Seussapalooza! The Magical Creations of the Man Behind The Lorax

Theodor Seuss Geisel, who would be 108 today, is justly honored for his Seuss books, and the films and TV shows made from them. But his work extended to political humor, raunchy wartime cartoons and the world's weirdest kids movie.

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Universal Pictures

Most of the SNAFU cartoons teach vigilance — a kind of protective paranoia. Spies (directed by Jones for an Aug. 1943 release) darkly proposes that German and Japanese agents lurk everywhere: in a baby carriage, a mailbox, a street lamp, a drain, a horse’s head, inside a telephone. A luscious woman who meets SNAFU at a bar can be seen noting his indiscretions on a tiny typewriter under the table; another babe’s breasts are tape-recorder reels emblazoned with swastikas. Booby Traps (Clampett, Jan. ’44) has SNAFU cozying up to a lifesize doll; X-ray vision reveals her buttocks and boobs to be round bombs. The message: “If you are a boob, you will be trapped.”

(MORE: Read Corliss’s tribute to Chuck Jones)

SNAFU movies also addressed nostalgia for The Home Front (Tashlin, Nov. ’43). SNAFU is shivering in an outpost where “It’s so cold, it would freeze the nuts off a Jeep,” thinking enviously of the folks who have it easy back in the States — except that his mom is toiling away on a farm, his girl friend has joined the WACs and grandpa is shooting rivets onto a battleship. A couple of SNAFUs, including Private SNAFU vs. Malaria Mike (Jones, March 44), revived Geisel’s Flit villain, the mosquito, to advise soldiers in the South Pacific to keep their beds netted and pants up. (SNAFU’s pulchritudinous ass is a frequent target for enemy dive bombers.)

The most Seussian SNAFU of all is Rumors (Freleng, Dec. ’43), which begins in a latrine, where SNAFU misinterprets another soldier’s joke about a bombing as an early word that the base is ripe for enemy attack. To a third GI he whispers, “I think we’re in for a bombing,” and a sign reading “HOT AIR” sprouts as the narrator warns: “The hot air is blowing, a rumor is growing. / Balloon juice is phony, but it makes good baloney.” A soldier with a mouth shaped like a howitzer is told: “Now shoot off your face” — the mouth goes BOOM! — “and baloney is flying all over the place.” The hysteria is spread by airborne sausage skins, baloney balloons, all flying in formation (in misinformation formation, that is) with news that “the Japs are in California!”, the Nazis have bombed the Brooklyn Bridge, they’re parachuting onto the White House lawn, until, within minutes, “The British are quitting!” and “It’s all over. We’ve lost the war.” Finally the camp is quarantined with “rumor-itis,” and the cartoon ends with the familiar logo of Fox Movietone News — a cameraman at work, except that his camera grinds sausage. Words pop onto the screen: “Sees. Hears. Knows. Nothing.”

III. Dr. Seuss and Dr T.

At the end of the war Geisel wrote two films for the Occupation: Your Job in Germany, which warned the German people that they must prove they were no longer Hitler’s willing patsies; and (with his wife Helen) Our Job in Japan, a cautionary history of that nation’s military culture. In different versions, known respectively as Hitler Lives? and Design for Death, both films won Oscars for Best Documentary Short, but others, nt Geisel, came home with the statuettes.

Now relocated from New York to La Jolla, Cal., with Helen, and fully involved in creating his Seuss books, Geisel had one serious flirtation with live-action moviemaking: for producer Stanley Kramer he wrote the script and lyrics for an ambitious 1953 musical, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.  The plot was the nightmare and revenge fantasy of young Bart (Tommy Rettig) forced to take piano lessons under the stern eye of Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), whose mad ambition — at least in Bart’s fevered imagining — is to have 500 boys play a piece of his at the world’s largest piano. The project was a nightmare for Geisel, too. “Hollywood is not suited for me,” he said when it was over, “and I am not suited for it.” He often described the movie as the worst experience of his professional life. Dr. T. might have 5,000 fingers for the movie; Dr. Seuss raised just one.

Well, forget Geisel’s misgivings; The 5,000 Fingers is a must-see for its daring wit, its wonderful score and its literally fantastic design. Art director Rudolph Sternad worked from the author’s sketches to construct rolling, arid science fiction landscapes, ladders that stretch to the sky, gilded bedrooms and grotty dungeons and, for the 500 boys to play at the climax, a gigantic two-tiered piano with 44,000 keys. Geisel peopled these vast, forbidding vistas with characters from his own teeming imagination: hulking sentries, their skin painted dark green; writhing musicians (for the big ballet, a mandatory item in any early-’50s musical); and two nasty roller-skating gents joined by a single long beard. One poor percussionist, who rashly added a fifth BOOM! to the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, is punished with the most sadistic of Terwilliker’s inventions. In Dr. T.’s dungeon, man is seen repeatedly striking a huge drum — but he’s not the victim. The victim is inside the drum.

It’s no wonder that Kramer, at the time Hollywood’s most prominent young renegade, wanted to add a love interest to the script and otherwise vitiate Geisel’s message. Even in its release version the film is a bold and spooky child’s-eye view of persecution and revolution: a chilly netherworld where the adult characters are either weak or venal, and a little boy is dismissed and ill-used. Less a kid’s fantasy than a primal-scream trauma — with horrible heights, long chases, the loss of a mother’s love — the movie ends in anarchy: Dr. T.’s musical plan is foiled, the kids run amok and a Rube Goldberg-style A bomb blows the whole place up. Not since Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite had filmmakers so fervently called for a revolt of the underaged. The movie’s one semi-sympathetic adult, a music-loving plumber named Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) finally falls under Bart’s revolutionary spell and observes. “People should always believe in kids. They should even believe their lies.” We are left to wonder if the grownups are evil or the boy has bad-dreamed the whole thing. But Geisel is unquestionably on the side of lonely Bart.

The score that Geisel wrote with composer Frederick Hollander (full version available on a three-disc CD) contains much Seussian wit, especially in Conried’s fashionista fandango “Do-Mi-Do Duds.” (Stop reading right now and play this video.) And smack in the middle of the verdant raillery is the angry, plangent “Because We’re Kids, a kind of Internationale of the abused preteen underclass. Attend to this helpless cry, all parents who think Seuss books are a cheerful pacifier for the young:

Now just because we’re kids, / Because we’re sort of small, / Because we’re closer to the ground / And you are bigger pound by pound, / You have no right, You have no right / To push and shove us little kids around. ...

But we’ll grow up some day, / And when we do I pray / We won’t just grow in size and sound / And just be bigger by the pound. / I’d hate to grow, Like some I know, / Who push and shove the little kids around.

Some psychic wounds, Geisel suggests here, may be beyond the healing power of the Lorax — or even of Dr. Seuss.

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