*****CIRCUS OF SPOILERS!!*****
Based on “The Circus of Dr. Lao” (1935) by Charles G. Finney, “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao” (1964) is a children’s fantasy directed by the prolific fantasy producer/director George Pal (“The War of the Worlds“, “The Time Machine” ). The film’s screenplay was adapted by Charles Beaumont, who wrote many episodes of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone”. The movie is a whimsical fantasy of an ancient and mysterious Chinese circus ringmaster named Dr. Lao (Tony Randall), who brings his troupe of oddities to the small American southwestern town of Abalone, Arizona. The town is in danger of selling out to greedy developer Clinton Stark (Arthur O’Connell), who has the inside track on a future railroad coming to the town in a year. Dr. Lao allies himself with the local newspaper editor Ed Cunningham (John Ericson), a relative newcomer to Abalone who recognizes Stark for who and what he is; Cunningham is also smitten with the local widow librarian Angela (Barbara Eden), a lonely single mother with a young son, Mike (Kevin Tate). The majority of the town’s shortsighted population are ready to sell out to Stark, until Dr. Lao’s self-reflective circus shows them the error of their ways.
Right off, it has to be said that the movie (and story) are from another era, and that must be accounted for when watching the film with 21st century awareness. The notion of Tony Randall playing an over-the-top Chinese character is insensitive at best, and wildly offensive at worst. American pop culture of the 1960s was a lot less self-aware when it came to such overt racial stereotyping and whitewash-casting (which still happens today, with Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese cyborg in “Ghost in the Shell” or Benedict Cumberbatch playing a Sikh in “Star Trek Into Darkness”). Taking that into account, I hope you will indulge this exploration of “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao,” a film that I loved as a kid and still enjoy today.
“The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.”
The film begins with the 7,322 year old Chinese wizard Dr. Lao (Tony Randall) riding into the Old West town of Abalone, Arizona atop his golden mule, with his tiny pet ‘sea serpent’ in a fishbowl. Lighting his pipe with his thumb, the elderly eccentric wishes to bring his traveling circus to the small town, which is very much in need of his peculiar brand of magic.
Note: As discussed both above and below, the whitewash casting and racial stereotyping is an understandable nonstarter for many modern audiences, but one has to realize that the exaggerated persona that Dr. Lao projects is purely intentional; the character, who is actually many characters, can speak English with perfect diction to whomever he chooses…so long as he trusts them first. The stereotypical Chinese facade is by design, even if it is downright offensive today.
We then see the offices of the local Abalone newspaper, run by sole writer and editor Ed Cunningham (John Ericson), along with his faithful partner Sam (Noah Beery Jr.), who runs the printing press. Ed moved to Abalone a year ago, planting firm roots in the small western town, especially after becoming smitten with lonely librarian and widow Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden) who lives with her son Mike (Kevin Tate) and mother-in-law (Argentina Brunetti). Ed openly opposes the plan of local land baron Clinton Stark (Arthur O’Connell) to buy the town from its residents in hopes of reselling at a profit when a new railroad is built in it the following year. The citizens of Abalone, and its neighboring Native American reservation, are unaware of the new railroad’s planned construction. Stark will make a tremendous profit when the railroad is completed. Ed only knows that he’s come to think of Abalone as home, and doesn’t relish the idea of surrendering that newfound home to an obvious con artist like Stark. Stark visits Ed at his newspaper office with a pair of thugs named Casey (Royal Dano) and Lucas (John Doucette), who make none-too-subtle threats to the idealistic young newspaperman. Sitting patiently in the office is Lao, who came in earlier and wants to print a full-page ad for his traveling circus in the paper for the generous sum of $50.
