I am always surprised by some of the hidden film gems I have come across. I recently picked up a rather impressive Stanley Kramer box set mostly for its inclusion of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and The Wild Ones, only to discover that one of the films included was a little know musical entitled The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. I assumed it to be a run of the mill children's musical until I read the synopsis and realized that this film's script was the only one written by the great children's author Dr. Seuss. Intrigue got the best of me and I decided to give this movie a whirl in my dvd player. The awe came almost instantly, between the sweeping dance numbers, wacky Seuss inspired lexicon and the generally humorous plot everything about The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is enjoyable and well worth the time I spent watching the film. It is a film that manages to study single parenthood with great fervor, while not losing its self in a sort of preachy self-awareness. While many of the musical numbers are dubbed over and more than a few of the acting moments are dull, it is hard to hate on this film. I would be much more inclined to include it in the realm of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Mary Poppins as a fantastical technicolor musical that is both family friendly and incredibly watchable. It is truly a shame not more is made of how excellent this film is in relation to its contemporaries.
Like anything involving Dr. Seuss one should expect crazy rhyming schemes and elaborate plot twists, but they should also expect simple, yet fully realized characters that interact seamlessly with their unconventional environment. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T certainly adheres to this notion by placing much of the film within a dream sequence. The films opening shows a young boy, donning a baseball cap with a large yellow hand running wildly from what appear to be some sort of net wielding child catchers only to wake up from his nightmare to see a large piano. This child Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) has dozed off at yet another one of his piano lessons with the insolent Dr. Terwiliker (Hans Conreid) who is more concerned with keeping his prestigious image as a renowned piano tutor than befriending the young Bart. Despite pleading with both his mother Helois (Mary Healy) and the local plumber August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), affectionately known as Mr. Z, Bart is told that he must continue his training for a few more hours. With a great deal of disdain Bart accepts his mothers demands and continues to play his piano, only to fall into another dream. This time the dream is much more elaborate and relevant to Bart's previous conversations. Bart is informed that he is trapped at the Terwiliker Institute for Boy's Piano, in which he will be held indefinitely pending an upcoming performance with 499 other boys, thus creating the 5,000 fingers mentioned in the movies title. Finding no amusement in this realization, Bart sets out to find his mother, but is upset upon discovering that Dr. T has seduced her and caused her to act only in the interests of the institute. Her duty to Dr. T is so severe that she has trouble even recognizing her own son. Failing to win his own mother over, Bart pleas with Mr. Z, who, within Bart's dream, has been employed by Dr. T to build sinks for his institute at the rate of two thousand pastoolas a day. Bart, with much effort, helps Mr. Z realize that Dr. T is simply taken advantage of his poverty and recruits him to help destroy the institute and Dr. T in the process. After a series of dance and song numbers, including the nightmarishly dark "Elevator Song" Bart and Mr. Z are able to escape the evil clutches of Dr. T and, along with the other boys, make a complete mockery of Dr. T's conservatory thus ending his career. Elated Bart awakes to his mom as well as Mr. Z talking. Mentioning his dream, which included Mr. Z referring to Bart as his son, both Heloise and Mr. Z share a glance, which implies that they had not considered each other as romantic interests, but were only realizing the possibilities at the recent suggestion of Bart's dream. Such an on the nose ending makes the film as much a work of Dr. Seuss as it is of Dr. Freud.
Another element of the work of Dr. Seuss is his incredibly astute social observations. His books often carried heavy messages of the problems of conformity, prejudice and environmental abuse. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is certainly no different. This film is absolutely about approaching the issues faced by a non-traditional family during the height of the nuclear family in the United States. It is apparent that Bart's quest to destroy Dr. T is equal parts loathing for the piano as it is finding a place in an unreceptive world. In a rather somber moment, Bart sings a song about the woes of being a child, because adults automatically assume him to be irrational and irrelevant. This has real world relevance to Bart, given that nobody listens to his desires to pursue other hobbies such as fishing over being a pianist. Dr. T ignores him in favor of his image, his mother ignores him because she is simply to exhausted from maintaining her domestic image and Mr. Z chooses not to side with Bart because as a plumber he has little if any social power and mobility. What the film provides, via the Seuss script, is a study of the illogical performativity of Cold War America as seen through a child, right down to gender and class issues that place an aging and virulent piano teacher above an honest and respectable plumber. The film also approaches the problem of widowhood in 1950's America. It is subtle, but obvious that both Bart and his mom are pariahs given that no specific details about Bart's father are provided. The only person who seems to accept the family is Mr. Z and it is not until Bart makes it apparent that he approves of Mr. Z's affections for his mom that it is alright and even then it is assumed only permissible within the confines of the Collins household. The observations are copious, yet well placed and it is perhaps a prime example of Cold War cinema, if not, it is certainly the most overlooked.
I highly recommend checking this film out; it was slammed upon initial release, but has accrued a large cult following over the years. If you decide to buy a copy I would suggest going with the Stanley Kramer Collection, because it comes with a bunch of other excellent titles, with this one being its shining star.