Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

The Awful Movie Dr. Seuss Made in 1953

By Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 08:47 pm

Caryn and I watched an old movie on cable TV recently that left us traumatized for days. Ironically, the movie was trying to be a light-hearted and whimsical children's musical. It was written by Dr. Seuss in 1953. The movie left us traumatized because it was so very, very bad.

I'm talking about the legendary but little-watched 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, a live action film about a boy who hates his piano teacher. This was the only movie Dr. Seuss ever tried to make, and it went over so badly with audiences in 1953 that he never tried again, and the movie nearly disappeared from view. It was almost crazy and psychedelic enough to gain a second life as a midnight cult flick, but it's too excruciatingly boring for the midnight circuit. It's hard to watch without wincing ... often.

5000 Fingers doesn't start out too badly: a sweet kid is suffering through a piano lesson in an antique parlor (this setting must recall Theodor Seuss Geisel's own childhood in Springfield, Massachusetts). The boy falls asleep and has a bad dream in which he's persecuted by his nasty piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, who is also scheming to marry the kid's widowed mother. In this dream, the kid wears a glove on the top of his beanie, is chased by weird chubby thugs in brightly colored suits who resemble proto-Oompa-Loompas, dodges a pair of roller-skating old men sharing a common beard, and is forced to participate in a 500-kid piano performance on a swirling 5000 key piano.

I assure you that I just made the movie sound better than it is.

The concept is gigantic, and the visual effect does evoke Dr. Seuss in its curvy and biomorphic shapes. But everything about the production feels off. The set design falls short, relying on cheap-looking stage furniture that might work on a Broadway stage, but doesn't look right on film. The acting, unfortunately, is even more wooden than the sets. As the piano teacher villain, character actor Hans Conreid sticks his nose in the air and flares his nostrils for the length of the movie. The low point of the movie is probably a long, pained tango between Dr. T and a dopey plumber who is completely unconvincing as the male hero.

Even at moments like this, the cinematic ambition is clear, and I can imagine the film crew standing around, stunned, while the film was being made. "This is either going to be a masterpiece or a complete stinker," they must have said to each other. They were right.

Donald Pease's biography of Dr. Seuss (reviewed here in 2010) sheds some light on how this film managed to get the chemistry so wrong, at least from its star author's point of view.

Geisel wrote the lyrics, screenplay and sketchbooks for the film, which he desparately wanted to be a success. But the producers' repeated demands for revisions led to his loss of control over the production. The final cut was worse than he feared.

5000 Fingers of Dr. T is easily identifiable as a Dr. Seuss work, as it presents one of his archetypal plotlines: a brave, vulnerable kid battling a corrupt adult. It differs in one significant way, though: here, the surreal "Suess World" is a dream state, whereas in Dr. Seuss's books, the Suess world is simply the book's reality.

But there's nothing wrong with dream-state fantasies (think of "The Wizard of Oz"). Something went wrong with some very good ingredients here, though, and there must be a life lesson for all ambitious writers in the obvious failure of this collaboration. I think the lesson is more about process than about substance. There probably was a great movie hidden inside this disaster, but the filmmakers failed to bring it out.

Why did The Wizard of Oz succeed so well with many of the same ingredients -- a villain, a kid hero, a long dream sequence -- as this frilly mess? Some of the difference is the luck of the draw: Margaret Hamilton brought it as the Wicked Witch, while Hans Conreid lays an egg as Dr. T. Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen wrote amazing songs for The Wizard of Oz, but 5000 Fingers sounds like musical pap.

Still, these kinds of limitations should not have to be fatal flaws. A movie's creative team should have the flexibility and imagination to detect and fix problems like these in real time, as production proceeds. It's interesting to imagine what other movies Dr. Seuss might have eventually made if this bad experience hadn't sent him back to the solitude of the book-writing life, never to try again. Could this strange film have possibly realized its potential? We'll never know.

18 Responses to "The Awful Movie Dr. Seuss Made in 1953"

by TKG on

I love this movie. I saw it as a youngster on TV on a Saturday afternoon. Then I saw it again in college with a bunch of stoned out moviegoers at the art house. It went over well.

It's a great classic movie yet your review is absolutely right on -- it is a terrible movie.

But the images and surrealality is stand out. It's also kind of dark and heavy in parts.

It's crazy.

I think it is available at archive.org.

I think the problem is Hollywood totally screwed it up by trying to make it a family type picture as well as a far out fantasy. They also used a pedestrian hack director which didn't help. The script was not good. It was maudlin and saccharin and then in other parts just weird and bizarre.

It's kind of like the On the Road movie. They screwed up something that could be great by trying to make it too good by thinking too much and tweaking too much so that it would be big and successful.

Supposedly Stanley Kramer directed parts of it without credit. But he's overrated anyhow and the actual director did not do a good job. There was another movie from the 50's by Disney called Darby O'Gill and the Little People that had a similar problem. It was a great movie, or could have been, with some great visuals, but the director just wasn't that good.

The Dr T movie is a great movie to see and I recommend anyone who hasn't seen it to watch it -- but it is a godawful boring movie at the same time.

It is unique. And you got to admire the ambition behind it.

Who wrote the script for Suess's flick?
HE did and it was sick, sick, sick!
Did he ever try again?
No, and for us, that's win, win, win!
What about The Grinch? you ask,
Thank God that was another's task!

by TKG on

Hi Bill.

I think this was better than the Grinch movie with Jim Carrey.

Suess's script probably got rewritten over and over and it wasn't really his by the end.

