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Film / The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T

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"Yes sir, very atomic!"

"We should always believe children. We should even believe their lies."
Mr. Zabladowski

A sadly-overlooked 1953 fantasy movie, directed by Roy Rowland and produced by Stanley Kramer, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T was Dr. Seuss's lone attempt to break into Hollywood screenwriting.

In it, young Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig) finds himself and his hypnotized mother (Mary Healy) trapped in the piano-playing Institute of the maniacal Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), a villain who doesn't just chew Seuss's marvelous scenery, but engages in an epic multicourse banquet. Bartholomew's only hope is convincing plumber August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) to help him, instead of installing the Institute's sinks. There's also Siamese-beard rollerskaters, a visit to the most toe-tappingly tuneful dungeon ever, and a VERY atomic noise-sucker/bomb, which isn't something you can say about most other movies.

The film was a massive Box Office Bomb and critical bust at the time of its original release, with people walking out of its own Hollywood premiere after 15 minutes, and Dr. Seuss never troubled Hollywood again for the rest of his life. It's since picked up a small cult following, with both Tim Burton and Joe Dante citing it as a major influence.

This film contains these INEXPLICABLE PHENOMENA:

  • Affably Evil: Dr. Terwilliker IS THIS up and down and back and forth the line, he even outright states he's a villain before offering refreshments AND has a Villain Song with Ms. Collins and Mr. Zabladowski!
  • All Just a Dream: The reasoning behind the high weirdness and the behavior of the adults - it's all based on a child's dream logic. (But see Or Was It a Dream?, below.)
  • And You Were There
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking
    "First Floor Dungeon: Assorted simple tortures. Molten lead, chopping blocks, and hot boiling oil."
    "Second Floor Dungeon: Jewelry Department."
  • Bizarrchitecture: It is, quite literally, a Dr. Seuss book brought to life. Note, for example, the Toilet Tree in the background of Bart's cellblock.
  • Camp: Oh, where to begin...
  • Camp Straight: Dr. Terwilliker. Especially in his Villain Song.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Dr. Terwilliker
  • Classic Villain: Classic children's villain, even. The grumpy inflicter of the boy's hated piano lesson becomes an egotistical, grandiose, vain and autocratic dictator who speaks with Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness and demands that everyone is subservient to him, Dr. TerWILLIKER! Why? Because piano playing is Serious Business and he knows far more than a mere child!
  • Cover Version: Avante-Garde Metal band Mr. Bungle would often cover third floor dungeon live. They take it up to eleven. It's terrifying.
  • Creepy Twins: The film features a pair of roller-skating twins who share a conjoined beard, with which they attempt to strangle the protagonists.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: Dr. Terwilliker. Hans Conreid was the voice of both Snidely Whiplash and (the same year as this movie, incidentally) Captain Hook.
  • Deus ex Nukina: "Is it... atomic?" "Yes sir, VERY atomic!".
  • Disproportionate Retribution: While taking Bart and Zablodowski to be locked up in the dungeon, Terwilliker shows them a drummer from a band he once conducted, whose he's imprisoned inside a drum forever...because he always played an extra boom while playing Beethoven's fifth symphony.
  • Disintegrator Ray: "Hello, physics laboratory? ... I want him atom!"
  • Disney Acid Sequence: Most of the movie.
  • Disappeared Dad: Played oh so very straight to the point where the entire film is a Freudian dream metaphor for Bart's longing for a father who can take him to baseball games instead of having to hang around the house with mom and do piano lessons. Yes indeed, very '50s.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: A dictator herds people into a labor camp, and it all ends with an atomic explosion.
  • Dream Ballet: If you squint a bit, the dance numbers could be considered as Dream Ballets.
  • Dream Land: More like a nightmare land.
  • Elevator Floor Announcement: The dungeon elevator.
  • False Friend: When Mr. Zabladowski goes to question Terwilliker about his intentions, he and Mrs. Collins quickly charm him with some bizarre food, a reasonably catchy dance and assure him that they're only doing this to help educate American children further in music. The moment Zabladowski leaves, Terwilliker calls the institute physics laboratory (hey, piano academies don't have prison cells, search lights, electric fences, or enslaved musicians of non-piano instruments either!) and orders them to have Zabladowski disintegrated slowly and painfully at dawn.
  • Fashionable Evil: Of the campiest sort. "Do-Me-Do Duds", indeed.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • After the dream sequence at the beginning of the film, Bart describes it to Dr. Terwilliker. Terwilliker scoffs and replies, "Why couldn't you dream about practicing the piano?" Sure enough, the next time Bart falls asleep....
