blown up on a projector screen, but otherwise it's a sharp and boldly colourful picture.
Powerhouse have also included plenty of special features with the set. These include:
- Audio commentary with film historians Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton
- Crazy Music (2017, 17 mins): a new interview with musician, singer and archivist Michael Feinstein on his obsession with The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
- Father Figure (2017, 19 mins): a new interview with Steve Rowland, son of director Roy Rowland
- Karen Kramer introduction (2007, 2 mins)
- Dr. T. on Screen (2007, 15 mins): Cathy Lind Hayes, George Chakiris and others talk about the film
- A Little Nightmare Music (2007, 12 mins): an examination of the film's ground-breaking music score
- Original theatrical trailer
- Joe Dante trailer commentary (2013, 3 mins): a short critical appreciation
- Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
- Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Peter Conheim, and extracts from the original press kit, advertising and promotion guide
It's a real wealth of material for a previously neglected film, so kudos to Indicator for bringing it all together. There's pretty much everything you'd ever want to know about the film included and some pieces are refreshingly honest about the film's shortcomings.
The booklet is as strong as ever too and shouldn't be ignored in favour of the video extras.