sat 20/07/2019

DVD/Blu-ray: The 5000 Fingers of Dr T | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: The 5000 Fingers of Dr T

DVD/Blu-ray: The 5000 Fingers of Dr T

A welcome return for Dr Seuss's mind-bending fantasy

Practice makes perfect: Hans Conried and Tommy Rettig

There are lots of ideas bubbling away under the surface of The 5000 Fingers of Dr T. There would have been even more had the studio not panicked after a disastrous preview screening. Half the musical numbers were scrapped, subplots ditched and a new prologue and epilogue inserted. What remains of Roy Rowlands’s 1953 fantasy is described by singer Michael Feinstein in an extra on this release as “a mangled masterpiece”. The excised songs have been located, but the missing footage still hasn’t been found.

The film's component parts are promising: the screenplay was co-authored by Dr Seuss, and Rudolph Sternad’s production designs bring Seuss’s skewed world to queasy life. The score was written by the great Frederick Hollander, and we get Hans Conried’s Dr Terwilliger as one of the quintessential movie villains. How could this tale of a small boy held captive by a demonic piano teacher fail, what with Terwilliger enslaving 500 boys on a giant keyboard so that they can play five finger exercises for perpetuity? It’s a Whiplash for the under-tens.

Seuss's story was too dark for mainstream tastes

Besides escaping, Tommy Rettig’s plucky Bart (pictured below) also has to rescue his mother (a radiant Mary Healy), whi has been hypnotised by Terwilliger into forced marriage, aided by Peter Lind Hayes’ plumber Zabladowski. Along the way there's an insane "hypno duel" between Zabladowski and Terwilliger, plus a ballet set in the dungeon where all non-pianists are interred. One of them is West Side Story’s George Chakiris, playing a trombone whilst covered in green body paint. Terwilliger is routed, there's a massed rendition of Chopsticks, and all is revealed to have been a dream.

Seuss's story was too dark for mainstream tastes, the idea of children incarcerated by a tyrant in a fortress surrounded by barbed wire a little close to the bone. School buses disgorge their young passengers to be processed at the prison gates, and Terwilliger’s solemn order that Zabladowski be “disintegrated, atom by atom” has an uneasy resonance. The cuts make stretches of the film incoherent; I wanted to know more about the mysterious twin roller-skaters, conjoined by a long beard.

The 5000 Fingers of Dr TFeinstein gets it right in a bonus interview, suggesting that “if you don't expect too much, you'll be overwhelmed.” The high spots make the film unmissable, its eye-popping visuals created decades before the advent of CGI. The songs are mostly memorable – notably a nightmarish number sung by a satanic lift operator, and Terwilliger’s ode to the joys of cross-dressing.

Other extras include an entertaining audio commentary from film historians Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton, and interviews with the son and daughter of the director and the producer. The short documentary A Little Nightmare Music demonstrates just how inventive much of Hollander's theremin-soaked score is. The restored image looks and sounds wonderful, and there’s an excellent, generously illustrated booklet – which doesn’t mention the anecdote about food poisoning causing chaos on set, or that Bart Simpson’s nemesis Sideshow Bob shares Dr T’s surname. Niggles aside, this is mandatory viewing.

Overleaf: Hans Conried sings "Dress Me"

The high spots make the film unmissable, its eye-popping visuals created decades before the advent of CGI


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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