Recovered treasures: great films from world archives

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January 15–February 20, 2011

The 5,000 Fingers of dr. T

Saturday, February 12, 12:30 p.m. (Moving Image Theater)

Sunday, February 13, 1:00 p.m. (Bartos Screening Room)
1953, 88 mins. 35mm print restored by Sony Pictures.
Directed by Roy Rowland. Written by Dr. Seuss and Allan Scott. Photographed by Frank Planer. Edited by Al Clark. Music by Frederick Hollander, composed by Seuss and Hollander. Production design by Rudolph Sternad.

Principal cast: Peter Lind Hayes (as August Zabladowski), Mary Healy (Heloise Collins), Hans Conried (Dr. Terwilliker), Tommy Rettig (Bart Collins), John Heasley (Uncle Whitney), Robert Heasley (Uncle Judson), Noel Cravat (Sergeant Lunk), Henry Kulky (Stroogo).

A review by Jonathan Rosenbaum in The Chicago Reader:

One of the most underrated of all children’s fantasies, and conceivably the most interesting movie Stanley Kramer ever produced. Dr. Seuss wrote the screenplay (with Alan Scott); his wartime buddy Carl Foreman was originally supposed to direct, but the Hollywood witch-hunts soon made this impossible, and Roy Rowland took Foreman’s place. The plot basically consists of the florid nightmare of a ten-year-old boy (Tommy Rettig) about his authoritarian and vaguely foreign piano teacher (Hans Conried): the piano teacher forces 500 boys to play his monotonous exercise on a continuous keyboard located in his gargantuan palace, while the boy’s mother is locked, hypnotized, in a gilded cage. Dr. Seuss originally wrote the part of an elderly plumber who befriends the boy for Karl Malden, but “commerce” intervened, and Kramer insisted on using radio star Peter Lind Hayes instead, with Hayes’s partner Mary Healy as the mother. Despite these and other problems—the film proved to be a financial disaster—this remains unique and truly imaginative, fascinating both ideologically as an expression of its period (1953) and aesthetically as a very inventive form of delirium. Cinematographer Franz Planer, production designer Rudolph Sternad, and choreographer Eugene Loring all made astonishing contributions—their dungeon ballet, with an assist from Dr. Seuss, is a particular high point—and Frederick Hollander furnished the score; the use of Technicolor is especially impressive. If you’ve never seen this, prepare to have your mind blown.

From a review by Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club, November 9, 2009:
Over the last few weeks, thumbing through my DVD collection, I’ve looked at classic routines by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, the Nicholas brothers, Busby Berkeley, etc., and come away every time feeling as if trying to write about what makes them special would amount to little more than “Damn, look at ’em go!” And then, by chance, I happened to revisit one of my all-time favorite dance routines, from a musical not exactly renowned for its amazing athleticism, and it occurred to me that I might perhaps at least score some points for originality. Generally speaking, when you think of cinematic dance sequences, Dr. Seuss isn’t the first name that pops to mind.

Made in 1953—after Theodor Geisel’s pseudonymous work had begun attracting notice, but before classics like Horton Hears A Who! (1954), How The Grinch Stole Christmas! and The Cat In The Hat (both 1957) made him a household name—The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T. is the only movie Dr. Seuss ever wrote. By all accounts, he absolutely hated the finished film, feeling that his vision had been warped beyond recognition. And maybe it had, but I don’t care, frankly. Not only is Dr. T. easily one of the greatest children’s films ever made, it also ranks high among the flat-out weirdest major-studio releases of all time. This film would boggle people’s minds if it came out today; I can only imagine how it played down the street from Shane and From Here To Eternity. And while its production design and much of its dialogue is distinctly Seussian, the Doctor very likely had no part in fashioning this particular sequence.

Plot doesn’t really matter much in a dream-logic world like this one, but the basic story involves a little kid named Bart (played by Tommy Rettig of Lassie fame) who hates taking piano lessons from pretentious martinet Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried). Falling asleep at the keys, Bart has a nightmare in which Dr. T. has brainwashed Bart’s mother (Mary Healy) into running a giant, sadistic piano-institute-cum-prison. Also appearing in the dream is friendly neighborhood plumber Mr. Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), to whom the fatherless Bart has developed a filial attachment. Here, Mr. Zabladowski, who’s on hand to install the joint’s sinks, agrees to check on Bart’s mom. Then he runs into Dr. T., who for no apparent reason (perhaps he mistook him for Joe The Plumber?) engages the guy, whom he’s never laid eyes on before, in a hilarious, wonderfully intricate hypno-duel.

What makes me particularly curious about Rowland is the way he works with the actors. Rather than end the clip immediately after the dance concludes, I let it continue for a minute or so, just to give you a flavor of the performance style, which is arrestingly unique. Conried is doing a pretty straightforward (though delectable) high-comic European snob routine, but Hayes and Healy (who were married in real life, and apparently only worked as a duo, including on their early-’60s TV show, Peter Loves Mary) have perfected a casual deadpan that seems eerily right for a kid-pic, as if they embody a child’s-eye caricature of adult behavior. (Hayes somehow even takes that warmly robotic mien into the dance routine itself.) Their performances are as stylized as the decor, but they don’t telegraph that to the audience the way contemporary actors in kids’ movies often do—there’s no sly winking here, no sense of actors deliberately playing down to a prospective audience they perceive as kinda dim. Which is also true of today’s great children’s movies—but then, those are all animated.

Still, what tickles me about this sequence is primarily the gleeful, nutty rhythm Hayes and Conried establish, which I would genuinely and without embarrassment place alongside “Cheek To Cheek” and (perhaps a more apropos comparison) “Moses Supposes.” Perhaps all you really need for a great dance routine is two individuals wholly attuned to each other’s every move, however clumsy and ridiculous those movements might be. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it until such time as I’ve managed to learn something about what real dancers do.

Museum of the Moving Image is grateful for the generous support of numerous corporations, foundations, and individuals. The Museum is housed in a building owned by the City of New York and received significant support from the following public agencies: the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; New York City Economic Development Corporation; New York State Council on the Arts; Institute of Museum and Library Services; National Endowment for the Humanities; National Endowment for the Arts; Natural Heritage Trust (administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation).
Copyright © 2011, Museum of the Moving Image

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