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In 1953 Columbia released The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, a live-action children's film based on a script by Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Billed as "The Wonder Musical of the Future!", the film depicts the nightmarish dream of a young boy forced to endure hours of piano lessons. Featuring sets and characters as only Dr. Seuss could imagine them, the action plays out as young Bart tries to escape the clutches of Dr. T, whose sinister plan is to enslave 500 boys to play in unison on a giant piano (hence 5,000 fingers). Although the film garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, it was not well received at the time of its release. In fact, the dismal response almost soured Geisel against film and television forever. Over the years since its original release, however, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T has amassed a cult audience that embraces the film's bizarre premise and its outlandish visual design.
Geisel submitted the story line for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T in 1951. Encouraged by the success of his cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing (Best Animation Oscar, 1951), he was enthusiastic about a live-action film based on his original concept. The project was quickly linked up with producer Stanley Kramer whose varied credits included High Noon (1952), The Wild One (1954), Inherit the Wind (1960), and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). But the initial The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T script weighed in at a hefty 1,200 pages; it would not be the only aspect of production that was drastically reduced. Multiple delays and studio infighting led to budget slashing but the film's production expenses still topped out at $2.75 million, Kramer's costliest yet.
Geisel and his wife, Helen, had relocated from La Jolla, California, to Los Angeles during filming to enable him to be more involved in the production. As the problems began to mount, however, Geisel grew increasingly distressed about the project. Budget cuts meant there were only enough funds to hire 150 boys instead of the intended 500 . . . but this may have been a good thing. During a break in filming, one of the boys ate a hot dog past its prime and got sick on the giant piano. This caused a vomit chain reaction, with 150 boys barfing up their lunches on the ivory keys. Geisel would later comment, "When the picture was finally released, the critics reacted in much the same matter."
Tommy Rettig was cast as Bart; best known as Lassie's first owner, he played Jeff Miller in the TV series from 1954-1958. The television show and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T would prove to be the apex of his career; like many child actors, he would encounter multiple troubles ranging from drug arrests to bankruptcy in later years. Hans Conried, in the role of the villainous Dr. T, was once a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre and part of the original cast of the Broadway production of Can-Can. He is perhaps best remembered as the voice of Snidley Whiplash in the Dudley Do-right animated shorts featured on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show TV series. Mary Healy and Peter Lind Hayes are featured as Bart's mother and the kindly plumber Mr. Zabladowski; their onscreen romance contains an in-joke - they were in fact husband and wife in real life. Hidden away in the cast of dancers is George Chakiris, who won a Golden Globe and Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Bernardo in West Side Story (1961).
Hans Conried once said of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, "That was the film that might have changed my life....The Americans have never made a really successful fantasy, although of course this was a comedic one. The picture was badly cut in fear of the reappraisal after it was made, even if it was evident to those knowledgeable but inartistic heads of studio that it might have been an artistic triumph rather than a financial one. But in an attempt to make it one, they cut over 11 musical numbers and re-shot for one whole week. I had never had any such part before, never have since and probably never will again. We rehearsed for eight weeks before I was engaged to shoot for eight weeks, an extravagance that I as a bit player had never known....If it had been a success, with my prominent part in the title role, it would have changed my life."
A tremendous amount of speculation has been done regarding The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T; Freudian and Jungian analysis has been applied to the plot line and extensive theories abound, ranging from homoeroticism to an Oedipal complex. Early script notes by Geisel do suggest a heavy correlation between the film's struggles and the themes of world dominance and oppression coming out of World War II. Whatever the motivating forces, however, the result is a film that continues to delight viewers of all ages. From the clever songs and imaginative choreography to the incredible sets, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T remains a pioneering and visually delicious cinematic fantasy.
Producer: Stanley Kramer
Director: Roy Rowland
Screenplay: Theodor Geisel, Allan Scott
Production Design: Rudolph Sternad
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Costume Design: Jean Louis
Film Editing: Al Clark, Harry W. Gerstad
Original Music: Frederick Hollander, Hans J. Salter, Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Peter Lind Hayes (August Zabladowski), Tommy Rettig (Bart Collins), Hans Conried (Dr. Terwilliker), Mary Healy (Mrs. Eloise Collins), John Heasley (Uncle Whitney), Robert Heasley (Uncle Judson), Noel Cravat (Sergeant Lunk).
by Eleanor Quin