Note: The character of Ed (John Ericson) is clearly a stand-in for the late president John F. Kennedy, with his “big city” idealism and Kennedyesque looks. The mind of an intellectual, the physique of an athlete. He even rides a motorcycle, to give him a bit more of a roguish charm. German born actor John Ericson (b. 1926) passed away only last year, at the age of 93. The character of Stark (Arthur O’Connell), a real estate tycoon who swindles and cons the rural townsfolk of Abalone, reminds me now of ex-president Donald Trump, a rich New Yorker who conned a lot of Americans by falsely proclaiming to sympathize with their working-class and rural roots. The major difference, of course, is that Stark is eventually redeemed by the film’s end.
At the local library, Ed shamelessly cajoles (and harasses) the local librarian Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden), who is widowed and raising a young son Mike (Kevin Tate), while supporting her loving mother-in-law Sarah (Angela Brunetti). Ed is at the library looking for information on Lao’s Chinese home village…which he learns collapsed centuries ago. That night, Angela, Ed and even Dr. Lao gather with the other residents of Abalone at the library (which doubles as town hall) to discuss Stark’s offer. Ed attends with his Native American friend, George G. George (Eddie Little Sky), to discuss the impact of Stark’s buyout on George’s nearby reservation. The cynical Stark shamelessly panders to the townspeople, assuring them that philanthropy is his sole motivation for offering to buy their properties. When Ed, Sam and Angela are openly skeptical, the vote is delayed. After the meeting, the cunning Stark corners Ed and tells him he needs to wake up and smell reality. Ed scoffs and heads out the following morning on his motorcycle to see the town’s newest resident, Dr. Lao, as he puts up the surprisingly small tents for his circus. Ed is greeted by a domesticated Yeti (Randall) who scampers off behind the tents. He is then met by the legendary wizard of King Arthur’s court, the one and only Merlin (Randall), who is now past his prime…tottering and forgetful, but still wielding his old magic. As Ed talks with Merlin, Dr. Lao swiftly appears. Ed presses Lao about his long-defunct home village, but Lao deflects. As Ed and the enigmatic Lao get to know each other a bit, Lao’s thick Chinese accent fades into perfect English. He and Ed seem to trust and understand each other, even if Ed doesn’t fully comprehend the eccentric old man’s universe. Interested in the full story behind the circus, Ed wants to attend the grand opening of Lao’s two-night extravaganza.
Note: A couple things. A year after this film was released, the lovely Barbara Eden (“Angela”) would, of course, be the one playing an ancient supernatural being in the TV series “I Dream Of Jeannie” (1965-1970), which also spawned a series of sequel TV movies. And despite the whitewash casting of Randall as the titular Chinese wizard, the stoic Native American character “George G. George” is played by actual Native American, Eddie Little Sky (1926-1997), a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. Casting Native Americans as Native Americans was extremely rare in the 1960s, so the movie gets a point for that bit of casting, at least. If only George played a greater role in the story…
The next day, Angela’s curious young son Mike rides his bicycle into town, where he sees Lao putting up fliers for his circus on street poles by spitting tacks. The eager Mike offers to help the old wizard, and Lao is genuinely moved and sympathetic when Mike casually mentions that his father passed away. The two strike up an instant friendship. When his young friend asks exactly how old he is, Lao states that he will be “7,322 years old… this October.” With the open mindedness of youth, Mike fully believes him, too. When Lao speaks to Mike, his accent once again fades into clear English (“it comes and goes,” he says). Mike promises to be at the circus that evening, and Lao offers his new friend free admittance.
Note: This is one of the sweetest scenes in the movie, as we get a glimpse of the real Dr. Lao, through his gentle patience with and sympathy with the idolizing young Mike.
That night, the entire town arrives for the opening of Dr. Lao’s little circus, which promises wonders from around the world. Other residents of Abalone arrive, including Mrs. Cassan (Lee Patrick), a gracelessly aging woman whose vanity is matched by her selfishness, as well as Luther Lindquist (John Qualen), who arrives with his bullying wife Kate (Minerva Dunnuck). Dr. Lao steps upon the tiny stage, and does a quick introduction, “This is the circus of Dr. Lao. We show you things that you don’t know. We’ve spared no pains and spared no dough, but we wanted to give you one helluva show!” The crowd is delighted, and they walk into the tiny collection of tents, which are curiously much larger on the inside than on the outside. Mike arrives with his mother, and Lao gives the boy a red balloon and free admission, as promised…
Note: With his many faces, advanced age, and circus tents which appear “bigger on the inside,” one wonders if perhaps Dr. Lao has some Time Lord in his ancestry? A Doctor Who/Dr. Lao mashup would be a charming possibility to explore, even if only in fan fiction or a non-sanctioned comic book someday.
