The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)

This movie is more entertaining than anything that will be released in 2019, 2020 and hell, probably even the next ten years. Seriously, the fact that this movie exists and somehow escaped into theaters — for a very short time — astounds me.

After the success of the animated short Gerald McBoing-Boing, Theodor Seuss Geisel submitted a 1,200-page script for this film, which was packed with “themes of world dominance and oppression coming out of World War II.”

Nearly every frame of this film looks like it escaped directly from the pages of one of his books. Of course, it tested horribly, which meant that nine of the musical numbers were cut from the film and never seen again. Plus, subplots were eliminated, new scenes were shot and existing scenes were rearranged. The film that Seuss intended will probably never be seen.

After all, people started walking out of the premiere 15 minutes in (child star Tommy Rettig was accompanied by Marilyn Monroe) and critics felt that the film lacked humor and enchantment. Geisel referred to the film as a “debaculous fiasco” and never even mentioned it in his autobiography. That said, he did say “Hollywood is not suited for me and I am not suited for it.”

That said — some people noticed. The film has gone on to be a cult film in the best sense of the word. It’s on the Church of Satan film list, after all.

Young Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig, who was the original star of Lassie and would later go on to star with Leave It to Beaver‘s Tony Dow on the 1960’s soap opera Never Too Young) is forced to take piano classes under the stern eye of Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried, Snidely Whiplash from Dudley Do-Right). After all, it makes his widowed mother Heloise (Mary Healy, who often was paired with her husband Peter Lind Hayes, including a breakfast radio show that was recorded in their own home) happy. His only friend, if you can call him that, is their plumber August Zabladowski (the aforementioned Peter Lind Hayes), who is at their house way more often than a plumber should be.

While Bart is struggling through his lessons, he dreams that he is prisoner number one inside the Terwilliker Institute, where the mad piano teacher has built a piano so large that it requires Bart and 499 other boys to play it. See — the quite literal 5,000 fingers of Dr. T.

To make things worse, Bart’s mom is now Dr. T’s assistant and bride-to-be and Mr. Zabladowski doesn’t believe him any longer. But by the end, they work together with all the other kids to destroy the giant piano and wake Bart from his dream, where the plumber finally asks out his mother.

Henry Kulky, who was once the professional wrestler Bomber Kulkavich, appears as one of Dr. T’s goons named Stroogo. Then there’s “Hollywood’s ugliest man” and Wallace Berry’s stand-in Harry Wilson and the lead singer of the Lettermen, Tony Butala (he’s also the singing voice for Tommy Rettig). And, of course, a cast of hundreds of children, all plinking away at that giant piano. According to Seuss, one of the kids got sick and vomited on the keys, leading to a chain reaction where nearly 150 others all ralphed at the same time. He joked that it was similar to the film’s reviews.

This whole bit of madness was directed by Roy Rowland (Meet Me in Las VegasThe Girl Hunters) with many uncredited pieces of direction by producer Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to DinnerIt’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldOn the Beach).

I urge you to see this film as soon as possible. You can get it on blu ray from the fine folks at Mill Creek Entertainment.

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