THE DVD SHELF: "5,000 Fingers of Dr. T," "Member of the Wedding," Lubitsch Musicals and Hitchcock

THE DVD SHELF: "5,000 Fingers of Dr. T," "Member of the Wedding," Lubitsch Musicals and Hitchcock This month's column discusses the Stanley Kramer Collection, including "5,000 Fingers of Dr. T" and Julie Harris and Ethel Waters in "The Member of the Wedding"; a collection of early musicals by Ernst Lubitsch; and Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes."
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It has become clear by now that all these celebratory box sets that the DVD industry keeps turning out are not, precisely, meant to be celebratory of this, that or the other. Cynics among us realize that they are in some cases driven by the desire to sell yet another copy of such and such a best seller. You issued a grand remastered edition of Movie X three years ago, and still have pallets full of copies in the warehouse? Create a new set saluting the director or producer or one of the stars, bundle Movie X with three or four others by the same director or star, and you've got a new product suitable for launch on the market.

Such is the case with the Stanley Kramer Collection [Sony]. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" needs no apology, certainly; Mr. Poitier, Mr. Tracy and Ms. Hepburn speak for themselves in this 1967 Oscar winner, and if you didn't buy it the last time around you now get a second disc with various bonuses (including Stanley Kramer accepting the 1962 Irving Thalberg Award and Al Gore accepting the 2007 Stanley Kramer Award. How's that?)

But the red-letter event at hand comes from reaching into the archives to find obscure films to fill out the box. Here we have "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T," an extraordinarily unusual musical that I really must say you should see if you have any interest in adventurous musical film or adventurous musical theatre. This is not a great film; it is, I readily admit, about as strange a musical as you are likely to find. But remarkable, in a modernistic way (circa 1953). This is a film imprinted with the vision of a major artistic talent, and I don't mean Stanley Kramer. Dr. Seuss wrote it, and wrote the lyrics; and although he is not credited as designer, his paint brush is all over the screen. Imagine one of his fanciful worlds lifted from one of his books, only here in full and blazing color that leaps off the screen (or the widescreen, anyway). A visual feast it is, and a verbal feast as well; even a choreographic feast. (The "Hypnotism Dance" is something to be seen, and the "Dungeon Ballet" even moreso.)

"The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T" was a failure in its time, and it is easy to see why. The Dr. T of the title (Hans Conried) is a tyrannical piano teacher called Terwilliker, bent on world domination. His plan is to amass a giant keyboard, played by 500 captive little boys (hence, 5,000 fingers). Starring in the central role is 11-year-old Tommy Rettig, who began his career five years earlier touring with Mary Martin in Annie Get Your Gun and went on to star in the TV series "Lassie." The only one who sees through the evil yet all powerful leader, he subversively sets out to thwart Dr. T. and the police state. Very much anti-authoritarian, not a popular stance to make in those early Eisenhower years. (Seuss, early on, was a political cartoonist.) The Seuss name itself might have given the film a boost but this was 1953, four years before publication of both "The Cat in the Hat" and "How The Grinch Stole Christmas." Some kids at the time, indeed, found the film chillingly frightening; there are certain images, I must say, that could cause nightmares. But 1953 children were different from the children of today; my kids absolutely adored Dr. T. and my eight-year-old walks around gleefully singing "dress me in liverwurst" and "basement dungeon, everybody out!" Which brings us to the score; weird, man, and cool. Frederick Hollander wrote the music to lyrics by Seuss. The songs are strange and in places hard to get a handle on, but they certainly fit in with plot and characters and the remarkable design. Add in the work of modernistic choreographer Eugene Loring, who works in a style somewhat reminiscent of Jack Cole, only more severe. (Loring is the fellow who did Fred Astaire's crazy beatnik number in "Funny Face.")

"The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T" is not a great film, no, and I guess it's fair to say that it doesn't work exactly. But this movie sure is both remarkable and unforgettable. The DVD has been filled out with a handful of bonuses, which in this case are as fascinating as the film. (It looks like whoever made these features tried to emulate the design, making them visually stunning.) Among those on screen are the daughter of Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, the popular TV and nightclub couple who starred in the film; George Chakiris, who appeared as one of the dancers in the dungeon and has some interesting tales to tell; and Michael Feinstein, who has long been a champion of the work and makes numerous pertinent points. (With my son clamoring for "Do-Me-Do Duds," that liverwurst song, I discovered that Feinstein made an especially flavorful recording of it — with the original orchestrations — on his CD "Pure Imagination" [Elektra 961046].)

