Once upon a time, stories aimed at children were often filled with something more than sugarplums, cute animals and dancing elves.
The fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, for example, are enlivened by such wholesome characters as witches who enjoy roasting small children alive and evil queens who relish eating the lungs and livers of their victims. In our own time, by contrast, movies intended primarily for children have pretty assiduously avoided anything that would be remotely unsettling. On the contrary, films for younger viewers tend to be generally upbeat, wholesome, and full of the kinds of lessons adults would like children to learn. Either that, or they're revenge fantasies for kids, such as the Home Alone movies or Dennis the Menace. If you ask most adults to name a scene in a movie that genuinely disturbed or terrified them as a child, it's usually a stolen glimpse from an adult movie, or that all-time favorite, the flying monkeys scenes from The Wizard of Oz.
Still, there is the occasional kids' film that sneaks under the radar, and just such a film is The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, which was released in 1953. Long before Jim Carrey bravely became the first man to attempt to channel a cartoon character in The Grinch, writer and artist Ted Geisel walked into the office of producer Stanley Kramer at Columbia Studios and pitched him the story of an eight-year old boy trapped in a nightmare world by his mad piano teacher. Kramer loved the idea, and in short order, 5,000 Fingers became the first live-action film created by the famed Dr. Seuss. It was not only Seuss's story, he co-wrote the script, composed the song lyrics, and helped design the sets as well. Kramer handed over the directorial reins to Roy Rowland, most likely because Rowland had established himself as something of a "children's director," having handled such cherubic luminaries as Jackie "Butch" Jenkins in Boys' Ranch (1946) and Margaret O'Brien in Tenth Avenue Angel (1948).
Now then, anyone vaguely familiar with the general run of Dr. Seuss stories probably regards his work as harmless, whimsical, occasionally a little preachy, and quite in line with the kind of nonsense literature that first appeared in the nineteenth century work of Edward Lear. But you only have to look a little closer at Seuss's work to see a dark thread running through it, perhaps the best-known example being the anarchic character of The Cat in the Hat. In 5,000 Fingers, this dark thread expands until it becomes an integral and genuinely disturbing part of the overall fabric of the story. To put it in Hollywood-ese terms, this film is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets The Wizard of Oz.
Like Caligari and Oz, 5,000 Fingers features a framing story around the film's main action, but not before a nightmarish opening in which we see little Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) wandering around a gray, foreboding world. Tendrils of fog edge towards him as he cautiously creeps around enormous metallic orbs until finally, a searchlight is turned on and a horde of black-hooded pursuers chase after him with multi-colored nets. He awakens from this nightmare screaming, "No, No!" and we see that young Bart has merely fallen asleep while practicing the piano. In short order, we are introduced to Bart's piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conreid), who hovers menacingly over Bart, telling him to keep practicing and practicing. This isn't for Bart's benefit, but for Dr. Terwilliker's. "One month," Terwilliker lectures Bart, "before I present all my pupils in a grand concert, and I'm not going to let one dreary little boy humiliate me." Terwilliker, we learn, is the inventor of the suggestively named "Happy Finger Method." And, it's Terwilliker's own "Happy Finger Song" that he forces Bart to play.
When Dr. Terwilliker leaves, Bart turns to the camera and tells us his tale of woe. His father has died and his mother seems to have fallen under Dr. Terwilliker's spell. When Mrs. Collins appears from the kitchen, she seems to be the classic model for a 1950s mom or a Stepford Wife. She has the apron, the pearl earrings, the high heels and the perfectly coiffed hair. All Bart wants to do is run outside and play baseball, but all his mother allows him to do is practice the piano. As Bart laments, "I think that Dr. Terwilliker has my mother hypnotized." The only possible light on Bart's horizon is August Zabladowski, a plumber who is installing a new sink in the kitchen. It's clear that Bart likes him and thinks he would make a swell Dad, but neither Bart's mother nor Zabladowski can see that they were meant for each other just yet. Just as in The Wizard of Oz, this brief opening introduces us to the characters we will encounter again in Bart's dream world. Even on the top of the piano we can even see hints of plot devices to come in the form of a metronome and photographs of men with very long beards.
