“Dreamlike” is not one of the great overused words of the English language; that distinction should be reserved for “awesome,” or possibly “LOL.” It is not, however, a word generally used with much accuracy: either it’s shorthand for wish-fulfilling, an experience so perfectly successful, it was practically unreal, or it denotes something full of disjoints and undercurrents, nonsensical, symbolic, surreal. Occasionally someone’s comparison will make it clear that not all dreams are the daydream kind and then you know they’ve read C.S. Lewis.
More than any movie I can remember seeing, Dr. Seuss’ The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) is like a dream. Especially the part afterward where you attempt to describe it to someone else and there is just no fucking way.
It’s no use to start with the frame story, because the film doesn’t. We open on a landscape of greenish half-domes and spheres and low night sky, where a tow-haired boy (Tommy Rettig) in a striped shirt and a very peculiar beanie is being dance-chased by ominous figures armed with a brightly colored rainbow of butterfly nets. Crying out, he is shaken awake by the unsympathetic hand of Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), the autocratic music teacher who is rapidly losing patience with our hero — he keeps dozing off at the piano instead of practicing his ten-finger exercises. Resignedly, ten-year-old Bartholomew Collins swivels around on the piano stool and gives us the short course of his waking life: lessons with Dr. Terwilliker are the bane of his existence, but his war-widowed mother (Mary Healy) is convinced they provide structure and discipline for her fatherless son and he can’t get her to believe otherwise. “I like her,” he sighs, “but, boy, she’s as hipped on the piano as Dr. Terwilliker!” His only ally is Mr. Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), the easygoing plumber whom Bart would rather like as a father-figure, but the man won’t take sides even when gently prodded: “Don’t give me any more trouble. Your job’s pianos, my job’s sinks.”
So it is that when Bart falls inevitably back asleep over his sheet music, he finds himself in the labyrinthine, Caligari-styled Happy Finger Institute, where a megalomaniac Dr. Terwilliker plots not only to enslave five hundred boys to his endless symphony-exercise for double-decker piano, but eventually to effect the total piano domination of the world. Bart’s mother is present in this nightmare, but Dr. Terwilliker has hypnotized her into helping run the Institute and accepting his proposal of marriage; so is Mr. Zabladowski, but he’s busy installing sinks for the grand opening and can’t be bothered with a child telling frantic tall tales, especially against another adult. In his striped shirt and official Happy Fingers beanie, Bart Collins may be all that stands between Dr. T’s plans and the unsuspecting, unmusical world.
I’ve done this wrong. I have synopsized this movie to sound like the traditional kind of dream-quest through a young child’s fears and fantasies, their nighttime sorting of the daylight world: refractions, truths, self-discoveries.
Oh, hella no.
In no particular order, this film contains—
A pair of Siamese twins on rollerskates, conjoined at the beard. They also use it as an offensive weapon.
A score by Frederick Hollander. You may know him as Friedrich Hollaender, especially if you’ve ever heard Marlene Dietrich being von Kopf bis Fuß aus Liebe eingestellt in Der blaue Engel (1930). The lyrics are all by Dr. Seuss. Did I mention this was a musical? Hold that thought.
A hundred-foot red ladder that cranes dizzyingly to nowhere, over searchlights and a blue-black abyssal sky. I could swear I’ve climbed it in my dreams.
A ballet in a dungeon. The participants are painted a kind of fluorescent zombified green, trailing black rags of orchestra dress. Some of their instruments are mannequins, boxing gloves, the shotput, a hookah and violins. Some of the musicians are also the instruments. As my cousin Ruth observed, “That man has antlers with bells on. Pull the other one.… That guy just did.”
A fishing trip.
A hypnosis duel. This was determined after the fact — the first time I watched the film with my cousins, none of us could tell what on earth we were supposed to be looking at. We finally decided it was a gesture-off. If it’s true that characters in musicals sing when they can’t speak and dance when they can’t have sex, then I can’t even begin to imagine what Mr. Zabladowski and Dr. Terwilliker couldn’t do, because what they did was perform increasingly athletic mime at one another until they collapsed in each other’s arms. (“Where’d you study?” — “I just picked it up.”) To the tune of several different musical styles, including tango and rumba. Also some theremin. This film would have been wrong without a theremin.
Architecture of such wild skew and distortion, Salvador Dalí would have killed Robert Wiene to get it. The obviousness of its artifice makes it all the more plausible: from massive, unsupported staircases to jack-in-the-box doorways to listing, window-sliced towers, the Institute looks like nothing that could exist in this world — and, properly speaking, it doesn’t. It exists in the drawings of Theodor Geisel, and for the love of perspective those should stay on the page. There is a genuine sense of the unheimlich in this movie and its baseline comes straight from the sets.
An atomic explosion.
The Scout oath.
A torturer with an iPod. All right, it turned out to be an old-style hearing aid, but it looked exactly like an iPod and none of us blinked once at the idea that it might in fact be one, captured mysteriously on film fifty years ahead of its invention. Every time I tried to estimate an upper limit of weird for this film, I was wrong.
