Beloved children’s author Dr Seuss (real name Theodore Geisel) made his first and only foray into feature films with The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T, which he conceived, co-wrote and helped design. Not surprisingly, the look and story were unlike anything audiences had seen before.
Young Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) doesn’t like his piano lessons any more than most kids, but in his dream world, he has a good reason.
His piano teacher, the maniacal Dr Terwilliker (Hans Conried), secretly runs a sort of death camp for young boys, forcing 500 of them to practice twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week at his giant piano with 480,000 keys – all part of his “Happy Fingers” method.
With the help of sympathetic plumber August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), Bart plans an underground rebellion.
Literally underground, in fact, as the boy tries to spring the miserable prisoners held captive in Dr T’s dungeon (imprisoned because they chose other instruments over the piano).
When Bart and Zabladowski’s plan to save the day is foiled, they are sent for an elevator ride to the dungeon.
The elevator doorman is sweaty and muscular, sporting leather tights and a mask that resembles bondage headgear.
The film was a surreal fantasy, perhaps most memorable for an elaborate production number with all the non-piano-playing prisoners in the dungeon. Dr Seuss wrote the lyrics for this sequence, as well as the movie’s many other songs.
Dr Seuss’ unique style was imprinted all over the film, from the zany concept to smaller details like the blue beanies with yellow “Happy Fingers” hands and the tall red ladder to nowhere.
The astonishing design of the film is, in itself, an achievement worthy of praise without consideration for the story.
Though The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T was a disappointment in its initial release, it became an underground classic, surfacing in midnight revivals, on television and later on video.
Matt Groening has admitted to taking much inspiration from The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T when creating The Simpsons: Bart is named after the film’s hero and even sports a spiky yellow hairdo in reference to the Happy Fingers cap Tommy Rettig wears throughout his adventure.
The hats, by the way, are rare collectors’ items nowadays and go for sums of money whenever they appear on eBay.
Peter Lind Hayes