Little Bart (Tommy Rettig) is suffering a nightmare where he is chased by shadowy figures brandishing coloured nets, but he wakes up to find himself at the piano, which he equally suffers. His teacher is Dr Terwilliker (Hans Conried) who is determined that Bart be ready and able for the upcoming concert in a month. The boy doesn't win much sympathy from his mother (Mary Healy), who is keen to see him be a talented musician as well; in fact the only grown up who thinks the Doctor is a "racketeer" is the plumber, Mr Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), but he would never admit this to Bart's mother. After being prompted to continue practicing, the monotony of his task sees Bart start to drop off again - into another nightmare...
A notorious flop on its initial release, The 5000 Fingers of Dr T was the only film scripted, with the help of Allan Scott, by phenomenally popular children's author Dr Seuss. And like his books, the storyline is endlessly imaginative, but here the slightly sinister side positively bloomed into a surreal musical with larger than lfe characters inhabiting a dreamland of vast sets and those repetitive, rhyming songs recognisable to this writer. The children may better appreciate its Wizard of Oz style presentation nowadays, but more than them the adults will appreciate the rich subtexts of psychology that run through the plotting.
The dream world that Bart winds up in is a huge, rambling (much like the film, to be honest) institute run by Dr Terwilliker, now a power crazed megalomaniac. Centre piece of the castle-like structure is the long, winding piano built for five hundred hands, and he plans to have his self-proclaimed masterworks played by two hundred and fifty small boys who will be bussed in tomorrow. One of those small boys is Bart, and he is most unhappy about the situation, not least because he hates tickling the ivories, but if that wasn't enough, the imperious Dr T aims to marry his widowed mother.
Luckily, Mr Zabladowski is there too, installing the sinks for the institute and Bart would much rather have him as a father. The relationships depicted are a goldmine for the amateur psychologist, with the mother using Dr T as a way to discipline Bart's personality in lieu of his absent father, and Bart afraid of his preferred, new father figure being replaced by this preening pianist - and don't forget this all takes place the hero's mind. Yet there's also a deep rooted suspicion of adult pretention, as if there could be any worth in playing the piano when there's baseball to be enjoyed outside, the film apparently tells us. I wonder if Dr Seuss would have been quite as happy if reading had been substituted for music?
But the film is on Bart's side throughout: nobody would seriously choose Dr T over the plumber - a solid, blue collar job instead of the teacher's airy-fairy artistic one. Dr T doesn't simply have his creative side held against him, he hypnotises Bart's mother, hoards cash which he shovels into his safe, and plans to execute Mr Zabladowski, too! Conried is a fine villain, lots of fun to watch and matches the wild design of the production, surrounded by such bizarre sights as the rollerskating guards joined by their long, grey beards, or the drummer punished by being trapped in a beating drum. Despite its defiantly anti-intellectual stance, The 5000 Fingers of Dr T is a bright, colourful and playfully menacing movie, one of the strangest things to emerge from 1950s Hollywood. Music by Frederick Hollander.