Mrs. Cassan is drawn to the tent of ancient philosopher-turned-fortune teller, Apollonius of Tyana (Randall), who appears in a near-exact visage of his Greek statues. Over burning incense, Mrs. Cassan puts her nickel on the table and asks the wise sage for answers about her future, specifically whether she’ll strike oil on her land, or meet a new beau. The sad-faced Apollonius is cursed to tell only the brutal truth: She will never be wealthy. She will die alone and unloved. She will think no new thoughts. She will grow older, but not wiser. Reduced to tears, Mrs. Cassan rushes out of the tent, accusing the ancient sage of being an “ugly man”. “Mirrors are often ugly,” Apollonius states bluntly. As Mrs. Cassan leaves, the blind sage then gropes the table for his nickel…
Note: I don’t profess to know the full story of the ancient Greek philosopher Apollonius (3 BC – 97 AD), but his life must’ve really gone south if we wound up as a fortune teller for a traveling circus in the American southwest. Perhaps that explains the sad face…?
As the crying Mrs. Cassan wipes the ugly tears from her face, she is met my Angela, who is looking for her mother-in-law Sarah. Mrs. Cassan, true to form, lies about her experience with Apollonius, bragging that the soothsayer promised her fortune, a new man in her life, and even pinched her a few times. Peering from behind the curtain of Apollonius’ tent, Dr. Lao shakes his head. Angela continues looking for Sarah and Mike. Dr. Lao directs her to the tent of Pan, the satyr-god of Joy (Randall)…
Note: Mrs. Cassan, true to form, is unchanged by the stinging truth—choosing to lie about her experience with Apollonius rather than tell Angela what really happened. It’s a sad commentary that many people prefer to wallow in comfortable lies rather than use the truth as an opportunity to grow.
Inside of the darkened tent of Pan, the repressed Angela begins to feel a bit hot and bothered as the satyr plays a melody with his flute. The curly-haired, bare-chested man beast (Randall) begins an erotically charged dance around Angela, who begins perspiring and breathing heavily as she is forced to open a couple of buttons on her blouse’s neckline just to breathe. The satyr’s dancing reaches a feverish crescendo as the face of Pan changes into that of Ed Cummings (Ericson) who teasingly tantalizes Angela with a grape. Before the two can share the grape (and a kiss), they are interrupted—and the man-goat reverts to its earlier visage. Disturbed, flustered and embarrassed, Angela quickly closes her neckline and rushes out of the tent, while the bleating satyr nonchalantly munches on its grapes. Later that evening, the sexually aroused Angela is still haunted by the music of Pan’s flute, which only she can hear…
Note: Barbara Eden, even in full schoolmarm mode, is arguably more sexy in this movie than she ever was on “I Dream of Jeannie.” Her almost-painful sexual longing as the satyr-ized Ed teases her with song and grapes is erotic as hell (especially for a ‘family movie’), without even once showing Eden’s legendarily-hidden navel. Sometimes less is more.
