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

By a happy coincidence — happiest of all to the producers of the new animated feature Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax — Mar. 2 is not only of the movie’s release date but the 108th birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel himself, as well as the National Education Association’s Reading Across America Day. Two of the film’s stars, Danny DeVito and Zac Efron, are cross-promoting the events with an appearance at the main branch of the New York Public Library. To employ the good Dr.’s galloping anapests: It’s a Seussian, quintesSeussensible way / To kick off the NEA’s Read-a-Book Day.

Product placement aside, and for all the movie’s mixed blessings and disappointments, the connection of reading and movies is one that Ted Geisel pursued for much of his career. One of the English-speaking world’s most beloved and best-selling authors of children’s literature, Geisel shepherded many of his books into film and TV adaptations. His two TV specials, How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966 and the 1970 Horton Hears a Who, both directed by the great Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones, are pinnacle examples of storytelling through word, song and drawings. Since Geisel’s death at 87 in 1991, the Seuss adaptations have continued apace, with the live-action films The Grinch That Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, and the animated feature Horton Hears a Who! They are overseen by Geisel’s second wife and widow Audrey, who served as an executive producer on the new Lorax. (The young would-be lovers in the movie are named Ted and Audrey.)

(READ: Corliss’s review of the animated feature Horton Hears a Who!)

To read my full review of The Lorax, you’ll need to subscribe to TIME not-com — the one-page story alone would easily justify your investment in a year of the magazine — but I am allowed to say here that the movie, from the producers of Despicable Me, is a so-so adaptation, with a cheerful palette and a vibe that rarely exceeds the generic. Seizing a teachable moment to instruct children in the care of the natural environment, The Lorax tells of a totally synthetic city called Thneed-Ville and a kid named Ted (Efron), who ventures out of town to find the secret of the title creature (DeVito), the gruff guardian of the forest.

At heart a greed screed against rampant industrialism, The Lorax caught some early flack from right-wing bloviators, with the Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs thundering that “Hollywood is once again trying to indoctrinate our children.” One of Dobbs’ guests, radio spieler Matt Patrick, accused The Lorax of “creating Occu-Toddlers,” and urged parents going to the movie to fight back: “Buy, like, huge tubs of popcorn… then you crinkle it all up, you throw it on the floor and you walk out… You fight back against this message.” Yes, a grand idea: Give money to the company that produced The Lorax and the multiplex chains that sell junk food, then let the underpaid theater attendants clean up your mess.

I. Geisel the Crusading Liberal

The political ruckus would have pleased Geisel. The son of German-Americans in Springfield, Mass., he was a lifelong liberal with an impish sense of humor. Since plenty has been written about the writer’s Seussiana, we’ll celebrate his birthday by looking at his non-Seuss work: his early forays into magazine humor and advertising, his Private SNAFU war cartoons and the amazing 1953 live-action The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. — probably Geisel’s most revolutiuonary declaration of kids’ rights.

As Charles D. Cohen notes in his exemplary, heavily illustrated book The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss, the young man’s wit was already blooming by the time he entered Dartmouth University in 1921. Geisel became editor of the campus humor magazine, the Jack-O-Lantern, which he said was written “only for the extreme left wing of college student, for the man of social perversity.”

(PHOTOS: The Wacky World of Dr. Seuss in Film and TV)

But political views rarely clouded the young man’s gift for sharp social comedy. As a Jack-O-Lantern advice columnist, he offered raffish etiquette tips: “a man should not sit down before a lady. It is, however, advisable to violate this rule if the lady expects to sit on his lap.” He wrote a news story on “the Zimkowitz annual baseball game” in the form of a box score: 19 Zimkowitzes in two columns of agate type. (Yes, 19, not 18. One family member had “batted for Zimkowitz in the ninth.”) Extending his comic impudence to his classwork, he turned in a “book report” of the Boston & Maine Railroad timetable as if it were a modern novel: “Chapter 18 is word for word exactly the same as Chapter 17, only it is run backwards.”

