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5,000 Fingers…And More

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
January 26, 2011 5:30 AM
1 Comment
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There are so many dvds, film books, soundtrack CDs, and interesting blog posts—and so little time to digest them all. Over the past week or so I’ve tried to catch up and want to share some of my thoughts and discoveries. First, I’ve been in the thrall of Frederick Hollander’s marvelous music and Dr. Seuss’ clever lyrics for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., a brilliant soundtrack reconstructed by FSM Golden Age Classics on a bountiful three-CD set.

This was a dream project for the gifted composer and pianist (best remembered for writing Marlene Dietrich’s signature songs “Falling in Love Again” and “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have”) and the witty, wily children’s book author, but the project didn’t end happily for them. While they enjoyed their collaboration, Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) repudiated the picture, which was not the polished gem it should have been—although it’s still an impressive (and unforgettable) fantasy with subversive undertones. Many of the cleverest songs were deleted, which is why this CD set is so welcome. Hans Conried, as the despotic piano teacher Dr. T, sings “Terwilliker’s Do Re Mi” in which he declares that his favorite note is—of course—“me.” Mary Healy performs a wistful ballad, “Many Questions,” in which, as a mother, she shows great empathy for her son’s youthful quandaries. And carefree plumber Peter Lind Hayes sings some especially clever ditties, including “I Will Not Get Involved” and the very Seussian “Freckle on a Pygmy.” It’s a real shame that someone—presumably Columbia Pictures executives who were backing producer Stanley Kramer—got cold feet about the movie and decided to—

—trim it back. (In their autobiography, Moments to Remember with Peter and Mary, Healy remembered how excited she and husband Hayes were about the songs, how hard they worked, and how disappointed they were with the outcome.)

Dr. Terwilliker and his captive pupil.

There have been bootleg soundtrack albums in the past, but no one has attempted anything on this scale, gathering original session acetates, audition recordings, retakes, and more from a wide variety of sources including the Library of Congress. Executive producers Michael Feinstein (who’s been collecting material on this film for thirty years) and FSM’s Lukas Kendall, along with producers Mike Matessino and Neil S. Bulk, have lovingly presented every scrap of music imaginable, and organized it in a user-friendly form. Disc One offers the score as it was meant to be heard; discs two and three feature alternate versions. They have even found Hollander’s piano renditions of his first compositions for the project, only a few of which remained in the finished film.

Tommy Rettig as Bartholomew Cubbins, wearing his unforgettable “happy fingers” beanie.

This may seem like overkill, as many songs and cues are repeated multiple times, but I became entranced by Hollander’s lush, romantic music (augmented for the underscore by such talented film composers as Hans J. Salter and Heinz Roemheld) and didn’t mind the redundancies. In some ways I think the score is better appreciated apart from its visual context in the film. Bravo! to everyone involved in this epic presentation. For more information about this and other Film Score Monthly releases, go to www.screenarchives.com.

The only point missing from Alan Lareau’s knowledgeable liner notes is that in 1953, Dr. Seuss wasn’t yet the national hero he became later in that decade: he was certainly well established, but his greatest successes (The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Green Eggs and Ham, to name just a few) were yet to be published. The proof is in the pudding: Columbia didn’t even use his name to promote the movie; it appears in nearly microscopic type (alongside his screenplay collaborator Allan Scott) at the bottom of the poster, which is reproduced on the back of the CD package.

Ray Faiola of Chelsea Rialto Studios and Craig Spaulding of Screen Archives Entertainment also persevere in producing vintage film soundtrack CDs, working wherever possible from original source materials. They’ve been on a Dimitri Tiomkin kick, having recently released his music for Champion and The Long Night. I recently sampled the score for Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) and have played it more than once. It may not be one of the composer’s more celebrated achievements, but I found it very appealing and listenable, with light, lyrical passages one might not associate with Tiomkin. As always, there is an informative, well-illustrated booklet about the film’s production and the music itself. To see what else Ray’s been up to, check out www.chelsearialtostudios.com. To purchase the CD, to go www.screenarchives.com.