But let's get back to the Stanley Kramer Film Collection. The other entries are "Ship of Fools" (1963), with an all-star cast headed by Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret (this being one of two films in the box directed by Kramer, the other being "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"); "The Wild One" (1953), with Marlon Brando on his motorcycle; and yet another special treat, the 1952 film version of Carson McCullers' "The Member of the Wedding." Here is the great Ethel Waters, recreating her legendary stage performance. Here is 27-year-old Julie Harris making her film debut as the 12-year-old Frankie Addams. (Harris earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in the process, losing to Shirley Booth — who was also making her film debut, at 45, recreating her Broadway performance in "Come Back Little Sheba." One can imagine the reactions of fellow-nominees Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to this two-barreled competition from the East). Here is 10-year-old Brandon De Wilde, who is on the short list of the finest child actors ever. The son of a Broadway stage manager, he stunned Broadway audiences two years earlier when "Member of the Wedding" played the Empire, and immediately followed the film version with yet another unforgettable performance in "Shane" — which earned him an Oscar nomination at 11.

So here's thanks to "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" for driving this Stanley Kramer box, bringing along "Member of the Wedding" and the resplendent "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T."

A box of a different sort comes from Eclipse, the budget arm of Criterion. (While the film quality is very good, there are no extras, no booklets, no nothing except brief-yet-informative five-paragraph notes on the inner sleeves of each slipcase.) Lubitsch Musicals [Criterion] includes four specimens from the years 1929-32. While understandably old-fashioned in style — these were among the first wave of talking pictures — they are each pretty good. Lubitsch, even then, was Lubitsch; sparkling, sophisticated and inventive every step of the way. Three of the films — "The Love Parade," "The Smiling Lieutenant" and "One Hour with You" — star Maurice Chevalier; three feature Jeanette McDonald as leading lady. Filling in for Maurice opposite Jeanette on one, "Monte Carlo," is Jack Buchanan, the West End equivalent of Fred Astaire (who is best known hereabouts for his performance opposite Fred in M-G-M's "The Band Wagon"). Filling in for Jeanette opposite Maurice on the other is Claudette Colbert. Clifford Grey and Leo Robin were co-lyricists on the 1927 Broadway hit Hit the Deck. Each, coincidentally or not, did two of the films. The scores generated two song hits, both from Robin (best remembered for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend") and composer Richard Whiting: "One Hour with You" and, especially, "Beyond the Blue Horizon."

On a personal level, let me take you back to the days before cable channels and VCRs. The only way to see these films, other than visiting revival houses, was to stay up late at night and sit through them (usually on public TV). For years I've recalled a remarkable and somewhat astounding performance from some old music hall pro who did what can best be called jack-knife steps, with his knees extending or folding in a manner indescribable. But who? from where? Thank you Mr. Lubitsch, for your box set. Lupino Lane (1892-1959) is the name, a British song and dance man who went on to stardom in 1937, introducing "The Lambeth Walk" in Me and My Gal. (He not only starred in this massive West End hit but directed and produced it as well, pocketing a sizable fortune over its four-year run. The best known member of the Lupino family, which brought forth generations of performers, was Lane's niece Ida Lupino.) The song, in "The Love Parade," is a boy-girl duet called "Let's Be Common" (lyric by Clifford Grey, music by Victor Schertzinger). Lane is dancing around with a plump-kneed Lillian Roth, of all people. The terping is just as remarkable, and just as indescribable, as remembered. How did he do that?

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With The 39 Steps popularly ensconced at the American Airlines Theatre, it is natural enough to turn one's attention to its sibling in the Hitchcock catalogue, The Lady Vanishes [Criterion]. These two films — international espionage thrillers from the period just before World War II — are often paired for reasons of theme, style, ingenuity, comedic flair and overall excellence. They represent Hitchcock near his best; were I to compile a top six Hitchcock list, both would earn slots. Criterion has now added "The Lady Vanishes" to its collection, and this clean and crisp release is sure to delight fans of the film (who have presumably watched the thing ten or more times by now). This is the one in which a lady — Dame May Whitty — vanishes from a train, with Michael Redgrave (father to Lynn and Vanessa) and Margaret Lockwood hot on the trail. A bonus disc is filled with intelligent and interesting extras, not the least of which is something called "Crook's Tour," a 1941 non-Hitchcock followup to the film that takes those two cricket-mad Britons Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) on a second European adventure. "The Lady Vanishes" is always good for another viewing, and now it looks as good as it plays.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)