As Bart dutifully sits at the piano his boredom once again gains the upper hand and when he finally falls asleep, he finds himself transported into the nightmarish world of the Terwilliker Institute, which is actually a prison camp for boys (yes, it's boys only) run by the nefarious Dr. T. The central feature of the camp is an enormous, two-tiered piano that weaves its way around the room and we see Bart pounding away at it as Dr. T. conducts. Bart is shown as the helpless boy he is, being shot from consistently high camera angles, while the omnipotent Dr. T is always shot from below, towering over both Bart and the viewer. We quickly learn that the enormous piano is not simply for show. Dr. T has an insidious plan that involves bringing precisely five hundred children to this prison camp to play the piano for his grand recital. Bart soon learns that things are even worse when he finds out that the "barbed wire around the Terwilliker Institute is electrified...electrified...electrified!!!" In addition, Bart's mom is second in charge to Dr. T and completely under his Svengali-like influence. If all that weren't bad enough, Bart is forced to wear a blue beanie with a yellow plastic hand sticking out from the top of it, a beanie that is also emblazoned with that magic phrase, "Happy Fingers."
Successfully avoiding being put in his cell, Bart is able to spy on Dr. T and his mother. To the strains of the eerie-sounding theremin, he sees that Dr. T has her hopelessly hypnotized. Bart's worst fears are realized when Dr. T tells his mother that he has, "graciously condescended to take your hand in marriage." When Dr. T learns that Bart is not in his cell, the prison camp springs to life and swarthy-looking guards chase after him as searchlights wheel everywhere. In a true Seussian touch, Bart is also pursued by Johnson and Whitney, a Siamese twin like duo, who race around the fanciful architecture on roller skates. Johnson and Whitney are joined together by the same beard, and as they glide effortlessly in pursuit of Bart, they resemble nothing less than two somewhat surreal Hassidic Jews.
Just as in real life, Bart's only hope is August Zabladowski, who is working to install sinks in all the cells of the prison camp. Zabladowski is an interesting character, perhaps partly drawn from the German public who let a man like Adolf Hitler rise to power. He seems sympathetic to Bart's plight, but he has no intention of bucking the system. Even in the midst of something truly evil, he can't really see it, and he seems content to focus his attention on getting the sinks in. As he says, "My heart bleeds for you, but if I don't get these sinks installed in the cells I don't get paid." When Bart exclaims in exasperation, "You're my only hope!" Zabladowski's reply is all the more chilling because it is made in such a good-natured way. "Well," he says, "just give up hope right here and now."
It is Bart's task to bring Zabladowski back to his better nature and Bart's strategy is extremely straightforward-he simply starts treating Zabladowski as if he were his father by taking him on an imaginary fishing expedition. After all, what Bart really needs is a father to save him not only from Dr. T, but from his own mother as well. Mothers are all well and good up to a point, but for a little boy, the threat always remains that a powerful man will "hypnotize" his mother, and then the boy is really in trouble.
Zabladowski finally agrees to check into things for Bart's sake and Bart is ecstatic that the true evil of Dr. T will be revealed and he will get his mom back. Only it doesn't quite work out that way. When Zabladowski enters the lair of Dr. T, both Dr. T and Bart's mom put on an elaborate show to convince Zabladowski that everything is just fine. A row of smoking cigars is pulled out for Zabladowski's approval, drinks and treats emerge from trays concealed in the floor, and finally, they all engage in a rousing song and dance number entitled "Get Together Weather." Swept up in the moment, Zabladowski has a wonderful time as Bart watches with growing dismay. Zabladowski is, after all, only an adult, and adults can be readily taken in by just about any kind of superficial nonsense. Indeed, once the gaiety and frolicking are finished and Zabladowski has exited the room, Dr. T issues an order for Zabladowski to be "disintegrated slowly" once all the sinks are in. Dr. T also senses the growing relationship between Zabladowski and Bart's mom, so she is incarcerated in the "Lock Me Tight," a cage with an enormous lock which suggests a larger than life chastity belt.
Zabladowski returns to Bart genuinely angry that Bart has taken him for a fool and dismisses any other protests Bart makes. With his only hope for salvation now gone, Bart sings a melancholy tune entitled "Little Kids" in which he laments the kinds of abuse that children are subject to simply because adults are bigger. Bart truly has nowhere to go, and his plight is visualized by the set, particularly through the presence of ladders and staircases that go nowhere. Indeed, an oppressive atmosphere of constant pursuit and fear permeates the fantastic Dali-esque set. Mean-looking, unshaven guards hound Bart's footsteps, and the film seems to take a cue from the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will in terms of props and scenery. Just as TRIUMPH is full of swastikas and arms raised in the "Sieg Heil" salute, this film is filled with the letter "T" and, as we might expect, pictures or representations of hands that pop up in almost every frame. If the connections between Dr. T's camp and the only recently deposed Nazis aren't clear enough by this point, the guards even engage in a slow-motion goose-step to seal the deal.