The next encounter sees a curious Mr. Stark enter the tent of the “Giant Serpent,” a large snake (voiced by Randall) which reflects Stark’s own face, and even mimics the cadence of his voice, but with a hissing giggle and occasional rattle of its tail. The Serpent, loosely imprisoned behind thick branches and barbs, notes that Stark himself is in a cage of his own making…his lust for profit has buried his conscience. The Serpent is also privy to the forthcoming railroad, which promises an economic boon to Abalone that Stark will exploit, once the entire town belongs to him. Increasingly unsettled by the Serpent’s uncanny insights into his soul, Stark angrily tosses his lit cigar at the creature, which grabs it by the mouth, taking a few drags…
Note: The Serpent is achieved through a combination of hand puppet and Jim Danforth’s stop motion animation (for the brief shots of its rattle shaking, as well as the cigar catch). Special effects artist Danforth also did stop-motion and other FX work on the legendary 1960s TV series “The Outer Limits” (1963-1964). Designer/prop-maker Wah Chang, who collaborated on several George Pal films, also worked on “The Outer Limits” as well as the original “Star Trek” (1966-1969), for which he designed the classic flip top communicator, the phaser, and other iconic props.
Next up, we see a small crowd gathered around the stage for Merlin’s magic show. Despite performing a few wondrous tricks with cards and spontaneous flowers sprouting about the stage, the boorish group is largely unimpressed. An old drunkard wants only to see “a floating lady,” while a snooty little girl wanted a rabbit instead of a guinea pig to appear out of her popcorn bag. Boo hoo.
Note: The fickle nature of audiences is another universal constant; they love you in one moment, but you’re old hat by the next.
As the disappointed crowd begins to leave, only goodhearted young Mike remains, who offers to help the aged magician clean up his scattered cards, even letting go of his prized red balloon to do so. This outreach of compassion to the elderly magician moves him, and he embraces the boy for his generosity of sprit.
Note: Mike’s instant connection to Merlin is an extension of his previously seen connection with Dr. Lao, since all of the ‘faces of Dr. Lao’ are but separate facets of the same character. Lao is all of the characters and creatures within his circus, as he magically appears everywhere at once. The original 1935 novel (“The Circus of Dr. Lao”), which I’ve not read, apparently included a much larger menagerie, including a werewolf, a mermaid, a Chimera, a Roc, a sphinx and a unicorn. One can see how the FX and budget limitations of 1964 no doubt curtailed the screenplay into something more manageable.
The next ‘exotic creature’ seen in Dr. Lao’s circus is the “giant sea serpent”… which is a tiny catfish in a goldfish bowl. Lao assures a crowd of skeptics, including Stark’s hired goons, that when exposed to air (much like the pufferfish), the creature will grow unchecked into the Loch Ness monster. Needless to say, the crowd snorts in derision. Lao then ushers the crowd to see something they won’t so easily dismiss… the mythological Gorgon sister with the serpentine hair, Medusa (Randall).
Note: As the owner of a 17-year old pet plecostomus fish (aka sucker-mouthed catfish), I can vouch for Dr. Lao’s caution against the unchecked growth of the ‘sea creature.’ I’ve seen my own fish grow from little more than a fry to a 14″/32 cm swimming muscle. There is one fleeting shot later on in the film, after the fish bowl is knocked over, where we see an actual plecostomus representing one growth stage of the rapidly-morphing sea creature…
According to Greek mythology, the Gorgon sister Medusa’s hair was a pile of venomous snakes, and her direct stare would cause one to turn to stone. The townsfolk of Abalone walk toward a wall with a mirror facing the demonic creature—Lao has placed the mirror there as a precaution against his audience turning into unmoving monuments. Medusa cackles with laughter, as she taunts her would-be spectators with her diabolical reflection.
Note: If you can forgive both a hint of Adam’s apple as well as a suggestion of chest hair, Tony Randall makes for a most effective mythological drag character. His bright green contact lenses and lipstick (as well as a suggestion of green added to his pallor) accent the cluster of independently-moving wire-work snakes atop his scalp. His voice is also electronically pitched higher to make his Medusa’s cackle sound more feminine.
