It was destined for cult status before the cameras barely rolled. A script from a living cult icon in his own right, a film that caused Columbia’s studio executives panic from the first rushes. A dismal Hollywood Premiere where half the patrons angrily walked out. 1953’s The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T was by all means, a small blip on the careers of everyone involved. Co-Screenwriter Theodore Geisel, more famously known as Dr. Seuss, refused to have the very film mentioned in his official Random House Biography before his death. Over time, it has grown a small, but zealously dedicated cult status among viewers. Jonathon Rosenbaum has waxed enthusiastic; Matt Groenberg has noted its influence, yet its utter refusal to be categorized continues to rattle its still uneasy cult status. The first question is why, why even bother trying to unravel the spell of a film hardly anyone bothers to put into a canon of any kind, in a culture determined to canonize film as though for a time capsule?
While critics and intellectuals alike faun and coo over the subversive melodramas of Douglas Sirk or the arguable genius of Nicolas Ray, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T has escaped the magnifying glass of psychological, Marxist and Foucault drenched analysis granted to so many films from the era such as Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat of the same year, or Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession the year after. True, time after time the film has been given fitful doses of attention, The A.V Club going as far as to proclaim it ‘One of the greatest Children’s film ever made,’ in a recent article, a high proclamation for an illusive, flawed film. But through the films contradictions, its faults and the layers of surrealism that coat its inner core, is it possible that The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T maybe, through a glass darkly, be a mirror of its own time, the oft-discussed 1950’s? It seems, under the jagged mirrors of analysis, to have everything an intellectual would wish to find in a film that reflects its own time. The 1950’s, rank with paranoia and a new surge of Puritanism after the startling liberalization of America during World War II, seem to parade endlessly through this Technicolor children’s musical in various guises. Here, I wish to analyze as what I perceive to be, the greatest film of the 1950’s, rank with a surge of fresh Communist Paranoia and sexual politics. Another high order, to say the very least, but as Dr. Tewilliker asks Bart in the finale, “Is it…atomic?” My answer is yes sir, very atomic.
Boy Heroes and Lavender Menaces: Gender and Sex in Dr. T
In positively no era in over one hundred years of the moving image, have the roles of Gender been so permanently set and locked as the 1950’s. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is by no means an exception to the rule. Here is a standard beginning of a screenplay, more classically known by most screenwriters as ‘the ordinary world.’ Here we are given the conflicts, the roles our characters play and how they shall more likely continue to play them. ‘The ordinary world’ is usually crushed within ten minutes, shuttling us into the story. But the genius of ‘Dr. T’s’ ‘Ordinary world’ is the lesson in gender roles we are so quickly attuned to for the rest of the film. In a narrative vehicle that surpasses Ferris Bueller, 10 year old Bart addresses the audience with his woes. His mother insists on young Bart taking piano lessons, much to his chagrin. His piano teacher, Dr. Tewilliker, harasses him about his piano playing. Afterwards Bart converses with a plumber doing maintenance work, Mr. Zablodowski, and us the audience are informed that Bart doesn’t have a father. He is a boy in an oppressive world.
Boys will be boys and girls will be girls. Bart introduces the movie, a very picture of youthful, male innocence. What is it about the all American boy that so beguiles American culture? The spirit of male individuality so predominant in the burgeoning culture of America since its founding days comes to mind. The ghost of the pioneer spirit runs thick in the blood of all American men not by rugged genetics, but the culture of which we come, where the spirit of male individuality is embraced above all things, romanticized in the literature of James Fenimore Cooper in his Leatherstocking Tales, trailing to the B Westerns that have bleed from American Folklore. In America, all heterosexual males live in the wooden cabins of their minds, fishing by the lakes of their own egos. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Bart is played by Tommy Rettig, most famous as Timmy in TV’s Lassie, where he could barely walk past a television screen without portraying some sort of out door activity fit for healthy boys such as fishing or playing cowboy.