Bart finally decides to try to get Zabladowski to help him by appealing to what he knows all adults respond to-money. Dr. T has loads of cash locked in his bedroom, and after Bart cleverly steals the key to the vault, he happens to spot the paper ordering the disintegration of Zabladowski. This is even better than money, but when he grabs it alarms go off everywhere and Bart is on the run once more, finally finding himself in the dungeon reserved for "scratchy violins, screechy piccolos, nauseating trumpets, etc." What proceeds is a worthy candidate for the strangest musical number of all-time. It's a little bit Dr. Seuss, a little bit Hieronymous Bosch, and a little bit the Marquis de Sade. A number of wild and fanciful musical instruments are showcased; for example, the man whose horn wraps around him like a python and the xylophone played by five men who are painted olive green and play with multicolored mittens. Perhaps the most interesting instrument of all is the man who wears antlers with bells. He is, in fact, the instrument, and he is played by another man who grabs him by the throat and chokes him roughly.
After witnessing all this, a loudspeaker broadcasts that Bart is to be captured "dead or alive." Bart manages to evade his pursuers long enough to show Zabladowski the disintegration order and Zabladowski stares at it in amazement, musing, "People should always believe in kids. They should even believe their lies." It's clear that given the dire circumstances, no wedding between Zabladowski and Bart's mother is imminent, so Bart ingeniously comes up with the next best thing. Both he and Zabladowski prick their thumbs and then press them together as they take a blood oath. They both wrap a white bandage around their thumbs and Bart happily announces, "Well, that's it, Pops...this makes you my old man." Zabladowski readily accepts his new parental status, saying, "Yeah, I guess you're right. I guess it does at that." It's a beneficial arrangement for both of them, because Bart needs a good father to protect him from the bad father, and Zabladowski needs a son to give him something more important to care about than sinks and money.
Now ready for the task at hand, Zabladowski first goes to free Bart's mother from her cage. Faced with the massive padlock that holds her, Zabladowski announces himself as "August Zabladowski, your plumber and husband." He then produces his handy propane torch and attacks the lock with abandon, finally kicking it loose. Bart observes this metaphorical primal scene with approval, especially when his mother refers to Zabladowski as "dear August." With no time for further niceties, Zabladowski proceeds to nerve himself up on pickle juice before going after Johnson and Whitney. He manages to kill them by simply snipping their beard in half with a pair of garden shears. Dr. T arrives and mourns over their fallen forms, quoting Shakespeare as he does so (as if we needed more proof that he is pure evil), and in short order the escaping trio are recaptured. It only takes a wave of his hand and Bart's mother is once again under Dr. T's spell, intoning, "The work for the Happy Finger Method must go on." As for Zabladowski and Bart, an elevator takes them to the dungeons. The elevator operator, his oiled torso gleaming, also wears an executioner's mask and he sings a little ditty to them as they descend:
First Floor Dungeon
Assorted simple tortures,
Molten lead, chopping blocks
And hot boiling oil.
Second Floor Dungeon
Leg chains, ankle chains
Neck chains, wrist chains, thumbscrews,
And nooses of the very finest rope.
Third Floor Dungeon
If all that wasn't ominous enough, the first thing Bart and Zabladowski see upon emerging from the elevator is a man trapped inside a huge bass drum that is being pounded incessantly. His frenzied cries to be released are audible above the pounding din. (I don't get this sentence) And yes, this is still a kids' movie.
Bart and Zabladowski are locked in a cage where they begin to plan their escape by using a souped up Air-Fix bottle to confound Dr. T's plan. Just as the bottle removes odors from the air, Bart guesses that with a few additions it will remove sounds from the air as well. While they are engaged in this, two other strands of the narrative take place elsewhere.
First, we see all the new boys arriving for the recital by the dozens. Everything about this sequence is reminiscent of concentration camp footage. The boys arrive at the Institute in identical yellow buses with their possessions packed into suitcases. Glowering guards then rifle through these suitcases and remove anything that could be used for sports or fun. Bart's mother checks off their names in a huge ledger as numbers are hung around their necks. As a last indignity, the Terwilliker beanie is slapped onto their heads, and then they are herded like sheep towards their appropriate places at the grand piano.
Meanwhile, Dr. T is getting ready for his big day. Attended by five formally attired dressers, Dr. T trills a clever and vaguely disturbing song that includes the lyrics:
Come on and dress me, dress me, dress me!
In my peek-a-boo blouse!
With the lovely inner lining made of Chesapeake mouse!
