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The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T: A Crazy, Wonderful Kids' Movie

05/25/2011 02:45 pm ET

Dr. Seuss wrote one screenplay in his long career as a writer: the cracked, magical, cult classic 1953 children's movie The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. It was a flop on release, and Dr. Seuss reportedly hated it, but it's actually a wonderfully weird, funny, charming musical, and everything I wish Where the Wild Things Are could have been.

The movie is about a boy, Bart Collins, whose single mother forces him to take piano lessons from the domineering Dr. Terwilliker. Most of the movie is set Bart's daydreams about a horrible Dr. Terwilliker-ruled prison camp for boy pianists, with his mother as Terwilliker's second-in-command and future wife. Dr. T's diabolical plan? Assembling 500 boys, with their 5,000 fingers, to play simultaneously at a gigantic two-story piano he built. Despite Seuss's dissatisfaction, the movie bears his stamp in every frame. The daydream sets bear the look of his illustrations, despite a low budget, and the book and lyrics both share his delight in mischievous wordplay. (The boy's name, Bart Collins, is of course reminiscent of Bartholomew Cubbins, titular protagonist of two prose works by Dr. Seuss, written in 1938 and 1949.)

I was inspired to check the movie out by a feature in The Onion A.V. Club about one of the film's loveliest setpieces, a shadowboxing dance between the evil Dr. T and the heroic plumber August Zabladowski, in which the two fight to a draw by making menacing expressions and pointing their fingers at one another. Dr. T is played by Hans Conried, who is perhaps best known as the voice of Snidely Whiplash, and he plays his role exactly like a cartoon villain, with contorted face, overarticulated diction and rrrrrrolled r's. Zabladowski is the straight man, and all he has to do is act normal, without being too surprised by all the absurdity around him. He later has a touching scene with Bart, who wants him for a father, as they pantomime going on a fishing trip. They watch another fantastic setpiece of a performance by all the musicians Dr. T has thrown into his dungeons, unfortunate souls who play instruments other than the piano.

As with most movies of its type, not all the songs are memorable, and the cute young boy who plays the protagonist is a bit blank as an actor. The low-budget sets are evocative, but not nearly as rich as Dr. Seuss's wonderful illustrations. And Conried pitches his performance to the rafters, so those who prefer subtle villains will find it a bit much. But these are trifles. It entirely succeeds on its own bizarre terms.

Rating: 80

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.