I wish I had some rhymes...

by mnaz on

i do not like it in a box
i do not like it with a fox
i will not watch it in a house
i will not watch it with a mouse
i do not like it here or there
i will not watch it anywhere
i do not like this dr. T
i do not like it, my oh me

by Levi Asher on

Love these comments! TKG, I think you make an important point, and I agree: as bad as "5000 Fingers" is, the Grinch movie with Jim Carrey is worse. That's because "5000 Fingers" is bad in a fascinating way, while "Grinch" and several other recent posthumous Dr. Seuss movies are just bad in depressing ways.

by Matthew on

Hats on those kids should tell you all you need to know.

by Alan Onickel on

I would love to see how the movie would've turned out without the idiot Producers trying to "fix" things. Some of the images are brilliant and must've been frightening to a child in 1953. Very "trippy". Hans Conreid has always been a favorite of mine and seems to be the only one allowed to be a "character" (though at times seeming tied down by the direction). Under the correct hands... Ahh, for sure that thing we'll never know, but to that thought I'd like to go!!

TKG, I had forgotten about the Jim Carrey film. I was referring to the animated Grinch with Boris Karloff doing the voice. I've always liked that one! You're right, the Jim Carrey Grinch movie was nothing special. Even worse was the Mike Meyers Cat in the Hat!

by Funbud on

I've tried to watch this film at least three times on TCM. "Tried" is the key word in that sentence. I've never made it past the 20 - 25 minute mark. I love '50s Hollywood cinema, particularly of the big, technicolor variety (and the color in "5000 Fingers" is particularly vivid/lurid) but this, I agree, is just bad, bad, bad. I also found it surprisingly boring, although I'm not a big fan of kids as movie protagonists so that probably colors my opinion of the plot.

Dr. Seuss just seems so much more naturally suited to animation! The TV versions of "The Grinch" and "The Lorax" were charming and persuasive.

by Don on

I imagine you'll take some heat for your diss of the maniacal Dr. T.
The 5K Fingers, while no grand cinematic triumph, is much beloved in certain corners - and was in fact a stalwart of the midnight-movie circuit in it's heyday, the late '70 and 1980s (as boomers grew up and before the VCR kidnapped the audience for late-night stoner film fests.)

No surprise that studio execs kibitzing crippled Ted Geisel's flamboyant vision> But it was studio film, a low-budg quickie, in the glory days of the studio system. And I got news for you, it's no more painful than many other kid-flicks of the era. (Have you tried sitting thru George Pal's tedious Thom Thumb recently?)

As with any work of art that falls shy of the mark, the trick is to enjoy what's worth watching - and the creative vision that animates the heart of Seuss's 5000 Digit-pic is worth more than the barn load of art direction and SFX of many contemporary losers. I for one would take another screening of Dr. T - any day - over the torture of sitting through another minute of Lez Mizerable (the most aptly named turkey in history?)

Nod Bellcamp
(Suess it out)

by Kevin B on

I love this movie. I love the ballet with the strange musical instruments in the dungeons. I love the tongue in cheek attitude ("Is it atomic?" "VERY atomic"). I love the fight song (Hail to thee our hallowed halls. We got poison ivy walls. Pooh on Harvard, Yale, and such-- We got ivy they can't touch!).

It takes all kinds, so don't let this one review stop you from checking it out. Other reviews by other people that you also don't know give it much higher marks.

by Robert on

Huh. I've always enjoyed this movie. Chacun a son gout. Never knew how much Geisel didn't like how it turned out.

by Matty on

Has a truly successful live-action (even with 3-D) EVER done justice to Dr. Seuss' wildly imaginative illustrations? I don't believe so.

There are simply some things that animation can do better.

Thankfully, there's so much more to remember the artist for.

by Mouse on

I love this movie. But I also feel you have to have a bit of a queer sensibility to get the most out of it. The camp level alone is through the roof, and the dungeon musical scene is the gayest thing Hollywood produced until decades later. And the weird, creepy, love song between the plumber and the little boy! That had me cringing and laughing at the same time. I loved the song Doe Me Doe Day so much it's now my ringtone. "I want my undulating undies with the maribou frills" -- I mean, c'mon! This movie is gayer than gay.

by Jeff McMahon on

I think this is a pretty terrific movie - it's inventive, it's funny, it's never boring. It's probably too intense for the age range originally targeted.

Indeed, looking at this review, I don't see any convincing arguments for why you think the movie is actually bad beyond 'it doesn't work for me'. Which is certainly a valid reaction, but not exactly a critical analysis.

by George Arndt on

I don't think live action is the best way to protray Dr. Suess's ideas. 2000's the Grinch was equally disasterous.

by Levi Asher on

I enjoyed all these responses and opinions.

Jeff McMahon: you're right that I'm not attempting a critical analysis here, but I'll try to answer your question. I think the movie's most visible fatal flaw is the acting. A lack of conviction is visible on all the actors's faces (the poor kid does a better job at appearing engaged than any of the three principal grownups, the villain, the mother or the hero/plumber). All the actors appear to be deeply confused as to the point of the movie, and wear pained expressions when they should be having fun. The uncomfortable acting creates an aura of excruciating misdirection that overwhelms the movie.

As I write above, the set design and music are similarly unconvincing. The script has a couple of good moments (yes, Kevin B, I also like "Is it atomic?" "VERY atomic") but not enough -- Dr. Seuss cooked up a pretty thin soup here.

It's been often said that a film or theater producer or director's first challenge is not to win over the audience, but to win over their own cast and crew. If the cast and crew doesn't buy it, failure is guaranteed. That seems to have happened here.

Though not a bad film I do agree live action does not do it justice. The Grinch animated and live action was pants.

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