Watch now on:
It was a Sunday afternoon in 1973. I was a kid, shining my dad’s Florsheims, a task I did for 15 cents a pair—not bad for those days—and I had our tiny black and white Sony TV set to keep me company. On most Sundays, the usual programming was some older, innocuous comedy: Abbott & Costello Meet Somebody, Danny Kaye prancing around, or a Hope and Crosby road picture.
On this Sunday, however, it was none of that. The film was a children’s feature written by Dr. Seuss himself called The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. And it fucked my sweet, young, innocent shoe-shining shit up.
But why? On the surface, the 1953 movie sounds like bland, period fodder at best. We have Bart, a little boy who lives with his widowed, June Cleaver-esque mom and his cute pet dog. He likes the local plumber, a nice man named Mr. Zabladowsky. Bart hates his priggish piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, and can’t stand practicing. He’d rather be playing baseball! Bart dozes off while sitting at the keys and enters a dream world of bright colors, choreography and songs. This is, after all, a musical.
Sound dull? Of course it does. Until you add in a wide variety of mental and physical torture, sexual brainwashing, child slavery, homoerotic S&M dungeon imagery, and a coup de grace atomic explosion.
Step right up, kids.
What we really have here is a surreal fever dream (and no, that’s not redundant) from the bizarre imagination of Theodore Seuss Geisel, whose fingerprints are all over this vividly Technicolor thing. He penned the story, script and lyrics, and the visuals are straight out of Seuss-dom. Towering buildings that curve and bend into a fake pastel sky, awkwardly twisting staircases, off-kilter windows, elongated doors. Claustrophobic spaces and areas too open. Uncomfortably forced perspectives that drip of Dali.
Of course, I couldn’t have cyphered any of this back in ’73. I didn’t need to. I knew there was a guy locked inside a massive drum beaten by a torturer, screaming in horror. I knew there were roller skating twin killers with a long, conjoined beard used for strangulation purposes.
I knew there was a sweaty, shirtless elevator operator in a black executioner’s mask with bulging eyes too far apart who sang out the various atrocities on each dungeon floor as the shifting, industrial contraption descended: “First floor dungeon/Assorted simple tortures/Molten lead, chopping blocks and hot, boiling oil.” (The third floor verse was actually cut, deemed to much for a 1953 audience, a mere eight years after the horrors of the Nazis: “Spiked beds, electric chairs, gas chambers, roasting pots and scalping devices.”)
It’s in this skewed world that most of the 89-minute film exists. Bart is now a piano-pounding slave (forever!) to the twisted master Dr. T. (played with smug, imperious creepiness by Hans Conried), one of 500 boys in the Terwilliker Institute who are forced to play a double-decked, endlessly winding keyboard for the perverse pleasure of their captor, who houses the sweet lads in dank cells.
Dr. T. keeps Bart’s mother (lovely Mary Healy) in a kind of Stockholm syndrome zombie state as she tends to his secretarial needs. He’s also forcing her into marriage, though the doctor—whose garish, ornate outfits smack of Liberace-cum-Mussolini—seems far more interested in little boys and their “ten happy fingers”—what, girls don’t play piano?—than the dishy, ’50s charms of mommy. Affable, all-American plumber Mr. Zabladowsky (avuncular Peter Lind Hayes) is installing sinks at the Institute, and an obvious stand-in father figure.
The film was shot in 1952, and shades of WWII, the Cold War and the Korean Conflict color Dr. T., essentially the opposite of what was being depicted in most squeaky-clean family-oriented films of the time. Maybe that’s why it was a critical and box office flop. Seuss allegedly deemed the film a “debaculous fiasco” and never worked in movies again. But then one man’s fiasco is another man’s mind-bending work of staggering weirdness and eventual cult classic. Enjoy!