Directed by Roy Roland
Written by Dr. Seuss & Allan Scott
Starring Hans Conreid, Tommy Rettig, Peter Lind Hayes, and Mary Healy
If there ever was a film ahead of its time, it's this one. Not due to the story, but due to art direction, costume design, and wordplay. It's a bit dated now, too, but four words would make it a hit today:
Live action Dr. Seuss.
And this isn't the adapted Dr. Seuss they've been cranking out lately: Seuss wrote the story and screenplay, and the design was clearly his influence. You can look at most scenes and see they were taking his drawings and bringing them to life. It's filled with surrealist images and visual jokes, and, unlike the live action versions of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, this has enough story to fill out an entire film.
Tommy Rettig (the original owner of TV's Lassie), plays Bart Collins, a kid under the thumb of his fanatical piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker. Tired of being force to practice, he falls asleep and dreams he's trapped in Dr. T's school, forced to be one of 500 boys playing on Dr. T's enormous piano.
Terwilliker is played by the delightful Hans Conreid, a busy TV actor with a distinctive voice (Disney used him a lot, and he was the voice of Snidley Whiplash in Dudley Do-Right). Conreid is a fine comic villain, megalomaniacal, vain, untrustworthy, and just plain fun to watch.
Bart discovers Terwilliker's plot and with the help of the plumber Mr. Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) tries to foil it.
There's some amazing stuff here. There a musical number in the dungeon that could be taken right out of anything Seuss illustrated -- the long, curved horns, the odd musical instruments. It is truly a delight.
Peter Lind Hayes and his wife Mary Healy (who plays Bart's mother in the film) were a pretty active couple in early TV, headlining a couple of shows. Hayes reminds me a bit like Robert Cummings -- charming, a little flustered -- and he definitely is enjoying his role as Zabladowski. He has a way of throwing off funny lines as though they're normal dialog -- an impression of ease and confidence that makes him even funnier and more charming.
The movie was a massive flop when it first came out. Dr. Seuss was not yet the institution he became, and I think the surreal Seuss imagery could have scared children and confused their parents. It might be worthy of a remake — but keep Jim Carrey or Mike Meyer's far away. But, if Tim Burton and Johnny Depp got together a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it could be a wonder.