Guest Post by: Mark Burns
In 1953, Theodor Geisel, better known to us as popular children’s author Dr. Seuss, set about, along with producer Stanley Kramer and director Roy Rowland, to create a surrealistic, fantasy musical, the intention of which was to explore “themes of world dominance and oppression coming out of World War II” in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Strangely enough, at the time, everyone dismissed it, including Seuss. Audiences walked out of the theater at the premiere, and Seuss would go on to call it a “debaculous fiasco” essentially flushing it down the memory hole and castigating it as outside his more renowned body of work.
In this regard, it joins other surrealist musicals and/or nightmarish explorations of oddball instrumentation such as “Their Satanic Majesties Request” by The Rolling Stones and “Bluejeans and Moonbeams” by Captain Beefheart (albums whose cover art and sonic atmosphere could also be said to conjure up starscapes and visions similar to the props and pieces shown in the film, and much like 5,000 Fingers were entirely disowned by both creator and fans alike). I suspect 5,000 Fingers’ devotee Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys) might agree. Many, myself among them, have wondered if Labyrinth and Return to Oz weren’t at least partially inspired by the film. This author considers it one of his personal favorite films, a fifties’ cinematic gem that needed neither Marlene Dietrich nor Judy Garland (although, interestingly enough, Rudolph Sernad was the art director for the film, in addition to Judgment at Nuremberg, a piece of Holocaust cinematography starring both actresses). A cult classic with a devoted following, let’s look at some of the “inexplicable phenomenon” strewn about artfully in the film.
The opening scene shows Bart Collins (not to be confused with Bartholomew Cubbins) dreaming of being chased about what appears to be some sort of burnished, haunted playground consisting almost solely of mounds, by a group of spandex-clad men carrying technicolor rainbow nets, no less. Jung might’ve chimed in by reminding us that dreams of being chased symbolize the conscious mind’s estrangement from the unconscious. Was Bart being pursued in this dream merely by his own inner rage toward his no-show father? What is this villainous entity, whose arms are outstretched in Christ-like fashion (while his hat blasts forth purple light), subconsciously communicating? The viewer is left to speculate.
All we come to know in the minutes that follow is that his father has died and his mother, the sort of fifties era female that would like her son to receive classical training in piano, is subjecting him to stressful activities conducive only to deep, delta sleep (serving no utilitarian value in Bart’s mind).
Shortly before Bart collapses into sleep, where he will go to a dream world for the next eighty or so minutes of the film, we are introduced to a character named August Zabladowski–a possible reference to Benjamin Zabludowski, leader of Warsaw’s Jewish Community council during WWII (Stanley Kramer, himself of Jewish origin, might’ve been able to confirm this; I remain unconvinced, but it’s possible). Zabladowski is the Collins family plumber, a ho hum, easy going guy who Bart sees as a friend and a father figure. But let’s move on…
Bart finds himself at a grand piano suited for 500 little boys, who the evil dictator Terwilliker intends to have perform for him en mass there at his academy, a sort of psychedelic prison surrounded by electrified barbed wire (a no-doubt reference to the Nazi’s Grenzhochspannungshindernis). After getting acquainted with Terwilliker in this context, Bart begins to run from the piano as Terwilliker ascends to his abode. The two-story piano itself is the centerpiece of the whole place, another stunning visual, winding about the main drag like something out of a Salvador Dali painting. Suess was no Dali, but he beckons you to take him seriously as an aesthete with the distorted architecture and random slopes that Bart finds himself running through and about.
Eerie, Nazi-like omens abound throughout the institute, repeating memes such as “Practice Makes Perfect” (got that Allen Iverson?)–even mentioning Bart’s own name before robotically informing him that “the happiest years of your life” will be entirely inside this all too Orwellian compound. The disembodied face of Terwilliker not only resembles Big Brother dictating via Telescreen, but could also be a reference to vorticist art, a short-lived neo-reactionary counterpart to the more unabashedly modernist cubism, and whose founding fathers were (in some cases) openly fascist (see Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis). Mark E. Smith of The Fall has mentioned Lewis as a major influence; the aformentioned Jello once called 5,000 Fingers “the most punk film he’s ever seen”.