A year at Oxford University introduced him to his first wife, another American student named Helen Palmer, and taught Geisel that he was not suited for conventional scholarship. He set up business in Manhattan, where within a year he was writing for Judge, then the top humor magazine. One of his Judge cartoons led to a second career. In it, a dragon crawls ferociously into the bed of a “mediaeval tenant” who complains, “And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit!” Flit was a bug spray, and its manufacturer, Standard Oil of New Jersey, soon hired Geisel to create an ad campaign. An instant commercial sensation, the “Quick Henry the Flit!” campaign expanded to book form, with a collection of the published ads, and a promotional movie, produced by Warner Bros. It showed a whale being menacing by a mosquito; Orca snarls, “Quick Jonah! The Flit!” and a man in a polka-dot bathing suit emerges from the whale’s mouth to repel the attacker.

(LIST: What Seuss movie is in TIME’s Top 25 Animated Features)

Geisel would work with the Termite Terrace gang of cartoon makers at Warner Bros. on and off for the next 35 years — up to 1972, when longtime Warners layout artist Hawley Pratt and art director Maurice Noble brought The Lorax to the small screen. The first official Seuss short came in 1942: Robert Clampett’s 10-min. animated version of the 1940 book Horton Hatches the Egg. In this nurture-over-nature parable, the elephant Horton takes the place of Mayzie, a bird unready for motherhood, by sitting on Mayzie’s egg for 51 weeks; when the chick hatches, it has four legs and a trunk — an elephant bird. Clampett, who made sassiest and most surreal Warners cartoons of the ’40s, added a fish that is a caricature of Peter Lorre and a Katharine Hepburn impression done by Mayzie. Otherwise, it’s faithful to the book and a sweet comedy on its own.

The author also turned his comic acuity into political propaganda. In 1940 he became a staff cartoonist for New York’s left-wing daily newspaper PM, which he later characterized as “a bunch of honest but slightly cockeyed crusaders” fighting to expose the prewar isolationism that they saw as fellow-traveling with the Third Reich. The isolationists’ point man was aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, a frequent foil for Geisel drawings. One panel showed a serpent with swastikas snaking across the Atlantic while a figure marked Lindbergh pats its head, declaring, “’Tis Roosevelt, Not Hitler, that the World Should Really Fear.” And when the U.S. finally entered the War, Geisel fired his heaviest artillery: the Ameri-bird confronting huge German and Japanese mosquitos with a canister labeled “U.S. Defense Bonds — Stamps” and the caption, “Quick, Henry, THE FLIT!”

II. Private SNAFU

The War Department had called on director Frank Capra to assemble a film unit, mainly for documentaries that would instruct soldiers and citizens on the government’s enemies, aims and ideals. Geisel spent most of his wartime service on Private SNAFU (from the military acronym Situation Normal All Fouled Up, or word to that effect). Working mostly with the directors of Warner Bros. cartoons — Clampett, Jones, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashlin — he dreamed up a series of 3-5 min. black-and-white animated comedies that taught soldiers proper behavior by showing them the misbehavior and bad attitude of a certain recalcitrant draftee. SNAFU was a cocky doofus who looked like one of the Seven Dwarfs in uniform (say, Grumpy crossed with Dopey) and who spoke with Bugs Bunny’s voice (courtesy Mel Blanc). His refusal to obey the rules gets him into awful scrapes — he often ends up dead — and threatens to compromise the war effort.

The SNAFUs, which came out about once a month and were shown only to the military, were racier than commercially released cartoons of the time: “hell” and “damn” in the dialogue, plenty of butt comedy, and mermaids out of an Alberto Vargas pinup, with large breasts and pert nipples. The films reveal what kind of cartoons the Warner Bros. guys would have made if the Hollywood censor had been a bit more lenient. They also gave Geisel the chance to write adult humor for adults, or for boys who were being trained to die as men. The idea was to help more of those lads come home alive.

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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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