100 Film Favorites – #48: 7 Faces of Dr. Lao
(George Pal, 1964)
7 Faces of Dr. Lao was the final film directed by George Pal. Pal was a Hungarian-American animator who pioneered a style of stop-motion animation in the “Puppetoon” series of shorts produced throughout the 30s and 40s, before branching out into doing special effects work for science fiction movies such as the 1953 War of the Worlds, and finally directing his own features, including 1960’s The Time Machine.
“Dr. Lao” definitely gave Pal the chance to let his weird out. The film takes place in the sleepy western town of Abalone, Arizona, and begins with a stranger riding into town on a donkey. The donkey is supposedly a gleaming golden color, but either the glitter paint isn’t especially vivid or the DVD print is really washed out. Probably both. Luckily the traveler, Dr. Lao, is interesting enough to make up for his lackluster ass. Dr. Lao is a mystical, ancient Chinese man played by Tony Randall of The Odd Couple fame. Who was not Chinese. It’s all good though, this was back when yellowface was still a-okay.
Randall actually pulls septuple duty in the film, portraying all 7 of Lao’s faces. Well, all 7 presented in the film. Bear in mind that the title isn’t “THE 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.” Like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, these are just SOME of Lao’s faces. The particular 7 in question are:
1. Lao himself
2. Merlin the magician
3. The Abominable Snowman
4. Medusa (for all those yearning to see a snake-headed Tony Randall in drag)
5. Apollonius of Tyana, a blind prophet
6. Pan, the satyr embodiment of lust
7. A giant serpent (with a moustache for some reason)
When Lao comes to call, all is not peaceful in Abalone. Wealthy rancher Clinton Stark is attempting to buy up the town, and largely succeeding in convincing his fellow residents to move, due to the community’s struggling economy. However, Ed Cunningham, a young, idealistic journalist, resists Stark’s power-grab, suspecting ulterior motives. The viewer learns that Cunningham’s suspicions are well-founded: Stark has insider information that the railroad will soon be coming through, explosively boosting the value of local land.
Lao puts an expensive full-page ad in Cunningham’s paper (paying with a centuries-old gold coin) announcing that the fabulous Circus of Dr. Lao will unfurl its great spectacle for two nights only, just outside of town. Virtually the whole town turns out for the event, and the denizens of Abalone are astounded to see not only a big-top, but an entire fairgrounds which has apparently materialized out of thin air in the middle of the desert (Lao rode into town carrying nothing but a fishbowl).
Lao welcomes his audience, kicking off a very bizarre evening for the Abaloneans. In each of the various sideshow tents, community members find themselves confronted by one of Lao’s “faces,” which reveals to them some lesson or piece of advice.
Angela, the town librarian, a young widow played by Barbara Eden (Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie), is still emotionally repressed after the death of her husband and spurns the advances of Ed Cunningham. In one tent, she meets Pan. The satyr does a wild sex-dance, which visibly arouses the librarian (she pops many a button). Emerging from the tent after what is probably the sexiest scene to ever prominently feature a goat-man eating grapes, she is now open to Cunningham’s love…just so long as he occasionally busts out a mean panpipes solo.
Meanwhile, a vain older woman journeys into the fortune-telling tent of Apollonius. Flirtatiously, she asks him shallow questions, such as when “another man will come into her life.” In a truly chilling scene, the soothsayer reminds the woman that seers are doomed to speak the truth, and predicts: “Tomorrow will be like today. And the day after tomorrow will be like the day before yesterday. You will think no new thoughts, and you will forget what little you have learned. And for all the good or evil, creation or destruction your life accomplished, you may just as well have never lived at all.” Though the woman bursts into tears, she quickly composes herself outside the tent, and boasts to her friends that the fortune-teller foresaw riches and romance in her future.
Clinton Stark comes face-to-face with the giant serpent, who criticizes his sneaky and predatory ways. And a Scandinavian woman who has spent the movie henpecking her meek husband sneaks a peek at Medusa. Lao removes the curse of stone (and with it, the woman’s cold, stony nature), and the first evening’s performance comes to a close.
That night, Mike, Angela’s young son, comes to visit Lao in his wagon. Mike has rudimentary juggling skills and begs to be allowed to run away with the magical circus. In an optimistic speech starkly contrasting Appolonius’ bleak prediction from earlier, Lao delivers a message which may be familiar to anyone who has peered into the depths of my “About” tab on Facebook:
“The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you’re tired, comes up when you want to be on the move. That’s real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it. Oh, my boy, that’s… that’s circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand. Every time you stop and think, “I’m alive, and being alive is fantastic!” Every time such a thing happens, you’re part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.”
