Hoberman: Controversial New “Lorax” Bizarrely True to Dr. Seuss
Update (March 5): “The Lorax” had a humongous first weekend, in what the Hollywood Reporter characterized as a “box-office shocker.” The movie's “staggering” $70.7 million gross surpassed “The Incredibles” (2004) to establish a new opening record for a non-sequel animated picture. Lou Dobbs has done it again — or maybe it was the ads that Hollywood's latest liberal outrage ran on Rush Limbaugh.
I don’t expect to spend any part of my weekend (or my life) with the 3-D animated version of Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax” that opens today, but it is interesting to note that, beginning with a Lou Dobbs screed on Fox TV, the movie has been attacked by the right, left (Huffpo and NPR), and center, both as tree-hugging propaganda and a shill for Japanese autos, among other prominently placed, less than green consumer products.
In its commercialism as well as its politics, “The Lorax” is bizarrely true to its creator. Theodor Seuss Geisel drew editorial cartoons for the liberal tabloid PM throughout World War II. (Most were anti-fascist representations of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini, but his 1942 cartoon of two “reactionary” congressmen aiming a wrecking ball at the “US social structure” could run today.) Upon enlisting in Frank Capra’s documentary film unit, Geisel bonded with future “progressive” filmmakers Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman; in the early ’50s, Kramer bought the rights to Geisel’s “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.” — a mad, allegorical representation of Hitler in the person of tyrannical, child-abusing piano-teacher named Dr. Terwilliker. (Foreman, originally to direct, had by then been blacklisted.)
A hyper-designed, three-strip Technicolor musical, “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T” combines a comic opera vision of WW2 with a tract for progressive childrearing (Dr. Seuss, meet Dr. Spock). Dr. T (Hans Conreid, who voiced more than a few comic fascists during the war) is planning to conquer the world through music — he practices slave labor, coercing 499 boys as well as the movie’s hero Bart (Tommy Rettig, later of “Lassie”), to sit together and play a monstrous piano. (Boys who refuse to practice are consigned to a dungeon). The elaborate sets evoke “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and make reference to Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” there are images of deportation and, in what has to be a first, one of the songs made reference to “gas chambers” (among other torture devices), although this was later cut. To add to the allegory, the adult hero, an all-American plumber named Zabladowski, must be coaxed to join Bart in the struggle against fascist oppression.
Although “Dr. T” ranks as paranoid kinderkultur with William Cameron Menzies’s similarly expressionist “Invaders From Mars,” also released in 1953, Seuss was evidently unhappy with the result. Columbia, however, prepared for a big release. Seuss biographer Charles D. Cohen writes that the studio orchestrated what was then “the largest merchandising campaign in cinematic history.” The dizzyingly optimistic array of ancillary merchandise included:
barrettes, bracelets, brooches, pins, charms, keychains, rings, stickpins, tie clips, women’s hats, children’s beanies, button-down shirts, T-shirts, dungarees, handkerchiefs, suspenders, ties, puppets, lollipops, balloons, roller skates, phonographs, horns, harmonicas, accordions, concertinas, organs, player pianos with rolls of Dr. T songs, clarinets, and original instruments like the wonder harp and the pick-a-tune gondolier.
A quick look on eBay yielded none of these things, although someone is asking $250 for an original press book and the LP can be had for $199. The official “Dr. T” “Happy Fingers” beanie, topped with a flaccid hand, must be priceless.
Anticipating “Disneyland” ’s epochal “Davy Crockett” show by some 18 months, “Dr. T” was the kiddie craze that never happened — although America might have been a different, better country had there been such a craze. The movie was panned (“strange and confused” per the New York Times), retitled “Crazy Music” and pointlessly rereleased in 1958, and thereafter consigned to TV, where it garnered an underground reputation. Listed in “The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film,” frequently programmed by New York’s Anthology Film Archives, “Dr. T” remains a cult object to this day — a fate that, despite Lou Dobbs’ best efforts at making it sound cool, seems unlikely for “The Lorax.”