One theme that runs constant throughout the film is mind control. From the hypnotic hold Dr. Terwilliker has over Bart’s mom, to what could be a reference to water fluoridation (albeit under the label “sanitation”), autocrat and aristocratic despot Terwilliker has the entire racket under his thumb. Just in case it wasn’t clear enough that Terwilliker is a right-wing control freak, he even asks Mrs. Collins, “Have I not graciously condescended to take your hand in marriage?” (note to feminists: trigger warning].
Gargoyles of the Seussian sort abound, alluding to this being some sort of parallel dimension to Nazi-occupied Old Europe, orbiting somewhere around or about Planet X (in actuality, however, Bart still dreams it as being within America). As if that weren’t enough, twins on roller skates, attached at the beard, are shown chasing after Bart. This spectacle is fifties retro-futurism on display, as well as a utilization of doppleganger mythos, the twins being a harbinger of impending doom. One wonders if a young Billy Gibbons (Moving Sidewalks) didn’t have Terwilliker’s henchmen (characters Johnson and Whitney) embedded somewhere deep in his psyche.
Bart eventually finds himself ascending a ladder leading to… nowhere at all….
The spiraling staircases featured throughout, as well as the ladder-to-nowhere imagery (Bart ascends the ladder before parachuting to a safe landing) all serve to remind the cultured viewer of such famous art as William Blake’s “Jacob’s Ladder” and the 12th Century “Ladder of Divine Ascent” icon in Saint Catherine’s Monastery (Egypt). It remains a mystery if religious imagery was Suess’ conscious intent, although religion and “theology” get explicitly referenced in another one of his animations (see The Hoober-Bloob Highway), a short film which bears striking resemblance to 5,000 Fingers. [Regardless of intent, synchronicity and the inner workings of the subconscious sometimes work in tandem to produce great works of art.]
Shortly after Bart’s eluding Terwilliker’s thugs, he pops out of an air vent , finding himself in the company of the plumber Zabladowski, who, for seemingly no real reason, makes a reference to the king of Persia. Perhaps somewhat interestingly, later on in the film will see Terwilliker himself decked out in Persian military uniform (Persian monarch Reza Shah was friendly with Hitler and the Axis Powers before being deposed). Soon thereafter Zabladowski agrees (at Bart’s behest) to look into at the welfare of Mrs. Collins, where he finds her inside her room behind some curtains. She emerges forth and they begin to make contact before Terwilliker intrudes, making reference to Gnostic healing incantation אברא כדברא (“Abracadabra”) and engaging in what can only be described as a qi gong docey doe of sorts with the plumber (qi gong itself is an ancient healing art vindicated in the West by electrophysiology; it can also be used in the context of fighting or kung fu).
After their daffy dalliance, Terwilliker engages in pure revelation of the method, admitting to being a villain and a “loathsome racketeer,” prompting Zabladowski to accuse him of all show but no substance to back it (cue L. Frank Baum), while Mrs. C demonstrates doublethink after Dr. T gives her a knowing look, parroting off that “the sole purpose of our endeavor is the musical betterment of American youth.” All very interesting and curious when you know the WWII backstory to the film. Flattery (and even bribery) is engaged in, putting the plumber’s mind at ease, and the three then proceed to dance about a giant portrait of Terwilliker in masonic pose.
When the silliness comes to a halt, Zabladowski returns to Bart, declaring everything to be fine, having been effectively hoodwinked. We are then shown Dr. T’s true colors once more, and a death warrant for Zabladowski is put out (to the “physics laboratory” no less; calling to mind Joseph Mengele, Joseph Goebbels, or some other Waffen-SS covert operation).
Mrs. Collins is put away in her “Lock-Me-Tight,” with some sort of fractal geometry pattern adorning the outside. The film carries on, reminding you that this is a Seuss musical meant to entertain younger audiences. After a brief falling out over the trickery, Bart and the plumber make up. Bart is informed Zabladowski is being paid in “pastoolas” (pasta? Italy? Mussolini?), and that Dr. T isn’t paying him in American money (which he keeps “all to himself”).