Well, of course, bullying ball-breaking Kate Lindquist is having none of this mirror-nonsense, as she demands to see this ‘trick’ in person for herself. She then spins around and takes an eyeful of Medusa for herself—quickly turning into blue-gray stone for her trouble. The woman topples over, and her terrified husband runs to her side. The incredulous Luther, refusing to believe what he’s just seen with his own eyes, tries to dismiss Kate’s transformation as “an arthritis attack,” as several men help Luther take Kate’s rock solid form back into his car. Seeing a chance to redeem himself, the elderly Merlin steps forward and offers to help. Throwing out a counter-spell to Medusa’s dark magic, color returns to Kate’s features and she is restored to flesh-and-blood form; her long-suffering but loving husband seated next to her. A rare smile softens Kate’s features, as her experience awakened her dormant love and affection for Luther. Without a trace of her former bluster, she gently tells her husband, “Let’s go home.” Suddenly Dr. Lao appears, telling the crowd that the show’s over for the night.
Note: The optical FX work of Kate Lindquist changing into stone are very well done for 1964. It’s a combination of editing fades and color correction that is on a par with Lon Chaney Jr.’s transformations into “The Wolf Man” (1941).
Long after the show packs it in for the night, a resting Dr. Lao is visited by young Mike, who is desperately unhappy at home and wishes to run away with Dr. Lao’s circus. Lao patiently tries to explain to the boy, for whom he’s fond, that he doesn’t need any help. The eight year-old tries to show what he can do by doing a palm trick and an attempt at juggling. Sympathetic to the boy’s plight, Lao offers this poetic sage bit of advice: “Mike, let me tell you something. 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 wise words are just beyond Mike’s years, and he replies, “I don’t understand.” Lightening the mood, Lao quips, “Neither do I!” And they each kick up their heels in a dance of joy.
Note: Lao’s speech (delivered by Tony Randall without his previous stereotypical cadence) is a delightful bit of screenwriting by former “Twilight Zone” scribe, Charles Beaumont. The long-running bad movie skewering TV series, “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” (1988-present; 10 seasons) once used that very same speech as Joel Robinson’s parting words to robots Crow and Tom Servo, when series creator and actor Joel Hodgson left the series near the beginning of its sixth season (S6.12: “Mitchell”).
Later that evening, Dr. Lao takes a stroll though town when he catches sight of Stark’s stooges Casey and Lucas beating up George G. George in a back alleyway. With a bit of his old-world magic, the good doctor instantly freezes the two town bullies in place, gently blowing over their immobilized forms with puffs of smoke from his pipe. A grateful George leaves, as Lao moves on. Coming home late from the circus, Ed and his partner Sam walk by their newspaper office…only to realize that it’s been completely ransacked; windows shattered, doors off their hinges, and all the printing equipment destroyed. Casey and Lucas have had a busy evening. Ed is only surprised that Stark felt so threatened by his editorials that he resorted to this action. The two despondent newspapermen decide that there’s nothing left to do but get drunk…
Note: Once again, Dr. Lao adopts yet another persona, with Tony Randall doing a witty impersonation of actor John Wayne as he immobilizes Casey and Lucas. Royal Dano, who plays Casey, is a longtime character actor appearing in countless westerns. His gangly frame and odd features have been seen in such TV series as Rod Serling’s “The Night Gallery” (“I’ll Never Leave You”) and the pilot of “Planet of the Apes” (1974). Dano’s also appeared as the nameless grim reaper character in 1983’s “The Right Stuff,” as well another notable traveling circus/carnival movie “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1983), an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s far darker but thematically similar book. Dano passed away in 1994 at the age of 71.
Dr. Lao strolls by the newspaper office and sees the wreckage. With a quick bit of his magic, he restores the place to perfect working order. The following morning, a drunken Ed and Sam pass the office and do a double-take; the entire building is spit-and-polish, with all of the doors and windows intact as well. Even in their besotted state, the two men gratefully jump at the chance to get to work on the day’s edition. Ed suspects that Dr. Lao was behind the impromptu restoration and plans to thank him later. Confronting Stark and his men, Ed serves up a slice of schadenfreude as he hand delivers to Stark a copy of the daily paper… a bit shorter than usual, but still on time.