Unlike some so-called books that are cobbled together from scraps of movie-junket interviews, The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark by Robert K. Elder (Chicago Review Press) is a compulsively readable volume filled with thoughtful, often passionate conversations about great movies that made a difference in the lives (and careers) of thirty significant directors. Film journalist Elder is very savvy and engages his subjects in genuine two-way dialogue about movies as disparate as and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

The interviews are far from superficial. Most of these filmmakers are quite astute about the films that made a difference to them, usually at an impressionable age, but in some cases when they were just on the verge of deciding their career path. Directors like Edgar Wright (who chose John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London) and Danny Boyle (who named Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) are refreshingly candid about when and where they saw the films and why they meant to much to them. Among the other chapters: Kevin Smith on Slacker, John Waters on The Wizard of Oz, Richard Linklater on Raging Bull, Peter Bogdanovich on Citizen Kane, John Woo on Rebel Without a Cause, and Frank Oz on Touch of Evil. Just a warning: once you start reading this book, you won’t find it easy to stop.

I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t eagerly awaiting an encyclopedic directory of punks on screen, but Destroy All Movies! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (Fantagraphics Books) has come along just the same…and it’s pretty impressive. Editors Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly sent me a copy with a note saying, “We dove off the deep end of cinematic obsession with this project,” and they certainly have. In addition to snarky and well-informed write-ups of such titles as Legend of the Roller Blade Seven and Crash ‘n’ Burn there are interviews with such filmmakers and performers as Mary Woronov, Alex Cox, Susan Seidelman, Clint Howard, and the folks behind Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, featuring The Ramones. If you’re into anarchic cinema and its offshoots, this is a great reference—and a fun browse.

A day doesn’t go by when I’m not sent, or offered, at least a few DVD screeners of new and upcoming films. Deciding which ones to watch can be challenging, but there was something about The Way of the Puck that appealed to me. The DVD cover, like the website home page, bears the legend, “A documentary about professional air hockey… Really.” It may not be the most ambitious or profound nonfiction film around, but it certainly is enjoyable, as it delves into a subject I knew nothing about: the rise and fall of air hockey, and the valiant efforts of a handful of guys to keep it alive. It’s lively and fun; ‘nuff said. For more information, go to www.wayofthepuck.com .

As for blogs and websites, there aren’t enough hours in a day to keep up with all the movie postings, but there are two I’d like to call to your attention. Dennis Bartok, who programmed films for the American Cinematheque for many years, knows as much about movies and Hollywood lore as anyone I know, and he’s launched a site called L.A. After Midnight that’s full of interesting stories. I especially liked the remembrance of director Budd Boetticher and his star-crossed script for Arruza.

And fans of James Stewart should know that the museum bearing his name in his home town of Indiana, Pennsylvania is facing hard times, like so many institutions that depend on public and private funding. There is also the hard truth that a younger generation doesn’t necessarily care about actors of the past. To learn more, go to the Museum’s home page at www.jimmy.org or check out this Christmas eve story that ran on NPR: www.npr.org.

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1 Comment

  • Arthur Tafero | January 30, 2011 3:48 AMReply

    Hi,

    Love 99.9% of everything you review. I am an expert on Chinese film. I live and teach here at Jimei University (and will do so until I retire in about six years). I had a problem with your review of A Better Tomorrow as the second best Chinese film of all time. Not even close. Almost all Westerners make the same mistake and lump Hong Kong Films with Mainland China films. All the good films are made in Shanghai and Beijing and Hong Kong makes nothing but violent films. The best Hong Kong films (in my opinion) ever made were Bruce Lee's Dragon films. After that, its all downhill with the exception of Kung Fu Hustle which was ok. Everything else any good from China comes outside of Hong Kong. I could not help but notice you had a number of lame entries from Hong Kong and several omissions of fine mainland China films. I do these reviews for Triond.com for practically nothing (which is about what they are worth, I'm sure). Hope to see better selections for China in you next editions.

    Best Regards
    Arthur Tafero

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