(director: Roy Rowland; screenwriters: Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)/Allan Scott/based on a story by Dr. Seuss; cinematographer: Franz Planer; editors: Al Clark/Harry W. Gerstad; music: Frederick Hollander/Hans J. Salter/Heinz Roemheld; cast: Peter Lind Hayes (August Zabladowski), Tommy Rettig (Bart Collins), Hans Conried (Dr. Terwilliker), Mary Healy (Mrs. Eloise Collins), John Heasley (Uncle Whitney), Robert Heasley (Uncle Judson), Noel Cravat (Sergeant Lunk), Henry Kulky (Stroogo); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Stanley Kramer; Columbia TriStar Home Video; 1953)
“It’s as imaginatively framed as Alice in Wonderland.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Roy Rowland (“The Girl Hunters “/”Slander”/”Hit the Deck”) directs this highly imaginative nightmare fantasy film, probably the best children’s fantasy film ever made by Hollywood–even if it’s rambling. Since it’s so dark and surreal and can be subject to deep psychological analysis, it probably plays better for adults (children might be taken aback by the cruel adults and have real nightmares). It’s based on a story by Dr. Seuss, whose real name is Theodor Geisel. The popular children’s writer, Dr. Seuss, cowrote the script (with Allan Scott); he also wrote the lyrics to the musical numbers, designed the sets and costumes. The immensely enjoyable weird fantasy film is filled with Cold War paranoia (including dangers from the atomic bomb), Orwellian despotism, society brainwashing, an Oedipal complex dilemma and the modern problems over single parenting (the hero child is in search of a father figure). Filmed in lush Technicolor and featuring mind-boggling German Expressionist innovative sets that contain secret passageways and underground dungeons and guards in outrageous costumes. It’s as imaginatively framed as Alice in Wonderland, and follows the child’s fantasy structure of The Wizard of Oz. But that wasn’t enough to help it at the box office upon its release, where it bombed. Today this largely ignored one-of-a-kind great film is looked upon as a cult favorite and a delicious film for those who can move with its purely imaginative filmmaking style.

The title is derived from a maniacal piano teacher having 500 of his boy pupils play at a concert on the world’s biggest piano, which the madman designed (500 times ten fingers gives us 5,000 fingers).

Ten-year-old Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) hates taking piano lessons with the priggish, overbearing and manic Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conreid), but his widowed mom Eloise Collins (Mary Healey) insists. The only adult sympathetic to Bart is the kindly plumber, August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes, real-life husband of Healey). He calls the piano teacher a phony and a racketeer. Mom quickly shuts the plumber up, telling him to just fix the sink. When Bart closes his eyes, tired from piano practice, he has a strangely dark dream with his head resting on the piano. It takes place in Terwilliker’s Happy Hands Institute, a castle where the kid, adorned with the institute’s beanie, along with other creatures punished for playing instruments other than the piano and the other piano pupil boys have been kidnapped and are held prisoner in order to play tomorrow on Dr Terwilliker’s 500-seater piano at the Institute’s opening. The chipper kid is perturbed that his mother, made second in command to Terwilliker, is now brainwashed by the villainous despotic tutor and that he is planning to marry his mom at the opening ceremony. The only one willing to help is the lumpish plumber, the kid’s reluctant surrogate dad, who seems dazed that Terwilliker has him locked up in the dungeon and plans to eliminate him after the concert. How the adult and kid topple in a bizarre way T’s evil empire, makes this oddity a fun watch that’s filled with a maddening comedy, keen observations about childhood and parents, witty songs, artistic choreography and dazzling unforgettable sets. My favorite campy bits were the evil Siamese twins (John & Robert Heasley), with interlocking long gray beards, who rode around the institute on roller skates wrapping escaping children around in their beards.


REVIEWED ON 10/15/2008 GRADE: A