    • Also Terwilliker mentions to Bart that he plans to present all his pupils in a concert next month, and not to mess it up for him. This concert ends up being theme of Bart's an eternal one.
  • Frothy Mugs of Water: Pickle juice. "Be careful, Mr. Zabladowski. That's some powerful stuff!"
  • Fun-Hating Confiscating Adult: When the other boys arrive at the institute, the first the guards do after giving them beanies, is open their suitcases and confiscate their toys or anything that's fun (one guard even holds a boys pet frog out of it's water bowl and suffocates it..right in front of the boy!)
  • Gilded Cage: "Tonight... you will sleep in your lock-me-tight!"
  • High-Voltage Death:
    • Threatened; when warning Bart not to try and escape, the talking bust of Dr. Terwilliker says that the barbed wire on the fences is electrified.
    • Furthermore, the cut verse from the elevator song mentions that the third floor dungeon has electric chairs.
  • Hilariously Abusive Childhood: Inverted in that it's just piano lessons, but to a red-blooded 1950s boy like Bart the very idea is A Fate Worse Than Death. And when he learns that his teacher has built an enormous "500 boy piano" with plans for more little boys to have to bang away, oh the horror, the horror...
  • Honor Before Reason: Bart goes to quite a bit of trouble to avoid waking Dr. T when he goes to break into the vault to steal some money...and then Bart leaves an IOU with his name for the missing cash. This winds up having nothing to do with him setting off the alarms and getting caught.
  • Humiliation Conga
  • Hypnotize the Captive: Bartholomew's mother has been turned into Terwilliker's assistant, and he also plans to marry her after the grand opening.
  • It Runs on Nonsensoleum: The VERY atomic noise-sucker.
  • Large Ham: Dr. Terwilliker can rant with the best of them.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Almost none of the articles of clothing Dr. T lists in "Dress Me" are actually part of the costume he gets dressed in.
    • Given that the song mentions "undulating undies with the marabou frills", maybe we should be glad.
  • MacGyvering
  • Non-Serial Movie: Although it's fairly clear where the hallucinogenic sequences stem from.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: After the horrific description of what goes on in the first dungeon, and the more horrific description of the second dungeon, the basement dungeon (which they get off on) is not described. Leaving it to the imagination as to how bad that must be. (It was originally described in High Octane Nightmare Fuel glory, see Second Verse Curse on the YMMV page.)
  • Nuclear Nightmare: Rife with Cold War symbolism.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: Bart and Mr. Zabladowski, after Bart wakes up, still have their thumbs bandaged from their Blood Oath. Mr. Zabladowski, not "remembering" the dream, doesn't know how it got there.
  • One-Book Author: This is Dr. Seuss's only screenwriting credit and, as a result, his only attempt to branch out into the medium of live-action feature films. His frustration over all of the creative compromises he had to make during the film's production and it's resulting failure relegated him to his comfort zone of children's books for the rest of his life, with his only other scripts being the teleplays for a few animated TV adaptations of his books.
  • Parental Bonus: The song Get-Together Weather, which is a Love Triangle Song. Hmmmm... "Come on, the weatherman's reporting that the weather's ripe for sporting, and for love and assorted courting, this is get-together weather, together is just what we've got to get! What fabulous weather for cooing and billing! What fabulous weather for dally-down dilling! What fabulous weather for bipping and beeping! For schnipping and schnupping and schnooping and schneeping! Come on, the weatherman's announcing that the weather's ripe for flouncing, and for b-b-b-b-b-b-bouncing..."
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Mr. Zabladowski and Mrs. Collins were married in real life when they made the picture.
  • Rule of Symbolism: see Nuclear Nightmare and Disappeared Dad, above.
  • Sadist Teacher: Dr. Terwilliker. Even the real-life version seems overly strict and demanding, even taking into account Bart's bad habit of falling asleep while practicing.
  • Scary Black Man: The elevator operator.
  • Sexy Secretary: Mrs. Collins.
  • Shot at Dawn: A variation; Dr. Terwilliker orders Zabaldowski disintegrated at dawn.
  • Sissy Villain: Dr. Terwilliker isn't quite a Harmless Villain, but the fact that he's so full of himself throughout the film and has a somewhat effeminate attitude prevents him from being scary at all.
  • Super Serum: Pickle juice. It Makes Sense in Context.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: "Bartholomew Collins" sounds a lot like "Bartholomew Cubbins", the hero of an earlier book by Dr Seuss. They are both boys of about the same age, hats and the number 500 features in both stories. Dr Seuss did say his original idea was warped beyond recognition...
  • Villain Song
  • Weaksauce Weakness: Mr. Zabladowski defeats the Twin Guards by cutting their shared beard, separating the two in the process.