A gloating song.
A dressing song.
One very sad small child.
The most ludicrous hat I have ever seen in my life. I do not mean the beanie with the little bright-yellow rubber hand on top of it.
An elevator operator for dungeons. Who sings. It’s a very memorable song.
—and, you know, I suspect none of this is conveying the sheer, full-on my what the wait no oh THERE IS NO GOD effect of watching The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (It doesn’t help that one of the film’s curious aftereffects is that while you’re bringing one bit of bizarrerie to mind, another is sidling off to your subconscious to pounce when you’re not looking. I had forgotten until this sentence about the Lock-Me-Tight. Oh, God, the metronome snoring.) It’s not that there are no other weird musicals, or other children’s movies with a serious substrate of WTF. The last musical I watched with these same cousins was Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948), which is not exactly short of hypnotism and preposterous clothes. But there is again, dreamlike, something so — what do the kids call it these days, idtastic? — about the entire proposition of Dr. T, even a casual viewing could unpack an entire dissertation on the 1950’s from its ninety-two minutes and still have years of therapy left over. I shall just take the title character as an example.
In real life, Dr. Terwilliker is merely a strict, somewhat self-absorbed piano teacher. Despite his promise to make a Paderewski out of Bart, he appears more concerned with advertising his pedagogical prowess (“One month to get that piece learned before my recital. One month before I present all of my pupils in a grand concert. And I’m not going to let one dreary little boy humiliate me, do you understand?”) than ensuring his pupils’ appreciation of music; he dismisses like a personal affront the suggestion that the piano might not be anyone’s forte. (“What other instruments are there, pray tell? Scratchy violins? Screechy piccolos? Nauseating trumpets? Et cetera, et cetera?”) The clipped, mid-European accent with which he speaks, the slightly fussy formality of his clothes add weight to his Germanic rigor and mark him from his first entrance as a stranger to Bart’s white-picket-fence street … and really do not prepare the viewer for his reincarnation inside his erstwhile student’s dreams as a flaming fascist fruitcake of a born sneerer who dresses like the love child of Faustus Heterodyne and Roger De Bris in a photo shoot by Leni Riefenstahl. He’s not camp. Camp is somewhere well behind that horizon Hans Conried has accelerated gloriously over the top of, nowhere better demonstrated than in the aforementioned dressing song where, stripped down to a purple undershirt, neon-green boxer shorts, and canary-yellow socks (eat your heart out, Malvolio), Dr. T exhorts his manservants in their matching lavender morning coats to bring him his favorite and finest items of clothing for the grand opening day:
I want my undulating undies with the marabou frills
I want my beautiful bolero with the porcupine quills
I want my purple nylon girdle with the orange-blossom buds
’Cause I’m going do-mi-do-ing in my do-mi-do duds
Yes, some of it is that theme with children’s villains where you learn not to be frightened of them because at heart they’re silly — Dr. T may be an imperious, Orwellian control freak who surrounds his institute with electrified barbed wire, strips his incoming pupils of all non-musical possessions and brainwashes their parents into abandoning them, and to top it all off employs a physics department whose sole occupation appears to be the disintegration of anyone the good doctor dislikes, but in private he’s even more ridiculous than your average authority figure caught with his pants off. But note also that his opposite number is the literally blue-collar plumber, an unpretentious, quietly competent fellow who professes no expertise in music, but can step-dance and roller-derby with the best of them, and most importantly measures up to that gold standard of wholesome fatherhood, the man who’ll take his boy fishing. (My cousin Lila nonetheless observes that despite the plot’s romantic objectification of Mrs. Collins, the only plausible sexual chemistry in the film is between Dr. T and Mr. Zabladowski: “Shall we dance?” — “Don’t mind if I do!”) By the time the whole mise-en-scène goes up in a mushroom cloud of fireworks, I really think we have hit the trifecta of ’50’s social anxieties: totalitarianism, the atom bomb, and classical music will turn your son gay.
I’m making it sound straightforward again. It isn’t. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is screwy, disorderly, polymorphously perverse, and by most standards of moviemaking it might quite possibly not be good, but I can’t pretend to judge it objectively: it’s a dream I watched and it was awesome. I know it was treated badly by Columbia Pictures, shorn of half its musical numbers and recut after previews in hopes of straightening something more conventionally family-friendly out of Geisel’s oneiric batshit; that the author famously disclaimed the final version as a “debaculous fiasco” and that the film is unlikely ever to be reconstructed in its original form, although Hollaender’s complete score survives; I still can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that genuinely registered to me as weird. Damn it, if nothing else, it’s the only feature film with which Dr. Seuss was ever associated in his lifetime. God knows what they would have done to the youth of America, but there should have been more.
So come and dress me in the blossoms of a million pink trees
Come on and dress me up in liverwurst and Camembert cheese
Come on and dress me up in pretzels — dress me up in bock beer suds
’Cause I’m going do-mi-do-ing in my do-mi-do duds!