Not Cult Enough: The Brave Little Toaster Vs. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
Recently my husband and I made a deal. He would watch my favorite twisted children’s film based on a book for kids if I watched his favorite twisted children’s film written by a picture book writer. Seemed fair. Thus it was that we two engaged in a psychedelic haze of evil clowns, shirtless (and well-oiled) jailors, and more dance sequences and songs than you can shake a bedazzled stick at.
Mine came first. The Brave Little Toaster was a film I discovered during my babysitting days. How well do I remember plunking countless hoards of tots and tweens in front of the television screen to twist them with this bizarre little movie. A fabulous babysitter I was not, but every time I hear about one of those kids doing well in the world I like to think that maybe this plucky toaster and his band of renegade appliances made some kind of a difference.
The plot of this film is simple. Five appliances (toaster, radio, lamp, electric blanket, and vacuum cleaner) embark on a journey from their mountain cottage to find the boy who loved them years ago. They call him The Master, and that’s just the first clue you get that something’s up with this film. No, I lied. The first indication is the remarkably slow opening sequence where a full orchestra (no wall of keyboards for THIS little film) plays alongside the credits and we see a cottage appearing in the dim, dawning morning light. Voices for the film include Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, and Thurl Ravenscroft (a.k.a. Tony the Tiger and the fellow who sang "You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"). Anywho, after a bunch of weirdo dream sequences, songs involving Phil Hartman doing Jack Nicholson and Peter Lorre imitations, and an evil clown dressed like a fireman our heroes are reunited with our hero just in time for the toaster to sacrifice himself by jumping into the gears of a massive machine. Is there a happy ending? There sure is. You just have to sit through magnificently weird songs like this one to get there. Listen to these lyrics. Listen closely. These are, if it’s not clear, automobiles singing about why they don’t deserve to live, mere minutes before being crushed into cubes.
About the time the car sings, "I lived on a reservation," your eyeballs start turning inwards.
After watching the film in my post-30th birthday adulthood, I am pleased to report that it remains fantastic. It did play at Sundance, after all. It even played at the Film Forum here in New York in 1989. Not hard to see why when you view it multiple times. It was based on a book by Thomas M. Disch and illustrated by . . . by . . . by Karen Lee Schmidt. Oh my sweet heavens. I know that woman. If I’m not too much mistaken I had her come into my library to speak to a group of homeschoolers once about her art. ALERT! ALERT! I need you residents of the Pacific Northwest (for that is where she lives) to track her down and find out if this is true. SCBWI members in particular should be able to find her. Her artwork was (I think) on display when I spoke there earlier this year.
My husband was also a little shocked that something so clearly perfect for Pixar would have remained 2-D. It’s not all peaches and cream, of course. There is a VERY unfortunate racist image in the movie involving a stereo from Japan that looks like it belongs to a film from 1947 rather than 1987.
Racist images would be the kind of thing you’d expect to find in the 1953 fantasy The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Yet far from containing a snide joke here or there, this Dr. Seuss penned screenplay is far ahead of its time. Twenty years ahead, I’d have to say. It stars sexy sexy Hans Conried (my blog, my rules) as the titular Dr. Terwilliker as well as Tommy Rettig (Timmy from TV’s Lassie) as Bart. I’ll repeat that. There’s a boy named Bart and his enemy is an adult named Terwilliker. Any Simpsons fans out there? Because while Matt Groening claims that this is just a coincidence, I’m not so sure. If anyone has ever seen Mr. Burns sing "See My Vest", you’ll find frightening parallels to this song from Dr. T. Listen to the lyrics closely. The Seussian influence is palpable.
You still got it, Hans baby! Flaunt those spats!
Where was I?
Ah yes. The movie is magnificent. Really holds up well after all these years. With set pieces straight out of the craziest Seussian concoction, it manages to both flout 1950s American conventions and reinforce them. I mean the plot is all about a boy who doesn’t want to practice the piano. A bit of a narcoleptic, he falls asleep and dreams of a situation in which his piano teacher is a dictator of his own music institute who has hypnotized the boy’s mother and is intent on forcing 499 other boys to play the piano as well. The boys, when they are brought in, actually include some kids with skin of a color other than white, so I was well pleased with the title in many ways.
I did recently finish Ellen Klages book White Sands, Red Menace in which the characters moan over how often the word "atomic" is used to sell things. With that still fresh in my mind, I was deeply amused by how many times the word shows up in this film as well.
I’m reluctant to show you too many sequences from the movie, because I want you to see it. That said, oh you just HAVE to check these two sequences out! The first one makes it clear that this is a Seussian film. The second is just weird and funny. My kinda stuff.
Remember. 1953 was when this came out. The same year as Roman Holiday.
Neither of these movies, Dr. T or Toaster, has really achieved the true cult status they deserve. Toaster was relegated to reruns on the Disney channel, while Dr. T was (do you agree now?) 20 years too soon. So go rent both films! You ain’t done seen nuthin’ like them ne’er before.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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