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5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, The (Blu-ray Review)

27 Jun, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Mill Creek
$14.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘G’
Stars Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy, Hans Conried, Tommy Rettig.

The evolution of a movie into a cult movie has to begin somewhere, and often times, it does so with the picture failing big-time at the box office. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T easily finessed this opening step, and I once heard Art Linklater, of all people, note that even years after its 1953 release, the mere mention of its title could stop conversation at a Hollywood party. Maybe this was an exaggeration and maybe not, though given a cast without much marquee value, any contributing production overages must have come from the crazy sets and script re-workings/reshoots after previews didn’t go well. IMDb.com has the budget as $1.6 million, which wasn’t exactly Bowery Boys or Whip Wilson territory.

Fingers has the only original screenplay that Dr. Seuss ever wrote, though he shared writing credit with longtime Hollywood veteran Allan Scott, who penned six of the Astaire-Rogers teamings in the 1930s. Whatever you think of the picture, which is absolutely one of a kind, it sounds, looks and feels like a product of the good doctor (whose real name was Theodore Geisel) — brandishing far more charm and invention than the Seuss screen adaptations of the early 2000s, which had the cosmetics down but not very much else (charm included). Except for swan song The Caine Mutiny, this whacked-out kids fantasy is the only movie from producer Stanley Kramer’s early-1950s contract at Columbia Pictures to have been shot in color, and certainly it’s a tough one to reconcile with the grittier black-and-white universes from Kramer Columbias like The Sniper, Eight Iron Men, My Six Convicts and so on.

The title here refers to the kind of dream a child might have were he or she to wash down four or five Costco-sized cases of Gummy Bears with a hundred Mountain Dews. And yet, the one we’re treated to stems from everyday events in the real life of a young lad (Tommy Rettig) who’d rather play baseball than take piano lessons from tyrannical Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried). Doc T has snookered the boy’s widowed mother (Mary Healy) into thinking he’s some kind of musical genius — style-cramping a plumber-in-jeans (Peter Lind Hayes) hoping to attain the inside track with mom, who’s pretty and well-meaning but also (if you listen to her) kind of a pain. Hayes’s “August Zabladowski” (definitely a Dr. Seuss kind of name) isn’t getting much of anywhere on that count.

In the boy’s dream, he and Zabladowski maintain something very close to their established personalities, while mom now comes off as a much different person completely under the Dr. T. spell and Terwilliker himself as the kind of full-fledged madman one would expect to see teaching music at Trump University. In the same fantasy slumber, Rettig (character name: “Bart”) now finds himself imprisoned or at least trapped in the imposing Terwilliker Institute, a castle-like structure with all kinds of secret rooms, passageways and oddball characters — as well as a huge circular keyboard to serve 500 abducted boys (that would be 5000 fingers divided by ten) who must practice the piano all the time. The production design of this by Kramer regular Rudolph Sternad is unforgettable and probably even more potent if you’re a kid. I myself didn’t get to see Dr. T for the first time until mid-adolescence via a black-and-white print, which is kind of beside the point.

Though I always liked Hayes on TV in the ’50s (his occasionally leering eyes conveyed mildly wicked humor), he’s indisputably listless here, as is his real-life wife and career-long partner Healy. But unless you want to count his unmatchable same-year voiceover as Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan, Conried has the signature role of his longtime career while Rettig is as appealing as he was in just about everything. The movie came out about the year before the young actor started playing “Jeff” in TV’s “Lassie” and appeared with Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum and Rory Calhoun in River of No Return. Given the run-ins Rettig had with authorities over cannabis he had as an adult, I used to wonder as a teenager if he and Bob ever lit one up on the River set. Well, probably not, given that Rettig would have been about 13 at the time.

What the movie really needs is a filmmaker with a distinct personality, but instead it gets Roy Rowland — a journeyman whose not unpleasing screen credits were all over the place (I’m guessing he was the only person who directed both Mario Lanza and Mickey Spillane). Despite some dippy songs (as well as at least one good Seuss-ian one), the picture basically has Conried, Rettig, the production design and an atmosphere of nuttiness going for it, which is essentially enough. There’s also onetime wrestler and familiar ’50s face Henry Kulky as a Terwilliker stooge named Stroogo and two middle-aged roller skaters whose beards are conjoined in Siamese twin fashion and whose final dispatching is something I’ve never been able to get out of my mind (the scene reminds me a little of the one where Talos gets his in Jason and the Argonauts). I’ve also always been awestruck by Bart/Rettig’s headgear, which is a kind of blue beanie with an extended yellow hand on top where a plastic propeller would otherwise go — and with the words “Happy Fingers” (Dr. T’s motto) printed just below. I remember a discussion in the mid-’80s (and thus way before eBay) that I had with my ex-partner Ray at the AFI Theater when we were running the picture in my tenure as programmer/director. We were speculating about the extent to which we’d clean out our bank accounts if we ever had a chance to buy one, a sartorial opportunity that would have been as great as finding, say, a Rootie Kazootie tie.

Though Sony has previously issued Fingers on DVD both individually and on a Kramer box set that showed us where this movie and Ship of Fools intersect, the new Blu-ray is from Mill Creek, which charges lower than usual prices for “you get what you pay for” product. But every once in a while, the company kind of falls into one and releases a better-than-expected Blu-ray whose printing material is obviously in pretty good shape as it is. This is one of them, making for an acceptable release (especially for the money), but, oh, what the 4K folks at Criterion could do with this one. Until such an unlikely polish, Mill Creek’s rendering will do, and I will now prepare to see if Fingers makes for a playable double bill with Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women or maybe a festival of Mr. T. The movie isn’t perfect, but I pity the fools (on a ship or otherwise) who didn’t go see it at the time.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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