The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

Clearly, no running column devoted to memorable movie scenes can neglect the fine art of hoofing. Dance has always been an integral part of the medium’s appeal, even if the death of the live-action musical (Chicago and the forthcoming Nine notwithstanding) means that most notable choreography can now be found on TV reality-show competitions. Trouble is, what I don’t know about dance could fill a complete set of the Encyclopedia Ignoramus. Over the last few weeks, thumbing through my DVD collection, I’ve looked at classic routines by 

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, the Nicholas brothers, Busby Berkeley, etc., and come away every time feeling as if trying to write about what makes them special would amount to little more than “Damn, look at ’em go!” And then, by chance, I happened to revisit one of my all-time favorite dance routines, from a musical not exactly renowned for its amazing athleticism, and it occurred to me that I might perhaps at least score some points for originality. Generally speaking, when you think of cinematic dance sequences, Dr. Seuss isn’t the first name that pops to mind.

Made in 1953—after Theodor Geisel’s pseudonymous work had begun attracting notice, but before classics like Horton Hears A Who! (1954), How The Grinch Stole Christmas! and The Cat In The Hat (both 1957) made him a household name—The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T. is the only movie Dr. Seuss ever wrote. By all accounts, he absolutely hated the finished film, feeling that his vision had been warped beyond recognition. And maybe it had, but I don’t care, frankly. Not only is Dr. T. easily one of the greatest children’s films ever made, it also ranks high among the flat-out weirdest major-studio releases of all time. This film would boggle people’s minds if it came out today; I can only imagine how it played down the street from Shane and From Here To Eternity. And while its production design and much of its dialogue is distinctly Seussian, the Doctor very likely had no part in fashioning this particular sequence.

Plot doesn’t really matter much in a dream-logic world like this one, but the basic story involves a little kid named Bart (played by Tommy Rettig of Lassie fame) who hates taking piano lessons from pretentious martinet Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried). Falling asleep at the keys, Bart has a nightmare in which Dr. T. has brainwashed Bart’s mother (Mary Healy) into running a giant, sadistic piano-institute-cum-prison. Also appearing in the dream is friendly neighborhood plumber Mr. Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), to whom the fatherless Bart has developed a filial attachment. Here, Mr. Zabladowski, who’s on hand to install the joint’s sinks, agrees to check on Bart’s mom. Then he runs into Dr. T., who for no apparent reason (perhaps he mistook him for Joe The Plumber?) engages the guy, whom he’s never laid eyes on before, in a hilarious, wonderfully intricate hypno-duel.

Damn, look at ’em go!

Obviously, these aren’t professional dancers—but then, they aren’t being asked to perform complicated steps. What makes the sequence such a delight is the inventive choreography and the sheer goofy commitment of Conried and Hayes, who treat this silliness with the sort of deranged intensity you’d expect from actual hand-to-hand combat. I wasn’t familiar with Dr. T choreographer Eugene Loring, but I wasn’t surprised, when I looked him up on the IMDB, to discover that he went on to choreograph such classic musicals as A Star Is Born, Funny Face, and Silk Stockings. You can almost hear him chortling aloud as he devises some of those movements. “Okay, Peter, on each beat here, I want you to make a lunging, hedge-clipping motion, and Hans you’re gonna sink one notch lower to the ground with each clip, and then Peter, you corkscrew him back to his feet.” Loring also makes expert use of intentional stumbling, which serves to cover his ass should his two non-dancers fall short in the grace department. Although Conried actually proves pretty damn limber with those two quasi-splits he does. 

Another nice touch is that this hyper-masculine dance-fight happens to take place in a room so frilly and pink that even Liberace probably would have winced at the sight of it. This is apparently Dr. Terwilliker’s notion—but actually Bart’s notion, since it’s his dream—of what a woman would find appealing. It’s also the least Seussian set in the entire picture, though you can see a stylized building through the window at the back of the frame. (I’ve also included a shot of Bart and Mr. Zabladowski walking up the stairs to the room, with those unmistakable Dr. Seuss hands pointing the way.) I don’t know whether this poker-faced extravagance is representative of what Geisel found so disappointing—he chose never to talk about the film, as far as I can determine, except to disown it in general—but to my mind, it’s a quietly witty choice that’s emblematic of the many ways in which Dr. T. takes on a rich, imaginative life of its own, transcending the reductive label of “the Dr. Seuss movie.” Director Roy Rowland never did anything else of any real note, but I’ve always meant to seek out some of his other films (The Girl Hunters, Rogue Cop, Excuse My Dust), just in case this one wasn’t a fluke.

What makes me particularly curious about Rowland is the way he works with the actors. Rather than end the clip immediately after the dance concludes, I let it continue for a minute or so, just to give you a flavor of the performance style, which is arrestingly unique. Conried is doing a pretty straightforward (though delectable) high-comic European snob routine, but Hayes and Healy (who were married in real life, and apparently only worked as a duo, including on their early-’60s TV show, Peter Loves Mary) have perfected a casual deadpan that seems eerily right for a kid-pic, as if they embody a child’s-eye caricature of adult behavior. (Hayes somehow even takes that warmly robotic mien into the dance routine itself.) Their performances are as stylized as the decor, but they don’t telegraph that to the audience the way contemporary actors in kids’ movies often do—there’s no sly winking here, no sense of actors deliberately playing down to a prospective audience they perceive as kinda dim. Which is also true of today’s great children’s movies—but then, those are all animated.

Still, what tickles me about this sequence is primarily the gleeful, nutty rhythm Hayes and Conried establish, which I would genuinely and without embarrassment place alongside “Cheek To Cheek” and (perhaps a more apropos comparison) “Moses Supposes.” Perhaps all you really need for a great dance routine is two individuals wholly attuned to each other’s every move, however clumsy and ridiculous those movements might be. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it until such time as I’ve managed to learn something about what real dancers do.

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