Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Undulating Undies and the Organdy Snood

The star of this week's Dance Party does not appear in it, and disavowed any connection with it during his lifetime.

Theodor Geisel began writing under the pen name "Dr. Suess" during his college days, after he was busted for drinking bootleg gin during Prohibition. He could not bear to give up his humor writing for The Dartmouth Jack o'Lantern, and began submitting his pieces under the pseudonym by which he would later become world famous. He studied for a while at Oxford, but returned to the states in the years leading up to WWII. He wrote for leftist political magazines, skewering the nation's isolationist tendencies, and fully supported FDR during the war. He wrote compellingly about racism against Jews and blacks during the period, but conversely, approved of the internment of Japanese-Americans. This blot on his moral character was partially rectified with his 1954 publication of Horton Hears a Who, which he used as an allegory about the American occupation of post-war Japan.

Though he was already finding success as a children's author, it was an article in Life magazine in 1954 which set him onto the path to his signature style. The article blamed the alarming illiteracy rate among children on the books they were forced to read; a text-book editor buddy of Geisel's compiled a list of 348 words he felt first-graders needed to recognize in print. He delivered the list to our hero, asked him to cut the list to 250 and write a children's book using those words. "Bring back a book they can't put down," William Ellsworth Spaulding goaded. Less than a year later, using 236 of the words given him, Dr. Suess delivered The Cat in the Hat, which became an international success and solidified Geisel's rhyming and rhythmic style ( anapestic tetrameter, look it up).

Geisel claimed he never set out to teach a moral, as kids can see such things coming a mile away, but his works hold subtle allegorical messages. Yertle the Turtle is about anti-fascism, The Sneetches is about racial equality, and of course, How the Grinch Stole Christmas concerns materialism. He meant Horton Hears a Who to address political isolationism, but after his death, a particular phrase from the book has been appropriated by the pro-life movement in the debate against female reproductive rights:

"A person's a person, no matter how small."

Geisel's widow continues to be vehemently opposed to the use of the phrase in the abortion debate.

What does all this have to do with the Friday Dance Party? Not much. Today's clip comes from the only live-action feature film with which Dr. Suess was personally involved (the later screen adaptations of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat were authorized by his widow after his death). The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was released in 1953 with story, screenplay, and lyrics by Theodor Geisel. By then, he had disavowed the project, calling it a "debaculous fiasco." At the Hollywood premiere, people were deserting the theatre by the 15 minute mark, and the film was a financial disappointment. Starring oddball Hans Conreid as the title character, it is a fantasy film in which a young boy who hates his piano teacher falls asleep and dreams of being kidnapped by the evil Dr. Terwilliker.

I have tried to get through this movie, and cannot, but others I trust love it. It's a cult film these days, and most if not all the musical numbers are available to view online. It's hard to believe this thing was aimed at kids, as a few of the numbers are quite harsh, including one in which 500 little boys are enslaved in the evil Dr. T's dungeon, and forced to play a huge piano:

(Geisel reported that during the filming of the scene, one of the boys vomited, starting a chain reaction. Soon, they had 150 boys throwing up all over the set; Geisel said it was similar to the film's critical reaction). There is another song taking place during a sinister elevator ride, down into the depths of Dr. T's lair, with a shirtless elevator operator completely masked (that sequence was so disturbing, it was removed from the film in 1958, when it was re-released under the title Crazy Music).

The clip below is a fun solo for Hans Conreid, and illustrates the way with words we came to expect from Dr. Suess. Gotta love this guy's boudoir, and the fancy boys who help him get ready for Do-Mi-Do Day, whatever that is. Dr. T has a fondness for those colorful shifts he wears over regular clothes, the film is full of them. It's not every man who can wear something like that, though wouldn't they look great on Auntie Mame?

Theodor Suess Geisel had a birthday this week, on March 2nd.