I want my polka-dotted dickie with the crinolin fringe,
For I'm going doe-me-doing on a doe-me-doe binge!
After requesting other essential items such as his "cutie chamois booties" and his "undulating undies" Dr. T winds up in a military uniform that appears as if it was designed in tag team fashion by Heinrich Himmler and Liberace. Clearly, he is ready for the biggest piano recital of all time.
When Dr. T finally arrives to conduct his young prisoners, we see that Bart is ensconced in the number one seat and that he has successfully smuggled out his new, improved, Air Fix bottle. When Dr. T commands the boys to play, Bart opens the bottle and sure enough, the sound in the room becomes horribly distorted. When Dr. T spots the bottle, he is on the verge of having his guards take it away until Bart brandishes it like a weapon, warning that it's "very atomic!" Dr. T squeals like the coward that we always knew him to be and releases all the boys. As the kids go nuts and jump up and down on the piano (playing a discordant version of "Chopsticks"), Bart's bottle begins to smoke and spark ominously. Sure enough, it explodes, taking the Terwilliker Institute with it and bringing us back to Bart waking up from his nightmare at the piano.
Zabladowski emerges from the kitchen, having finished his work, but of course, he doesn't have any recollection of the adventure he and Bart just shared. The only evidence that something peculiar happened is the white bandages they both still have wrapped around their thumbs. All that remains is for Zabladowski to offer Bart's mother a lift downtown and their future nuptials are virtually assured. Finally out from under the watchful eyes of adults, Bart grabs his baseball mitt and charges down a perfect tree-lined suburban street, free at last.
Upon its theatrical release, the film was billed as "The First Wonderama," and "The Wonder Musical of the Future!" Enticing though that may sound, the film was not a success by any means. Even when it was reissued under the title Crazy Music, it failed to attract audiences. Both Seuss and Kramer had pronounced themselves dissatisfied with the final product and blamed studio meddling and budget cuts for what they perceived to be the film's deficiencies. For example, while the film grandly speaks of having 500 boys playing the enormous piano, only 150 boys were used for the final sequence. As a movie for children, it seems to lack any kind of socializing messages at all; rather it seems a throwback to the kind of stories that are supposed to scare the hell out of children because, well, it's kind of fun. Gradually, the film acquired something of an underground reputation and with the advent of "midnight movies," more and more people became aware of it. It now enjoys a kind of cult status because it fulfills the number one criterion any cult film must possess-it truly is a one of a kind film.
Subsequently, the principals involved in the film would all go their separate ways, with varying degrees of success. Dr. Seuss, of course, was on his way to becoming one of the most beloved children's authors of all time. Somewhat improbably, producer Stanley Kramer followed up the bizarre and fantastic 5,000 Fingers with The Wild One (1954) and The Caine Mutiny (1954). Tommy Rettig would win the role of Jeff Miller in the "Lassie" TV series in 1954, but then fell into the downward spiral many child actors do, with arrests and convictions for growing marijuana and importing cocaine. Rettig went through divorce and bankruptcy before turning himself around and becoming a successful software developer. Hans Conreid would never again have a leading role quite like Dr. Terwilliker, but his distinctive looks and voice landed him innumerable small parts in films, TV shows (e.g. "Mister Ed," "Gilligan's Island," and "Lost in Space"), and in animated series as well. In fact, it is somewhat ironic that for a man who studied acting at Columbia University and who was a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre Company, the role he is probably best known for is providing the voice of Snidley Whiplash in the cartoon "Dudley Do-Right." Although largely forgotten now, Mary Healy (Mrs. Collins) and Peter Lind Hayes (Mr. Zabladowski) are candidates for the most loving couple in show business history. She was a Miss New Orleans beauty pageant winner and he served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. They were married for fifty-eight years and adopted two children. In addition to their film work, not only were they both Broadway stars, they also starred in their own TV show not once, but twice. "The Peter and Mary Show" (subsequently retitled "The Peter Lind Hayes Show") hit the airwaves in 1950, and in 1960 they came out with a new show simply called "Peter Loves Mary."
Released on video in 1996, 5,000 Fingers also airs sporadically on television. It represents eighty-eight of the most bizarre minutes ever committed to celluloid, and with its fantastic and outlandish sets, its menaced protagonist, its heroic plumber, and its idealized female, you have to wonder if Terry Gilliam saw this film before embarking on Brazil. We can only wonder what Dr. Seuss's and Stanley Kramer's ideal version of 5,000 Fingers would have looked like, because the version they left is unique and intriguing enough on its own.