Note: Ed’s partner and pressman, Sam, is played by underrated character actor Noah Beery Jr. Beery costarred in TV’s “The Rockford Files” (1974-1980) and costarred as farmer “John Stebbins” in “Inherit the Wind” (1960); the film based on the play which fictitiously chronicled the infamous 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial” which put evolutionary science on trial in Tennessee. Beery passed away in 1994 at the age of 81. Another complaint for this film is that Beery’s part was much too short.
That night, the town gathers for the final night of Dr. Lao’s traveling circus; the Grand Finale. Mr. Stark decides to have his fortune read by Apollonius, who tells him that he will “win” but not the way he imagines. Hurriedly, Stark joins the rest of the townsfolk as they gather under the ‘big top.’ Angela has finally succumbed to Ed’s charms, and the two are now officially a couple now (or at least sitting together). Angela also wonders aloud why the circus tents are so much bigger on the inside than the outside. As the crowd takes their seats, we see a parade of the various beings in Dr. Lao’s menagerie walk on by… the Abominable Snowman, Apollonius, the Serpent, Medusa (carefully hidden, of course), Merlin and Pan (whose music still gets Angela a little bit hot and bothered). Then, we see Dr. Lao appear under the spotlight.
Note: Regarding Angela’s observation of the tents being “bigger on the inside.” I’m telling you: Doctor Lao? Doctor Who…? You see it, too?
The lights dim, and we hear the strains of Bach’s eerie organ piece, “Toccata and Fugue” as the elderly wizard (sans accent) projects a ‘magic lantern show’ above the heads of the crowd. Lao then soberly relates the tale of “Woldercan,” a Biblical-era city forgotten in history, with Abalone’s faces mirrored in its population. Woldercan lived in peace and harmony until an evil interloper (resembling Stark) came and offered them silver coins for their souls. This bargain so angered their god that he unleashed his wrath, destroying the town for its greed with volcanoes, much like Pompeii. The show ends, and the entire tent goes completely dark…
Note: The ‘magic lantern’ show depicting the destruction of Woldercan uses volcanic stock footage originally shot for Pal’s 1960s adaptation of “The Time Machine,” when a 1966 atomic war caused volcanic violence to erupt in 20th century London.
When the lights come back up, the townspeople of Abalone are in their local library, both disoriented and yet vaguely aware of what they just experienced. With Woldercan’s story weighing upon the town like a shared dream, it’s time to vote on Stark’s proposal to sell their properties. The mayor (James Cady) asks a sullen Stark if a show of hands will do. Stark’s cronies vote in favor of the deal, as does the shortsighted Mrs. Cassan. When it comes time to vote against Mr. Stark’s proposal, the overwhelming majority of hands go up, including Mr. Stark, who withdraws his own proposal. It’s a move that both surprises and angers Casey and Lucas, who think their boss has lost his nerve. A windstorm blows the library doors open, as the townspeople leave to fortify their homes and businesses against the threatening dust storm. Angela and Ed however, think it’s an absolutely lovely evening, as they openly and proudly confess their love for each other. Later that night, Stark’s two goons aren’t feeling so sweet-natured as they ditch their drinks to get even with Dr. Lao, the man who turned their boss soft…
Note: Actor James Cady (1915-2012) has played multiple roles on TV shows with a rural theme, including “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction,” and “Green Acres.”
Going to vandalize Lao’s circus, Casey and Lucas enter and begin to trash the place, knocking over displays, cutting the cords holding the tents up, and finally knocking over the fish bowl containing the “Loch Ness monster.” Just as Lao warned earlier, the tiny fish begins to grow and mutate when exposed to air, sprouting in size exponentially every ten seconds until it becomes roughly the size of a plesiosaur. The creature’s final face resembles that of a dragon, as it begins to chase the two cowpokes out of town. The cacophonous tones of bagpipes wail as old Nessie grabs and shakes the two men with its jaws! Watching the monster grow through a slit in the tent was young Mike, who runs to Dr. Lao’s wagon to wake him up. Snapping awake, Lao gets his rain-making machine (patent pending, of course) and chases after his creature in the hope that getting it wet again will reduce it to its previous size.
