This is the circus of Dr. Lao.
We show you things that you don't know.
Oh we spare no pains and we spare no dough,
We want to give you one hell of a show!
7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
An old Chinese man arrives in the Arizona town of Abalone, riding a golden mule and carrying only a pipe and a fishbowl. He goes into the local newspaper office and places an ad in the paper. His name is Dr. Lao, and he has brought his circus to town.
Abalone is a town at a crossroads. Clint Stark (Arthur O'Connell), the richest man in the territory, is trying to buy everyone’s land. The only man opposing Stark is Ed Cunningham (John Ericson), the newspaper’s editor. Ed’s only been in Abalone for one year, but he has a crusading journalist's soul and believes in fighting the good fight. He also has a vested interest in the town; he’s carrying a torch for librarian Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden), a prim and severe young widow who adamantly rejects his advances. Angela lives with her 9 year-old son, Mike (Kevin Tate) and her mother-in-law, and works hard trying to convince herself that she doesn’t need another man in her life.
At a town meeting, Stark gives the citizens a few days to make up their minds to sell out. He warns them that the town is going nowhere fast, and that they better take him up on his offer now while they still can. Ed argues that any place where people live and work together has value, and to hold out against Stark. Dr. Lao also attends the meeting, and watches everything with interest.
Arthur O'Connell as Clint Stark
Stark is an interesting villain. He respects Ed for standing up to him, and for fighting against the odds. Stark has been betting on human weakness for most of his life.
Stark: I was like you once, a long time ago. I believed in the dignity of man...decency…
humanity. But I was lucky. I found out the truth early, boy.
Ed: And what is the truth, Stark?
Stark: It’s all very simple. There’s no such thing as the dignity of man. Man is a base, pathetic, vulgar animal.
Meanwhile, Mike bonds with Dr. Lao, and Ed tries to get some information on the enigmatic stranger. From seemingly out of thin air, Lao has conjured a large, multicolored circus tent, along with a caravan, a calliope machine and other trappings of the trade. The members of his circus include the Abominable Snowman, the ancient wizard, Merlin, the blind seer Apollonius, the frightful Medusa, the sarcastic, talking Giant Serpent and the god Pan.
(Click photos to enlarge)
As the townspeople grapple with the decision to sell or not, Dr. Lao’s mysterious circus beckons. Little do the residents suspect what magic and mystery awaits them in Dr. Lao’s circus. What people see and experience there over the next two nights will change their lives forever…
7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a charming fantasy film produced and directed by George Pal. Part western (cowboys, Indians, wagons and horses co-exist with early-model cars and motorcycles) and part gentle social satire, it benefits from an erudite, witty script by frequent Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont. Based off a much more sinister novel by Charles G. Finney, the movie was designed as a crowd-pleasing event for the whole family, and thus is quite a bit tamer than its source. However, there is still enough dark and strange stuff going on to make it appealing for adults.
Tony Randall was not Pal’s first choice for Dr. Lao (that was Peter Sellers), but it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing a better job playing every member of the circus (including a cameo as himself). Randall is on fire here, running from one scene to the next, in probably his most demanding part ever. His Dr. Lao is such a fun creation, talking in broken English one moment, and like a Harvard professor the next. He changes accents on the fly, sometimes using a slow southern drawl, a Scottish brogue, stage French, etc. Randall also gets to be dotty and wizened as Merlin, lascivious and leering as Pan, serious and gloom-laden as Apollonius. It’s clear Randall is having a total field day, and the sense of play and joy in his various performances is infectious.
While the movie clearly belongs to Randall, the supporting cast members are all fine. Ericson is properly stalwart, Eden makes her transformation from shrewish to earthy convincing, and the ever-reliable O’Connell is appropriately smooth and smarmy. The rest of the cast is rounded out by recognizable character actors, such as Noah Beery, Jr., Minerva Urecal, John Qualen, Lee Patrick, Royal Dano, John Ducette, Frank Cady, Eddie Little Sky and Chubby Johnson, who all add to the authenticity of the small town, turn-of-the-century setting.
Today, the fact that a white man is playing the Chinese Dr. Lao will be more than some people can handle. Those so inclined might cringe at Randall’s occasional forays into sing-song pidgin English. I personally don’t see it as a problem. It’s obvious from the start that Lao only uses this stereotypical Oriental guise to play with, and subvert, the locals’ ignorance. Not only is the film a product of an earlier time, but much like Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, Randall’s Lao is at all times a figure of vast wisdom, nobility and strong good humor. He’s the centerpiece who controls and guides all events. And Randall’s performance is so knowing, lively and dexterous that it seems churlish to get too worked up over it.
Though we see from the start that Dr. Lao’s magic is real, he remains a figure of mystery throughout. It’s clear his intentions are benign; he’s out to shock or startle or subtly influence the town and its denizens for the better. Are all these different characters in the circus manifestations of himself? Is he truly some ancient god-like being from a long dead empire? Does he, in fact, even exist at all? We’re given a few hints, but no full answer is provided, which is precisely Dr. Lao’s point: to embrace the mystery and magic in the world around us, to regard it with wonder and delight, and not waste our lives seeking answers to everything.
The movie rides a fine line between pointed social commentary, philosophical musings, and intriguing magical encounters on the one hand, and lively, sometimes silly humor, action, monster mayhem and other fun stuff designed to play well with a broad audience on the other. Some scenes are surprisingly adult for such a light-hearted family picture. The scene where Barbara Eden encounters Pan is deliriously sensual, and the section where the vain Mrs. Cassin (Lee Patrick) gets her fortune read by Apollonius is devastating in its clear-eyed delivery of ugly truths. There’s enough of an undercurrent of horror and the power of the unknown sprinkled into the mix to give the film a pleasant bite.
The film does lose some steam towards the end. Dr. Lao’s final moralistic warning to the townspeople comes off a bit heavy-handed, and the divergence from some of the grimmer fates a few characters receive in the novel saps the movie of some of its sense of danger. Some may find things all a little too-neatly tied up by the final curtain – but such is the way with many tall tales. These caveats are mild; the film remains good fun and lovers of fantasy should find much to enjoy. While there are a few crude animation effects that let the side down, overall the special effects are quite good, with excellent make-ups provided by William Tuttle (who received a special Oscar for his work here) and a fun stop-motion Loch Ness monster.
At the time of its release, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao was a box office disappointment for Pal, but today it remains one of the better films he ever produced (along with The Time Machine and War of the Worlds). It’s also a rare, successful attempt to blend the fantasy and western genres. The movie is worth seeing for Randall’s performance(s) alone, and stands up as an entertaining and whimsical fable for fantasy fans both young, and young at heart.
DVD Note: The now out-of-print DVD looks just fine. Now offered as a DVD-R by Warner Archive, with likely the same transfer.
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