Other phony currencies are rattled off, such as kratchmuks and zlobecks. Bart then agrees to pay him in American money, the real deal, in order to have him working on his behalf. Eventually finding his way upstairs, he nabs the key to the safe while Dr. T is asleep, snoring away, and Bart shortly thereafter stumbles upon a certificate of “disintegration” (another Holocaust reference no doubt), written in calligraphy and featuring a skull and crossbones. Inexplicably, the numbers “37 -5” appear at the top–375 A.D. being the year Valentian II (a four-year old boy–Bart?) was proclaimed co-emperor of Rome alongside his regent-mother Justina (Heloise Collins?), largely due to fear of usurpation. Could this be a reference (even if unconsciously) to Dr. T as usurper of the Collins family home, paralleled in Bart’s dream as this surreal boys camp-prison? It certainly could be a reference to Yale, and a nod to its masonic club “Skull and Bones” (322), which is mentioned toward the end of the film (alongside other Ivy League schools, such as Harvard and Princeton) as being in competition with Terwilliker’s institute. Was Seuss implying these schools are every bit as much a racket as the school in this film?
The film carries on, with the alarm going off and Bart finding himself running toward God-knows-where. He slides down a pole into the dungeon. After a lengthy jam by Dr. T’s condemned jazz musicians (“Negermusik” was prohibited in the Third Reich), Bart escapes out of the dungeon in Super Mario fashion, where he is reacquainted with his wanna-be-dad pal once more. They are apprehended, and Bart is forced to join the other boys bussed in to perform for the glory and honor of Terwilliker’s ego on the grand piano suited for 5,000 happy little fingers. Before he’s decked out in Persian military attire, we see Terwilliker looking awfully like Caesar as he phones in to the loudspeaker-intercom you’re never once shown (save in the dungeon). A halfway campy scene ensues, as he sings:
I want my undulating undies with the maribou frills
I want my beautiful bolero with the porcupine quills
I want my purple nylon girdle with the orange-blossom buds
‘Cause I’m going doe-me-doing in my doe-me-doe duds?
…perhaps suggesting a homosexual undertone to Terwilliker’s totalitarianism (pink swaztika?). Even still, could Dr. T (in this scene and in others) have been a prototype for David Bowie’s mid-seventies cabaret-fascist persona, the icy cold Thin White Duke? There’s just enough camp -just enough aristocracy- to leave us guessing.
The film ends with a silly makeshift “musicfix” stifling Terwilliker’s grandiose dreams of top-down total control. Bart and Zabladowski made it out of bubblegum, a ping pong ball, a jack knife, buttons, a yo-yo, checkers, a top, a whistle, a buckle, and a marble. This is that part in the film where some disappointment may be warranted. The climactic scene of the school boys busting loose into a more anarchic sound on the now-deposed Terwilliker’s majestic double piano could have inspired Gerald Scarfe’s music video for the Pink Floyd hit, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two).” The Thelemic Aeon of Horus, the crowned and conquering child, also comes to mind. Not long after, Bart awakes, only to see find himself in the company of his plumber friend, who proceeds to “man up” and take Mrs. Collins’ out on a date, fulfilling Bart’s dreams for a father figure.
This theme, which runs through the entire film, has been explored more in-depth by other reviewers of the film. For the most part, my intent has been to hone in on other aspects that I feel have been overlooked and which may serve to highlight some deeper meaning buried within; perhaps the answer lies more in deleted scenes. There are purportedly deleted scenes, such as Bart’s descent into the dungeon, where the executioner/elevator operator makes explicit reference to the Holocaust, mentioning gas chambers and such. Dr. Seuss’ original script was over a thousand pages, ten times more pages than your typical script at the time. It’s unlikely the film will be reconstructed in its entirety, but it has been, to a large part, vindicated as a children’s classic, complete with a devoted cult following, and is most definitely a rare moment of darkness in Seuss’ otherwise whimsical catalog.
-Mark Burns can be contacted here: firstname.lastname@example.org