Film Criticism / Film History / Film Theory / Uncategorized

Paranoid Wonderland: Fantasy as Fears Past and Present in ‘The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T’

Beginning’s and endings  make or break a film, perhaps explaining The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T’s confusing start. The transition between dream and reality is decidedly uneasy, beginning with a bizarre chase scene with painted green men in fuzzy suits and butterfly nets pursuing our young hero. Why this proves an efficient beginning is bizarre onto itself. Barely introducing us to the fantasy world of most of the film, it leaves the viewer for the most part, in the dark for a good ten minutes until we are transported there again. While Dorothy had her Tornado, Alice her ever Freudian rabbit hole, Bart merely falls asleep at the piano, perhaps implying he has some sort of sleeping disorder. Seuss’ original script had Bart become hypnotized by an animated face of Dr. Tewilliker, lulling him into sleep. Still, this vehicle of transport also barely works, forcing us to wonder why or how Bart’s stern, music-loving mother doesn’t notice his not practicing the piano in the first place. We are introduced to Characters in reality who re-appear in fantasy much like Dorothy’s farm hands in The Wizard of Oz, but even that appears as futile in the films uneasy script structure.

As uneasy the transition may be, the world Bart falls into is by all means a timely one. A shadow of history casts itself into this dream world. Bart does not live in the prim Victorian world of Alice or the ambiguous early 20th century of Dorothy’s Kansas. Bart is an all-American boy from 1953, a torrid year of Cold War paranoia in the United States. Tensions were high between the Iron Curtain, Communism a word loaded with fear and sure-fire persecution. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are executed. McCarthyism is in full nightmarish swing, its death rattle rattling hardest over Hollywood, where a long blacklist of actors, screenwriters directors and nearly everyone involved in the film industry are barred from working. People working on The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T were by no means untouched by the Hollywood Blacklist. Only a year before, producer Stanley Kramer struggled to get freshly blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman off the credits of the now classic High Noon, of which Kramer was producing, and was also fearing the end of his own career.

Dr. Tewilliker’s world is as dark and ambiguous as Communist Stalingrad. Filled with shadows and propaganda on every corner, one voice yelling “Practice makes Perfect!” over and over again. Everyone and everything, is mired in an atmosphere of the times. It becomes apparent, as Bart continues to explore his dream-world, that Dr. Tewilliker is not a mere villain that appears and disappears in puffs of smoke as the Wicked Witch of the West, but is an ever present leader of a personality cult.

Yet another shadow casts itself over the film not of the present, but of the past. The horrors of World War II loom constantly over the atmosphere of the 1950’s in nearly all assets of culture at the time. As veterans and their families fled the cities to the suburbs to live innocuous, puritanical lives, a secret hope prevailed that the cruelties and destruction of the past could be forgotten, painted over with a hue of optimism that the sixties warned would always peel off. But it seems, if one looks closely, that  The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and other films of the time, do not forget easily. The idea itself is not an esoteric one if taken into context.

Dr. Seuss, as Theodore Geisel, spent all of World War II drawing countless war propaganda cartoons and working on various animated films and documentaries for the U.S Army. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his excellent Take Two Article on the film, discusses the conversation he had with Geisel over the telephone, giving ‘a lengthy account of his friendship in the U.S Army with Carl Foreman and Stanley Kramer, their joint project to make a fantasy film and other disastrous occurrences that interfered with the original plans.’(1) It is completely undeniable that the producer and directors relationship with Giesel during the war takes effect over the film, in seemingly endless ways. The concept has not gone un-noticed by some intellectuals. In Geoffrey Cocks marvelous analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in his book The Wolf at the Door, the film does not go unmentioned in Hollywood’s treatment of the Holocaust, paying special attention to ‘concentration camp references badly trivialized by the Technicolor musical setting’ (184).

Aspects of Dr. Seuss’ artistic vision have become so utterly taken for granted in American Culture, that the tentacles of his influences become lost. While Cocks’ insists that the film ‘uses Nazi architecture, imagery, and policies to emphasize the importance of enlightened child rearing’ (184); he misses a valid point in the films visual symbolism. It is undeniable that the aesthetic of Seuss’ visuals in both The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T and other works owe a great debt to the German Expressionist movements of silent film. Like a Technicolor Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, towers preen and stoop like melting candles; buildings are jagged and angled, shadows cut them selves around every corner. German Expressionism of the 1920’s is forever seeped into the horrors of War. While Weine’s Caligari or Munrau’s Nosferatu are products of the horrors of World War I, they seem to warn and hint at the coming horrors of Nazi Genocide, an idea held by many such as Lotte Eisner. The worlds they evoke are cold, uncertain and unpredictable, as is the atmosphere of The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, a startling mood for a children’s film.

Still From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Still From The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T

In the final immersion into this fantasy world that consists of most of the film, Bart is forced to hammer on the gigantic piano as Dr. Tewilliker looks on, portraying a most devilish zeitgeist of World War II.

Hans Conried, as Dr. Tewilliker, devours the role with the relish of an English Pantomime ‘baddie’, if not a noticeably Prussian one.  One wonder’s if Conried models his Dr. Tewilliker after Hitler while he makes his first great monologue, filled with superlatives as ‘the eve of his greatest triumph’ or ‘the dream of my life-time!’ Conried seems to be mimicking Hitler’s constant hand gestures and pretensions in his many speeches. Of course, it does not go unnoted by Cocks, reminding us of Dr. T’s insistence on annihilating all other instruments except the superior piano, much like Hitler in his campaign against Jews.

Dr. Twilliker, ala Stalin or Hitler, comes to Bart again as a giant stone Statue perched on a wall, telling him his years with him will be “the happiest of his life.” Furthermore, he instructs him escape is futile, when we are shown his sinister world surrounded by Electric Fences. This is no fairyland, no magic kingdom; this is a fantasy set in a Concentration Camp. Cock latches onto this theory quickly in his mention of the film, noting Dr. Tewilliker’s camp later on the film, when all of the children are brought ‘in ominous yellow school buses, ‘escorted through a large gate…’ stripped of their possessions’ (184) much like Jews and other minorities were in Concentration Camps throughout the war.

Is this dream world a totalitarian communist world, or the afterthought of a fascist empire? Unlike so many wonderlands, Bart’s world is one made of the past and present, nightmares and realities. Accumulated in Tewilliker’s concentration camp are all the massive failures of the 20th century, two wars holding guard between a cold war, filled with uncertainty and angst.

The makers of the film cannot seem to decide, its very notions almost a subconscious after thought, making the film difficult to categorize or analyze into one definitive theory, both giving themselves an equal Librium throughout the film, one foot in the present, another in the past. One thing is certain, like The Wizard of Oz could only be a product of 1939; The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T could only be made in 1953. While Oz is a reflection of wartime patriotism and deceptively boundless optimism at the cusp of World War II, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a product of the ghosts produced at the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. This is a work of paranoia, fear and forgetting.

Copyright Thomas Lampion 2012

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