Friday, March 13, 2015

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Roy Rowland, 1953) Marvelously odd-ball, bizarre fantasy film for kids that's as much fun for adults, and has the added benefit of a crazed performance by Hans Conreid and a script, songs and design (after a fashion) the eccentric Theodore Geisel, whose nom de plume was Dr. Seuss. Seuss was a definite, defiant genius,* in that he maintained throughout his complicated adulthood, the simplistic child-view, with all its neurotic simplicity, the well-ordered conservative traditionalism, swirled with a wildly anarchistic streak.

Dr. T is a bit like The Wizard of Oz in that it's a vividly imagined fever-dream that reflects the real world pureed in eye-popping colors and shapes through a child's trauma filter. For Dorothy Gale, it's brought on by familial stress instigated by head-trauma. For Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig), it's familial stress instigated by exhaustion created by piano drills imposed by the unholy alliance of his mother (Mary Healy) and his music teacher, the snooty Dr. Terwilliker (Conreid). The kid's got no allies, save for his dog, the audience—whom he regularly addresses—and the local plumber, Mr. Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), whom he respects for his control over his life and his ability to fix stuff—fixing stuff is important when you're a kid seeing the world broken. Bart sums up his predicament for us, then falls into a horrific exhausted slumber, where he pictures himself the lone victim in the machinations of Dr. T, secluded in his impossibly architectured institute, the first specimen in a regimented experiment to lead a slave-team of 500 kids to realize his ultimate composition.  
Bart hides in plain sight in T's complex—making him look bug-like and squashable
For Bart, the job is simple: get out of the castle, rescue his mother (who is in thrall to the Professor as his assistant) and barring any escape, sabotage the Doctor's magnum opus. 

It may be the weirdest, most enjoyable leftist agenda movie that producer Stanley Kramer ever produced (even over It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), If.... without machine guns, creating a passive-aggressive (through a "very atomic" silence producer) explosion of revolt to decimate the forces of regimentation and create a nuclear family out of the resulting chaos. Even if Bart can't escape his lot, he can at least do some damage in it, and make it work to his advantage. Sounds like any skill-set a kid would, should, and could have use of.  

Bart climbs to the top of an impossible ladder, only to be found out by a searchlight.
Regimentation and the individual's right to be one's self—by any means necessary—is the story's theme, one that runs throughout Geisel's work through various guises and creatures. And even though Dr. T's denizens are fairly standard bi-ped's, the universe of Bart's Dr. T nightmares is one of wrong angles with no standard rules of design—a free-flowing construction, in danger of collapsing in on itself, even without a kid's help. The songs are fine, the language is wonderful, and the acting whimsical and uneven, but, who cares?  It's the LOOK of the thing that creates the magic of the film, and makes it recognizable, along with some peripheral like the freakish "happy-hands"-beanies the kids are forced to wear, as Geisel...or, rather, Seussian.

Geisel thought little of the film, either because he thought the product compromised, or because the response to it was lackluster to the extreme. And kid-star Tommy Rettig went on to become the first "Timmy" on the Lassie TV show, an unpromising career with drugs, but ended strong by becoming a pre-eminent software programmer, specializing in DBaseIII. All of which seems rather Seussian, as well.
Dr. Terwilliker's castle is full of oddities and Gehrey-esque angles

* For example, he labeled the film a "debaculous fiasco."

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