Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ebony and Ivory

Tonight on TCM, Robert Osborne sits down with Guest Programmer Rainn Wilson, who selects four of his favorite films. The last of these is The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, airing overnight at 1:00 AM ET. (That's late this evening on the west coast.) The plot is a fairly simple one: Young boy Bart (played by Tommy Rettig) is the son of a single mother, and fears that his mom is falling in love with his piano teacher (Dr. Terwilliker), whom he doesn't really like. One day, he falls asleep and has a dystopic dream about them. In the dream, Bart finds himselfin a world where his piano teacher has Svengali-like powers and is running a demon academy allowing musicians only to play the piano, and having a plan to have 500 boys play a giant piano simultaneously. It's up to our little hero to save the day, with the help of a kindly janitor (played by Peter Lind Hayes).

Two things are notable about this production. First is the design, by Theodore Seuss Geisel -- better known as Dr. Seuss. This is the only live-action film he made (it's based on one of his stories), and the set design bears all the hallmarks of Dr. Seuss' whimsically fantastic drawings. The scene pictured here is from a bizarre musical number involving musicians who play instruments other than the piano. Dr. T. has decreed that they all be sentenced to an underground dungeon, where they're doomed to be tortured and play horrible dissonant music. The movie is in gorgeous Technicolor, doing even more justice to Dr. Seuss' vision than the still here can do.

The other standout is actor Hans Conried, who plays Dr. Terwilliker. He's delightfully evil, and steals the whole show. This is a cartoonish movie by design, and the villains, while being obvious bad guys, are also supposed to be fun in their almost larger-than-life badness. This is what Conried portrays so well, coming across as both menacing, and charismatic at the same time. It's really a shame that Hollywood couldn't figure out how to use his talents better.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. is available on DVD. Despite being a Dr. Seuss story, it's not just a kids' movie. Younger children, in fact, might be a bit scared, because the movie touches on themes that occur in real life, notable that of whether or not to trust authority figures. However, in the set design, there's quite a bit for adults, too.

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