There's never been a director whose imagination could keep up with Dr. Seuss. Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas was dark and scary with none of the weirdness or wonder of prime Seuss. And The Cat in the Hat was the cinematic equivalent to feeding toxic waste to children. Even the countless animated TV adaptations of Seuss' books with the possible exception of the 1965 version of Grinch toned down his surrealism in favor of commercial-friendly coherence.
But there's one live-action Seuss movie that comes as close as anyone has to replicating the master's patented mix of acrobatic verbiage, bizarre subtext and amorphous architecture. In 1953, Dr. Seuss was recruited by the grandiose, heart-on-his-sleeve producer Stanley Kramer to concoct an Alice in Wonderland-like fantasy that would also serve as a vaguely anti-fascist screed. The result: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, certainly the only kids' movie in which boys run around wearing beanie caps with hands on top, adults drink pickle juice like wine and the evil henchmen wear ZZ Top beards and roller skates.
The movie is set up as the daydream or nightmare of fatherless piano student Bart (Tommy Rettig). With his mom (Mary Healy) dutifully overseeing his daily lessons from the snippy Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), the bored Bart is prone to fits of half-conscious escapism. About 10 minutes into the film, we're plunged into Bart's weird, wild alternate universe, where Dr. Terwilliker now lords over a prison-like training institute with 500 little boys just like Bart. His mom has also been brainwashed into doing the evil deeds of Dr. T., who banishes meddlesome boys and all musicians other than pianists to a scary dungeon until they're willing to take their place at the longest piano in the world. Luckily for Bart, he's able to persuade the family plumber and father figure Mr. Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) to help him in his quest to overthrow the maniacal instructor.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is an oddity, to be sure: In striving and failing to create a fantasy as universal as The Wizard of Oz, the filmmakers inadvertently created something of a cult classic. Seuss' material is a weird fit with the earnest producer Kramer (better known for issue films like Inherit the Wind), and an even weirder fit with the pedestrian director, Roy Rowland. No matter how loopy the sets are, Rowland usually keeps his camera planted in one spot, moving it only when there's a sing-and-dance number. For their part, the musical sequences are campy and jarring, packed with such unforgettable Seuss-isms as "undulating undies."
It's the stylized surroundings that really convey the magic here. Like a Seuss book come to life, every set is a combination of painted, two-dimensional backgrounds and bizarre props, including ladders that curve up to the sky, doorknobs of a million different sizes and asymmetrical hallways. And Rowland saves the best for last: The sweeping spectacle of hundreds of children playing "Chopsticks" at a two-tiered, endlessly curving piano. It's that moment that makes this odd, somewhat lurching picture worth its weight in pickle juice.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 4 and 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 29.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].