From the very beginning it seems everyone around Bart is determined to not let a boy, be a boy. Like Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Bart is always in peril of being ‘civilized’ or rather, ‘sissified’ in this case. The ultimate American villain is not the Indian in the mulberry bush, but the mocking inevitability of societal acceptance. How one fully conforms or defends himself against said villains depends. All characters in folklore must not only be relatable in their journeys, they must be given an advantage to make the story turn, whether it be an object or moral inclination. Instead of a pair of ruby slippers or pieces of a mushroom, Bart is supplied with a slingshot, much like David of the Old Testament using it in moments of peril to defeat the ultimate monster, Goliath Dr. Tewilliker and his henchmen. Bart is the ingenue of the Alpha Male, an apprentice to Alpha himself, Mr. Zablidowski the plumber. Here is a working class hero with a penchant for going out fishing and decent hard work. Zablidowski is the post-war composite of the male so often found in cinema after WWII The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) being the brightest shining example. The men of post war film have seen untold horrors of war, yet are astoundingly transcendental in their masculine normality. Here are the ghosts of father figures so utterly unreal and unapproachable in reality, the tragic fantasy to all boys. Bart, is obviously in love with Zablidowski, who can do no wrong in contrast to Dr. Tewilliker. The heroes and villains are established.
Dr. Tewilliker is an effeminate artist, or even lower, a piano teacher, one step barely above a male hairdresser, beguiling neighborhood ladies to give their children piano lessons, an occupation usually taken by old spinsters in movies or literature. Our villain, is by every definition of the term, gay. How his utter fabulousness avoided the gaze of Vito Russell for The Celluloid Closet is beyond anyone. Reviewers of the time certainly saw the clues on its initial release, one reviewer even quipping that Dr. Tewilliker is ‘a combination of circus band drum major, Carmen Miranda, and Herman Göring.’
To be LGBT in the United States of the 1950’s was to be prone to abuse, harassment, discrimination, and blackmail. One word or rumor could destroy entire careers and lives. One film in particular reflects the fear and paranoia of homosexuality in America in a notorious Educational Film, Boys Beware (1961), where Ralph, a middle-aged gay man befriends and attempts to seduce a young boy named Jimmy. The narrator demonstrates in a sinister fashion, ‘what Jimmy didn’t know was that Ralph was sick, a sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious, a sickness of the mind.’
Tewilliker’s orientation becomes especially obvious in one of the more memorable musical numbers, “Do-Mi-Do-Dud’s”. Color-coding, with the predominant uses of Technicolor in the 1940’s and 50’s, become essential to the psychology of American Film, and we immediately are attacked by the color lavender in Dr. Tewilliker’s boudoir. The term ‘lavender scare’ or ‘lavender menace’ immediately comes to mind when taking the history of homosexuality in the United States. Senator McCarthy, in his savage witch-hunt for communists vomits its way to Supreme Court. In only a matter of time, Homosexuality becomes synonymous with communism, at one point in time being called ‘the lavender scare’. In fact, the term ‘lavender scare’ stems from a comment made by Sen. Everett Dirksen concerning ‘lavender lads’ needing to be removed from the State Department if he were to spearhead a Republican Victory in the November Elections of 1952, the year before The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was released. Of further note, Dirksen’s ‘lavender lads’ themselves are a integral part of the ‘Do-Mi-Do-Dud’s number, as dapper chaps with slicked back hair and zoot suits, wearing curious lavender and pink badges, reminding one of the pink triangles gays and lesbians are forced to wear under Nazi Persecution. The dressers put Dr. Tewilliker in layer after layer of clothing and ornaments, in a choreographed dance that consists entirely of fey, effeminate gestures so often seen in films depicting gay stereotypes. Of course, the dressers sexuality is immediately revealed at the end of the number, in which they daintily throw pink flower petals to their leader. The dresser himself is as familiar a stereotype in American Film as the Mammy or Step-and-fetch it, making his appearance in a multitude of films through out the 1920’s well into the 1950’s in America, usually measuring a mans suit and slipping on his biceps, or quipping with society ladies as an oddball cousin or back stage choreographer.
Oddly, homosexuality as parody in musical numbers is not a new concept by the time The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is released. In the same year, the 20th Century Fox Musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes contains a number with Jane Russell singing ‘Ain’t Anybody Here for Love?’ Among half nude musclemen in a gym workout, trying to seduce them all to no avail. Both numbers take homosexuality and in their own way parody them. But here, ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T’ stands out in particular, reflecting stereotypes in a timely fashion, not to mention a sharply satiric one.