The next evening, Lao’s circus takes a different form. The good Doctor gathers the townsfolk in an arena for a “magic lantern” show, depicting the downfall of the “lost city of Woldercan.” Projecting moving images on a wall, Lao recounts how Woldercan (an ancient, Atlantis-style culture populated by doppelgangers of the Abalone residents) dissolved into chaos and was destroyed when its citizens were overcome by greed. The show ends in a cataclysmic explosion, and the townsfolk suddenly “awaken” in the local courthouse, where a vote to approve Stark’s purchase of the town is underway. The town rejects it, a choice which Stark admits he is now glad of. Stark tells his fellow residents of the approaching railroad and the prosperity it will bring, and there is much rejoicing.
Seeing this sudden change in their boss, Stark’s goons head to the circus grounds to rough up Lao. In the ensuing scuffle, the thugs shatter Lao’s fishbowl, releasing a creature which turns out to be the legendary Loch Ness monster (exposed to air, it grows exponentially in size until returned to water). The monster attacks both Lao and the goons, until Mike is able to trigger a rain-making device which returns the creature to its original, petite stature. This whole sequence is rendered with Pal’s distinctive, claymation-style effects.
The next morning, Ed, Angela, and Mike return to the “fairgrounds,” to see Lao’s circus completely vanished. Mike chases after a swirl of dust, which he believes to be connected to Lao. The dust-devil dissipates, and Mike suddenly finds he is able to juggle perfectly. As the camera pulls out from the now happy family touched by the circus’ mysterious visit, Lao repeats his speech in voice-over:
“The whole world is a circus, if you know how to look at it.”
This post is already running pretty long, so I’ll try to keep from waxing too poetic in my analysis. This is a strange movie with a wonderfully bizarre aesthetic and plenty of emotionally compelling moments. The two most poignant scenes have got to be the speeches by Apollonius and Lao himself. Though they might seem to represent a kind of yin/yang dichotomy of optimism versus pessimism, I think they can be seen as mutually compatible: There’s wonder to be found in life, and to live your life without looking for it would be like not living at all.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao is loosely adapted from the 1935 novel The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles Finney. The novel is much bleaker than the film: It contains Apollonius’ speech, but not Lao’s, and the final “Woldercan” sequence literally destroys the town at its climax, bringing the book to an abrupt close.
I like the movie more.
A few more observations: I’m sure plenty of people will dismiss Randall’s portrayal of Lao as racist outright, simply because he is donning the guise of an outlandish character of another ethnicity. I’m not going to get too deep into this, but I think the performance is at least more progressive than some of the era. As in the novel, Lao uses his status as a “Chinaman” to play with the townsfolk’s expectations, switching abruptly between heavily-accented pidgin English and perfectly eloquent diatribes which fly over the denser Abaloneans’ heads. As Lao, Randall adopts, at turns, Chinese, Scottish, “cowboy,” and midwest accents. So, while Lao is admittedly a representation of the “wise old Chinese man” stereotype, he’s also more than that – a mercurial wizard thousands of years old who can take a great many forms to teach his lessons.
–7 Faces of Dr. Lao won a special Oscar for makeup, the first film ever to be so honored (the official Academy Award for Best Makeup wouldn’t be introduced until 1981).
-The “8th Face”: Tony Randall, in his normal, un-made-up appearance, can be seen sitting in the middle of the audience prior to the Woldercan spectacle.
-For the uninitiated, the premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is that the host is a hapless man trapped in space aboard the “Satellite of Love” by mad scientists who force him to watch horrible movies as a twisted experiment. At the end of the fifth season episode showcasing the film Mitchell, Joel Robinson, the show’s original host, finally finds a way to escape the Satellite. Blasting off in an escape pod christened the Deus ex Machina, Joel leaves behind a plaque for the robot buddies who have kept him company over the last five years. Written on the plaque is Dr. Lao’s inspirational speech. The ‘bots are displeased, calling the speech trite and demanding that Joel return to leave a better memento. Joel shrugs and says that Dr. Lao is his favorite film. And anyway, he shouts, as the escape pod rockets him toward Earth,
“I can’t come back! I don’t know how it works!”
And that’s your clue as to tomorrow’s selection.
P.S.: The first video I ever uploaded to YouTube was my own cover (on ocarina!) of the Dr. Lao theme tune. Behold it here in all its late-2008 glory.
Also, enjoy this surf-rock cover of the theme, released on record in the mid-60s.