Dismissed by critics and filmgoers in 1953, the wonderfully weird The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T has evolved into a classic fantasy favored by fervid fans. It also holds a special place in cinema history as the only film written by Dr. Seuss expressly for the screen (he penned the original story and co-wrote the screenplay). While some of his literary works boast mischievous characters (e.g., The Cat in the Hat), none of them compares to the delightful, dastardly villain of Dr. T– a piano teacher who imprisons 500 children and forces them to play a giant piano ad nauseum.
Much of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is presented as the dream of Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig), a young boy forced by his widowed mother to take piano lessons from the overbearing Dr. Terwilliker. In his dream–which comprises most of the movie–Bart transforms Terwilliker into the evil Dr. T (Hans Conried), who has hypnotized Bart’s mother and plans to marry her! The young boy enlists the aid of plumber August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) and sets out to thwart Dr. T’s despicable plans. Oh, did I mention that The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a musical?
As in many of Dr. Seuss’s children’s books, the presentation matters more than the plot. Dr. T’s nightmarish castle–which favors a purple, blue, and green color scheme–includes a giant harp, a hooded elevator operator who looks like an executioner, a pair of rollerskating twins who share the same beard, and, of course, that gigantic piano. Rudolph Sternad’s colorful, expressionistic sets can be best described as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets The Wizard of Oz. His work should have received an Academy Award nomination. Still, it was recognized where it mattered most–Sternad collaborated with producer Stanley Kramer on 21 films, including classics such as High Noon, Inherit the Wind, and The Defiant Ones.
The only Oscar nomination received by The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was for the music score by Friedrich Hollaender and Morris Stoloff. Dr. Seuss wrote the lyrics for the songs, with the most famous one being “The Dungeon Song,” which was sung by the aforementioned hooded elevator operator. He describes each floor of Dr. T’s castle in the song, but seemingly omits the third floor. That’s because those lyrics were considered too horrific and were later edited out of the film. However, so you can judge for yourself, here they are:
Third floor dungeon:
Spike beds, electric chairs,
Gas chambers, roasting pots,
And scalping devices.
Yet, despite the stylish sets and memorable songs, the success of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T hinges on its villain, who must be threatening and fun. No one could play the role better than Hans Conried, a well-regarded stage actor whose distinctive voice breathed life into Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan and Snideley Whiplash on the “Dudley Do-Right” cartoons in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Conried, who had a long, successful career in film and television, was also a member of The Mercury Theatre, the famous repertory stage company founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman. For many television viewers, though, Conried is best remembered as Uncle Tonoose on several episodes of Danny Thomas’ Make Room for Daddy.
Although The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is widely regarded as a fantasy classic today, it was a huge box office flop when originally released. It was panned by critics, too, though not everyone was unkind (Variety called it “sometimes fascinating, more often fantastic”). The harshest critic, though, was Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. In their book Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography, Judith and Neil Morgan wrote:
But for years, Ted grew grim at any mention of the film, and declined to list it in his official Random House biography. He called the making of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T the greatest “down period” of his career. “As to who was most responsible for this debaculous fiasco, I will have nothing more to say until all the participants have passed away, including myself.”
While no one can deny Dr. Seuss’s talent as a children’s author, film criticism apparently wasn’t his forte. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T has exhibited an enduring appeal over the last 60 years. It has never achieved the mainstream success of Oz or Disney’s fantasies, but its quirky look, delightfully odd songs, and the marvelous Hans Conried have made it a film to be treasured by children of all ages–even adults.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!