To villainize the male homosexual, you must detach him from the natural world. Dr. Tewillikers world is a private one, one that is in Huysman’s words, A Rebours, against nature. Concrete dungeons, maddening labyrinths, effeminate rooms filled with giant pink bows and silk bed-sheets, these are the very epitome of stereotypes about male homosexuality in the 1950’s. Tewilliker is the effeminate sissy cousin of 1930’s screwball comedies; reincarnated as a fascist dictator. The others who occupy Dr. Tewilliker’s world further point to homosexuality. His dungeons are loaded with oily, muscle men, much like the masculine men found in Male Physique magazines of the 1950’s, one of the only outlets for gay pornography in America at the time. It is also tempting to note a particular shirtless henchman running the dungeon elevators, who wears a black dome over his face, showing only his eyes. Is our muscle man hiding his orientation? His appearance is that of a muscled Adonis, his face blacked out as though with India ink on a racy photograph. Much gay pornography uses the device of hooded men, or men concealed in masks to imply they are straight, curious and most definitely looking for discretion, it also doesn’t hurt that he is given his own musical number, where he sings ‘Elevator Dungeon’, taking our hero to a discreet and secret place, ‘of a thousand tortures’.
Bart spends the rest of the film, desperate for the love of Zabladowski, who gives and takes away his approval constantly through out the film. Of course, Zabladowski is the father figure, the alpha male Bart’s dysfunctional family so desperately needs to become whole, or dare we say, wholesome. The two polar opposites of Zablodowski and Tewilliker are played upon constantly throughout the film, especially in the fabulous “Hypnotic Duel” where both men dance in a face-off, Zablodowski fighting off D. Tewilliker’s power of hypnosis.
Bart, taking the role of a male as represented in Zabladowski, would rather be outside playing sports, which is shown to us at the finale of the film, where he immediately grabs a baseball mitten, his beloved dog gleefully running after him. What is implied here? That music, the arts, especially for a young boy is unnatural, maybe even indecent? Why the insistence upon this by his mother after much chagrin? It seems implied that because there is no father figure, the mothers decision for such an activity for her growing boy is by all means, misguided, though she insists on “keeping discipline” and “knows what’s good around here”, not to mention complaining that it isn’t easy being a single mother.
The mother, oddly the only female to be found in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, cannot go unnoticed either. She is a familiar component in films of the 1950’s, the woman torn. One is reminded of Margot Channing’s monologue on the woes of womanhood in All About Eve (1950) ‘Funny business, a woman’s career – the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman.’ Bart’s Mother is a woman torn by her devotions; one, to her growing son, another to keeping food on the table. We are even shown this desperation in the first costume we see Bart’s mother wear in the dream sequence. The costume is a woman’s gown and a woman’s business suit split in half, one domestic, one work. Other outfits she wears gives her the illusion of being Dr. Tewilliker’s kept bird, trapped in a gilded cage, the same feeling many women felt in 1950’s suburbia, trapped by marriage and children.
While Bart’s mother is really the most wooden and decidedly under-written role in the entire film, her strife is a unique one for a film of the 1950’s. While women were encouraged to work and fill all the male gender roles needed in the absence of the boys from home during WWII, the work place in the late 40’s and 50’s quickly became a hostile and difficult one. While Bart’s mother is forced to make ends meet against her own will, it is still a woman’s problem represented boldly in the most unlikely of places, a children’s musical.
Of course, while the difficulties of being a woman in the 1950’s are presented, we are still confounded with the inherent sexism that woman can be controlled by male chauvinism. Mother is a plumed bird with a flawed memory, a need to erase, not only is she a woman, she is all of post-war America, wishing to forget the horrors of the previous decades and the horrors soon to come. But what is inescapable is that Bart’s mother is the most underwritten and flawed character in the film, so easily manipulated, so lacking in utter motive while being kept under the power of Dr. Tewilliker or won over by the masculinity of Mr. Zablidowski. Mother is an object bought and sold, bartered and manipulated through games of trickery and logic. Even Bosley Crowther, in his initial review on the films release complains that most of the characters, especially the mother, are ‘boneless and bloodless characters in a theatrical dream’ (1). Of course, while the difficulties of being a woman in the 1950’s are presented, we are still confounded with the inherent sexism that women are controlled by male chauvinism, by way of Dr. Tewilliker’s hypnosis that keeps her under control.
Is The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T an inherently homophobic, sexist film? It would be easy to say yes, so that it may be thrown into an unbearably large pile of phobic portrayals of the LGBTQ, or women and men but somehow, like in so many places, it refuses to stay put on the pedestal. To counteract the bad taste of what could be seen, as homophobia is once again, the pure subversion that consists of the soul of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, one that no treatise by Sontag or Freudian analysis can dare penetrate.
Copyright Thomas Lampion 2012