Note: The creature’s growth is started by replacing the tiny catfish in a series of quick cuts using ever larger fish, beginning with the aforementioned plecostoomus, and then quickly moving onto a series of stop-motion, dinosaur-like creatures (hand-animated by Jim Danforth). The final monster resembles a whiskered plesiosaur; a finned, long-necked species of aquatic dinosaurs existing from the Triassic through the Cretaceous periods. People who believe in “Nessie” have long speculated that the Loch Ness monster may have been a long-forgotten species of plesiosaur. The creature’s roar is similar to the roar (if not the same roar) used for the pet dragon “Spot” in TV’s “The Munsters” (1964-1966).
The enraged plesiosaur gives chase to the two cowpokes, its large pectoral fins slapping the land like a sea lion ashore. In a truly bizarre moment, the monster sprouts multiple heads of of Dr. Lao’s circus troupe, including Pan, Lao, Merlin, the Snowman, Medusa and Apollonius, with each of the heads separately yelling for the two cronies to “Get out!” Dr. Lao sets up his rain-making machine, as he uses his pipe to light the machine’s fuse. Before he can ignite it, Lao is hoisted into the air by the monster’s jaws, and Mike is forced to finish the ignition. Successfully lit, the machine launches a fireworks-like display into the windy sky, and rain almost instantly begins to pour. The whine of the bagpipes dies down, and Nessie shrinks back to bowl-size. A giddy Lao places the errant little fish in a hat and returns him back to his bowl.
The following morning, the townsfolk can’t find any trace of Lao, or any of the happenings that Mike witnessed. As a reformed Stark, Ed and Angela reflect on the meaning of what’s happened to them, Mike chases after a purple dust devil he believes to be the departing spirit of Dr. Lao. Wanting desperately to join his ancient friend’s circus, he picks up several balls and begins juggling. Calling out excitedly to an unseen Dr. Lao, he repeats through tears, “I can do it, Dr. Lao…I can do it!”
We then see a fading image of Lao, atop his golden mule over the horizon:
“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 Giant Serpent in the Room.
As I mentioned previously, the casting of a white actor as a whimsical, 7,322 year old Chinese wizard smacks of the cultural insensitivity of 1960s filmmaking, and I’m not trying to excuse or mitigate that reality. All I can offer is that the character’s stereotypical Chinese facade (the cliched reversal of Rs and Ls, for example) is deliberately intended as a deception—a trick employed by Lao himself to fool the townspeople into accepting him as a simple man. It’s not unlike Superman adopting a meek, demure persona when he’s pretending to be Clark Kent. Yes, the casting of the late Tony Randall (a marvelous and talented actor) as Chinese is a nonstarter for many, and I can certainly understand why, but to the character’s credit, Dr. Lao is also the wisest and most cultured man the little town of Abalone has ever seen.
Dr. Lao’s folksy peasant caricature plays right into what he wants the townspeople to see; making them far less likely to see him as a supernatural being. Dr. Lao uses many different accents throughout the movie (American southern, Scottish, etc) as a means to distract and entertain. However, when Dr. Lao chooses to trust someone, such as Ed Cunningham or young Mike, he drops that folksy act and speaks in clear English. Dr. Lao plays these various roles so that the townsfolk never truly see the man behind the curtain. Lao’s absent-minded peasant stereotype is very similar to what Yoda does when he first meets Luke Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Testing Luke’s patience as a Jedi candidate, Yoda pretends to be a clingy pest until the wizened, 900-year old Jedi Master finally emerges. Once again, I’m not defending the use of a brazenly negative Chinese stereotype (nor the casting of a Caucasian actor in the role) I’m merely explaining its context within the film, that’s all.
Personally, I would love to see a future adaptation of “The Circus of Dr. Lao” (the source novel) starring an actual Asian actor in the role. With some age makeup, Donnie Yen (“Ip Man,” “Rogue One”) would be a marvelous choice (his athletic prowess would be welcome for the challenge of playing such physically diverse characters). There are plenty of other choices as well. A new “Dr. Lao” film could be a potential “Harry Potter”-style fantasy film franchise, if done well.
