Underrated Movies: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
Well everyone, here we are- the last underrated movie in existence… until I think of some more at a later time. Today’s movie is a very special one to me because, like The Blues Brothers from a couple weeks ago, I must have watched it a hundred times growing up. It’s also easily the most underrated film on my list. According to Wikipedia, viewers walked out of the theaters 15 minutes into the Hollywood premier in 1953, and as you might expect, plenty of bad reviews followed. The creator himself thought it was such a fiasco that (according to Wikipedia) he had it omitted from his official biography. The movie seems to have aged well, however as it currently sits at a 79% on Rotten Tomatoes (14 total reviews, 11 fresh, 3 rotten). I present to you, then, the gloriously misunderstood children’s movie/WWII allegory: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
What it is:
Now, eagle eyed as you are, you may have noticed that I alluded to the films creator, famous enough to have an official biography, but failed to mention his name. That’s because hearing the name of 5,000 fingers’ creator will do so much of the work of explaining this film. You see, among the dozens of classic children’s books (and some animated war shorts during WWII) for which he was responsible, Dr. Seuss decided to write a movie. It was the only movie script he ever wrote (or at least the only one that is known).
The story itself is very simple. Childlike, even. Probably in part because this is more or less a children’s movie. Bartholomew Collins is a young child who likes to dream. Literally, like he apparently falls asleep all the time. Or maybe he’s just tired today. Anyway, he is woken from one of his dreams by his piano teacher- a stern authoritarian named Dr. Terwilliker. Dr. T scolds bart for wasting his time dreaming; the only way to become a great pianist is to practice constantly, after all. Bart’s mother sides with Dr. T, leading Bart to speculate that she’s been hypnotized. Bart’s only respite comes by way of the plumber, Mr. Zablodowski. Mr. Z is a charming rogue who somehow fills the role of father figure to Bart (either the kid forms bonds quickly or Ms. Collins has a lot of plumbing issues. Take that how you will).
So after spending a few minutes in the waking world, what does Bart do mere seconds after Dr. T leaves the room? Of course he falls asleep again. And then the movie begins proper. I guess The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T could be compared to The Wizard of Oz, at least in terms of the premise (child unsatisfied with their life dreams of a fantasy world populated by dream versions of their family members/acquaintances). In Bart’s dream, he is being held captive in Dr. T’s brand new Terwilliker Institute- featuring a 500 boy piano where he will force them to play every day for the rest of their lives (the eponymous 5,000 fingers). Bart may be the only chance to stop Dr T’s diabolical plan, but he will need help. Can he convince the apathetic Mr. Zablodowski in time?
Why I like it:
Okay, I will say off the bat that there is some definite nostalgia effect going on here. I personally think that The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T still holds up today, but it is ultimately a strange, silly movie. That said, there are plenty of praiseworthy elements in this Dr. Seuss Classic. Perhaps the most memorable feature of the movie is the fantastic sets (and I mean fantastic in every sense of the word). If you’ve read a Dr. Seuss book, the architecture of the Terwilliker Institute will feel very familiar to you. I will also mention at this time that the movie is also a musical, and I still sing these songs to this day. From the carefree whimsy of “Dream Stuff”, to the poignant (and surprisingly well-sung) “Because We’re Kids”, or even the ominous and vaguely terrifying (especially to a kid) “Dungeon Song”. I honestly do not think that there is a single song I haven’t scoured the internet in search of at least once. The acting is not bad (the kid could definitely have been better, but that’s the risk with child actors, isn’t it?). One character, however, really stands apart from the rest. Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried) is the archetypal large ham villain. That may be a turn-off for some people, but it takes a certain level of abandon and humor to do that kind of acting. Hans Conried wasn’t just over the top, he was looking down at the top from orbit, and it is just awesome to see someone enjoying their role that much.
I definitely won’t say that The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a perfect movie, but I do feel like it hit all the right notes. Just some additional highlights that defy categorization (in no particular order): vintage pickle juice (“from our very own pickle vineyards”), Siamese twins attached at the beard, and then there’s this… amazing scene.
Why other people don’t (like it):
I actually don’t know for sure what caused people in the 50s to hate on this movie so hardcore. I feel like at worst (for people who don’t find it’s particular brand of “whimsy” amusing) it’s just a “silly kid’s movie”. I guess if someone really hates kid’s movies, I could see them walking out, but damn… a whole theater? (also, for the record, I don’t think it’s fair to reduce 5,000 Fingers to “just a kid’s movie”. I think it has plenty in there for adults who don’t mind silliness. It’s actually pretty dark in some places). That may be the biggest downside I can pin against this movie: it really is unabashedly silly (I mean, a hypnosis battle, what?).
So there it is, the best movie nobody has ever seen. Seriously, it’s user rating on Rotten Tomatoes comprises all of 2,950 votes. That might sound like a lot to you, but the next least rated movie in my underrated movie series is Cube, with a dominating 87,811 user ratings. That brings me to an interesting little tangent. As much as I love Dr. T, and as much as I want to share its awesomeness with others, I actually almost didn’t want to write this post. There’s a weird selfish satisfaction we get (maybe not everyone, but enough people that I know it’s at least not just me) from enjoying something that few people have heard of. It’s like you get to be a member of a secret club. I can go to a Youtube clip of the movie and see the paltry 20,893 views and give a silent fist bump to all of the other “initiated” people out there. As much as I want all of my followers to watch The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T. themselves and then share it with everyone they’ve ever known, doing so will take away that “specialness”. Take any song made popular by Guitar Hero. Maybe this has died down by now, but for a long time, if you went to the comments section of a Youtube video of that song, you’d see two main categories of comments: “Guitar Hero sent me here” and “half these people are only here because of Guitar Hero, what posers”. It’s odd that liking the song isn’t enough for those commenters- it has to be liked for the right reasons (presumably this means having been born singing the lyrics to “Ace of Spades”). In this context, I’m usually more in the “X sent me here” camp, so I find myself thinking “who cares why we like the song, we like it, okay?” So yes, I would much rather all of you had grown up watching The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, but I think the importance of bringing attention to such a hidden gem greatly outweighs this selfish Gollum-like possessiveness I feel about it. I’m not sure you could find a physical copy of this movie for purchase (maybe on Amazon/Ebay, but even then…), but it apparently is available to stream from Amazon (not Prime, though). So go out and watch it, you won’t be sorry. Even if your reaction is just “meh” (which it shouldn’t be) then at least you will have seen a little piece of history (“what’s the only screenplay written directly by Dr. Seuss” makes a great trivia question if you want to look wicked cultured at a party).
Thus concludes my first “underrated movies” series. I will now be moving on to other movie related topics for my movie Monday posts. Finally, for those of you following my continuing struggle with Dell Computers and the pernicious forces of hateful technology: you’ll be glad to hear that they finally shipped my computer back to me. I have not gotten out to pick it up yet, but I will be doing so tomorrow!! This means that I should be able to resume my regular posting schedule!! Unless of course they sent it back still broken. Updates tomorrow!!