The James Clayton Column: Dr Seuss and Dr T despairing in Hollywood

As The Lorax arrives in UK cinemas, James looks back at Dr Seuss’s earliest brush with the movies: 1953’s strange, underrated 5000 Fingers Of Dr T...

Today, dear readers, I’m going to tell you tragic tales of moral crusades at the matinee screening and explain how The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr T was given the finger back in the 50s. You’re most likely not familiar with Dr T and those 5,000 fingers, and changing this sad state of affairs is one of my missions in life, so bear with me and prepare to be amazed when you do finally see this long-forgotten movie.

Penned by Theodor Seuss Geisel – more commonly known as Dr Seuss – the 1953 film is a fantasy musical in glorious three-strip Technicolor that follows the dream experience of a young boy named Bart. Our hero falls into a surreal nightmare world ruled over by his dictatorial piano teacher Dr Terwilliker who is a mad maestro-autocrat with a taste for hypnosis and outlandish fashion (as attested to by the tune Dressing Song Do- Me-Do Duds).

Dr T’s evil scheme involves imprisoning 500 children at his Terwilliker Institute where he’ll force them all to wear a silly blue “Happy Fingers” hat and play an impossibly long piano that requires 5,000 fingers performing in unison.

It’s a brilliant film – an absurdist work of glorious imagination with hilarious song-and-dance sequences, a witty script and wonderful performances from all the cast. The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr T has all the joy and delight of Seuss’ printed picture books and is, in my humble opinion, a fabulous vintage family-friendly film and an indisputable – albeit slightly crazy – classic Hollywood musical.

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Yet Dr Seuss himself allegedly rated the finished film – the only movie he ever wrote – as a “debaculous fiasco” and erased it from memory. Others likewise beat down The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr T in brutal fashion, and legend has it that attendees of its premiere started walking out after 15 minutes.

It was a box office flop doomed to become a cult curio somewhere in the footnotes of American pop culture. In an alternate universe there are suburban playgrounds packed with children that wear ‘Happy Fingers’ headgear and sing Get Together Weather all day long. This sadly, is not that universe.

This universe most makes me sad when excellent works of art get cast aside, ignored or actively shunned because they’re a bit ‘weird’, unconventional or uncompromisingly odd. The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr T strikes me as a prime example of that from 60 years ago, and it’s a huge shame when there’s so much imagination and entertainment for all ages on offer. Films such as The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, Gentlemen Broncos and John Carter have followed in Dr T’s dancing footsteps, and all of them deserved so much better.

Nevertheless, after that “debaculous fiasco” in the 50s, and years of silence on a cinematic front, something shifted around the Millennium. Hollywood seemed to have a fresh revelation that Dr Seuss was a really good storyteller whose material was ripe for movie adaptation.

Big screen versions of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Cat In The Hat and Horton Hears A Who! came in quick succession, all suped-up with modern special effects to bring a touch of Seuss into the 21st century multiplex with varying degrees of success.

This year The Lorax has joined the list, and that’s good news for me as someone eager to experience Seussian whimsy at the cinema and as someone who continues to hope for a mass re-appraisal of The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr T. The Lorax has already done excellent work and yielded a massive box office haul on its North American release, which definitely benefits my awareness spreading mission.

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Nevertheless, in spite of its popularity with cinemagoers, The Lorax experienced a mixed reception and the reaction to it from some quarters has been firmly negative. The film has received flak for tie-in marketing deals with car companies and disposable diapers that don’t sit easily with the spirit of the source material. You can’t have your cake and eat it, and you can’t completely effectively promote an environmental message on one hand while advertising SUVs on the other.

From the other side of the socio-political axis The Lorax has got a lot of grief for its ardent eco-friendly ideology. Just as the original book has bothered lobbyists for the logging industry in the past, so the fresh CGI-animated blockbuster has piqued the wrath of contemporary conservative commentators.

In the eyes of these pundits, “Hollywood is once again trying to indoctrinate our children” and The Lorax deserves a tongue-lashing for such audacious ill intent. Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network notably dubbed it “insidious nonsense” in a bizarre polemic that linked the Occupy Wall Street movement, Studio Ghibli’s Arrietty, Barack Obama and his liberal movie industry buddies in a grand media conspiracy to force particular agendas on children. (The fact that Arrietty is a Japanese film doesn’t matter, I suppose. It’s still, in Dobbs’estimation, encouraging the redistribution of wealth and class envy on unsuspecting families.)

Woe betide you, then, if you thought The Lorax was simply a colourful kids’ film featuring the vocal talents of Danny DeVito. It’s actually an ideological weapon of mass destruction warping the young minds of mainstream society, actively making them swallow a grotesque green agenda.

The Lorax thus joins the liberal menace list alongside The Muppets, which made a villain out of the oil industry (Chris Cooper’s rapping baron Tex Richman), and the Happy Feet and Ice Age flicks, that raise the issue of global warming. But all this political agenda talk simplifies things somewhat, and misses the vital point – these motion pictures are primarily creative works of entertainment that are designed foremost to entertain audiences (specifically, younger audiences).

It’s upsetting to see angry adults casting judgement on movies that they most likely haven’t seen, bringing their own prejudices to gatecrash a party that wasn’t designed for them. You should always question things and consider their meaning and ideological outlook, but this kind of skewered vitriol is extreme and ill-considered, especially when the artworks in question end up abused as a political device by people with axes to grind.

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It’s also possibly dangerous for the creative industries if the result is even more conservative moviemaking that produces bland family flicks that have nothing to say and no imagination for the sake of being safe.

Meanwhile, Dr Seuss still hasn’t got his dues, and his film legacy remains a bit of a debaculous fiasco. I do not like green eggs and ham and I do not like seeing the wonderful, the whimsical and the weird worn down by, to borrow a term from Dr T, “the idiotic cock-eyed flum-dummery”.

James Clayton has been brainwashed by furry animated tree-hugging animals and despotic piano teachers from a musical dreamworld. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ previous column here.

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