Tony Randall’s Tour De Force.
The character of Dr. Lao is but one of many roles that gifted actor Tony Randall (“The Odd Couple,” “Love, Sydney”) plays in the film. Under layers of latex from makeup artist William Tuttle (“The Wizard of Oz,” “The Twilight Zone,”) Randall was transformed into Dr. Lao, Merlin, Medusa, Apollonius, the Serpent, the Abominable Snowman, and Pan. Tony Randall essentially plays the entire circus of Dr. Lao; with characters running across the spectrum from male, female, human, non-human and even reptilian (granted, it’s only his voice as the Stark-serpent, but it’s still a fully-realized character). It’s no wonder that William Tuttle won a special Oscar for his makeup in this film. A few years later, makeup artist John Chambers, a contemporary of Tuttle’s, would win another ‘special Oscar’ for his simian makeups in “Planet of the Apes” (1968). A few years later, Makeup Achievement would be a new category in the Academy Awards.
Randall slips effortlessly from character to character; his Dr. Lao alternates from silly old peasant to wizened sage within the same sentence. As Medusa, Randall slinks and slithers with evil yet regal grace. As Pan, he is animalistic, and oddly seductive. As Apollonius of Tyana, he is a Greek statue come to life, cursed with an omnipresent sadness. As Merlin, he is a befuddled old wizard seeking only to enchant an unappreciative audience. As the Serpent-reflection of Mr. Stark, Randall deliberately slurs his Ss (especially when laughing), just as one imagines a hissing snake might do if attempting to speak. Arguably, Randall’s least challenging of the seven roles is the Abominable Snowman, which only required him to push a cartful of automata in a white furry suit and fanged mask. As much as the makeups pushed the limits of 1960s-era makeup technologies, Randall was pushed even harder to create seven characters as unique and distinctive beings… not to mention the plethora of accents when Dr. Lao switches between multiple personae.
The only time we see Tony Randall out of makeup is for one quick cameo right before the final presentation of the “Woldercan” story, as Randall plays an Abalone resident who sits, shaking his head as enthusiastic crowds cheer around him. It’s a wonderful meta-moment for the movie, as the actor appears dubious of his own performance(s).
Born in 1920, the gifted Tony Randall passed away in May of 2004 at the age of 84.
Summing It Up.
“The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao” is a whimsical morality tale set in an old west that never was, aimed at younger audiences with his simplistic story of good over greed. Despite the target demographic, there are quite a few elements for adults to enjoy as well, such as William Tuttle’s Oscar-winning makeups, Jim Danforth’s stop-motion tricks, and Tony Randall’s tour de force performances.
The film feels like a G-rated version of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (book & film). Both stories use a traveling roadshow to reveal the hidden secrets and desires within a small town. While Bradbury’s story is much more sinister, Pal’s film is far more playful. Sadly, the movie’s whitewash casting and racial stereotyping are unfortunate products of their era, even if the character of Dr. Lao is the wisest person in the entire film.
An enjoyable family fable, if one can forgive some culturally insensitive missteps of a bygone age.
“The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao” is available for streaming rental on Amazon Prime or YouTube for $2.99 (US). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 417,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, at least two vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began, but it may take months for mass distribution throughout the population. Even with the vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many unknowns remain regarding coronavirus (can one be vaccinated and still carry it, for example). So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’tadvise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.
3 Comments Add yours
I have such big ‘feels’ right now. Donnie Yen would be awesome, agreed. I watched this recently, TCM, and for the early 60’s taking into consideration the racism of the times, this was a sweet movie. You did a great job, always thorough to the nth degree, and your appreciation of what’s important about this film will hopefully inspire people to watch this if they have not. Bravo and thanks for this!
Yeah, some of it hasn’t aged very well, I admit, but it still possesses an innocence and charm.