Saturday, August 20, 2016

7 Faces of Dr. Lao ( 1964 )

"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 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."

In a game of solitaire the passerby frequently notices a card play that you yourself neglected to see. The obvious is often hidden among the familiar. For the townfolk of Abalone, Arizona, it took a Chinaman and the strange attractions of his miserable looking little circus to open their eyes to see the value in their small town, their own suppressed desires, and the corrupted nature of the town's businessman, Mr. Stark.

Tony Randall gives a tour-de-force performance as Dr. Lao, an ancient Chinese ringmaster who journeys to the sleepy town of Abalone to share his circus of marvels with its residents and, in turn, create a life-altering effect on the community. These marvels include Medusa, Pan the God of Joy, Merlin the Magician, Apollonius of Tyana, and a talking serpent. Each of these attractions act as a mirror, reflecting the hidden personalities and desires of the character viewing it. 

For librarian Angela ( Barbara Eden ), a step into the tent of Pan, the God of Joy, made her realize just how lonely she had been since her husband died, and how strongly she desired the affections of the local newspaperman Ed Cunningham ( John Ericson ). The town's greedy businessman ( Arthur O'Connell ) finds a remarkable resemblance of himself in the face of a snake, while for the vain widow, Mrs. Cassin, a visit to the tent of the seer, Apollonius of Tyana, a blind man cursed to tell only the truth, provides insight into her empty future. 

"Tomorrow will be like today, and the day after tomorrow will be like the day before yesterday. I see your remaining days as a tedious collection of hours full of useless vanities. You will think no new thoughts. You will forget what little you have known. Older you will become, but not wiser. Stiffer, but not more dignified. Childless you are, and childless you will remain. Of that suppleness you once commanded in your youth, of that strange simplicity which once attracted men to you, neither endures, nor shall you recapture them."

"You're a mean, ugly man!" replies Mrs. Cassin.

"Mirrors are often ugly and mean. When you die, you will be buried and forgotten, and that is all. And for all the good or evil, creation or destruction, your living might have accomplished, you might just as well never have lived at all."
7 Faces of Dr. Lao was based upon a short novel by Charles Finney written in 1935 entitled "The Circus of Dr. Lao". Like the main character in the story, Finney was himself a newspaperman who lived in a dusty outpost in Arizona during the Great Depression. He wrote the novel while he was in his thirties and was going through a period of doubting whether humankind did indeed have any spark of nobility in their souls or were merely "vicious, possessive, vulgar animals" as shyster Stark puts it. Hence, the entire novel is cynical and dark, and, depending on whether you read it before or after viewing the film, you will find it better or worse than the MGM adaptation. 

Charles Beaumont, a veteran screenwriter best remembered today for his imaginative Twilight Zone scripts, found merit in Finney's story and, interestingly enough, decided to combine the best elements of the book into a family film. He had difficulty peddling it to the studios, until he offered the script to producer-director George Pal, a great lover of science fiction, who was delighted with the project.
The first twenty minutes of the film meanders along and impishly teases the audience to continue watching. However, once Dr. Lao's circus arrives, those who were willing enough to pay the price of time for admission were amply rewarded. It is then clear that the story offers much more subsistence then your average family drama. Like The Wizard of Oz7 Faces of Dr. Lao combines fantasy and allegory with children's fare, all neatly wrapped into one appealing package. 

"My specialty is wisdom. Do you know what wisdom is?" - Dr. Lao

"No sir." - Mike

"Wise answer." - Dr. Lao

Tony Randall shines in his performance of the mysterious Chinaman, keeping a smile on his face and a glint of mischief shining in his eyes while he alternates his mode of communication from stereotypical Chinese pidgin talk to eloquent English. In addition to Dr. Lao, it is Randall disguised in the garb of most of his mystical creatures...including Medusa. His most touching role is that of Merlin the Magician, an old man who fails to find an audience among all the skeptics calling his magic simply "parlor tricks". 

Make-up artist William Tuttle won an Special Achievement Oscar for his remarkable make-up work on this film and Jim Danforth was also nominated for the keen visual effects ( the snake is especially fun to watch ). 

Rounding out the cast is a selection of great character actors including Royal Danno, Frank Cady, Minerva Urecal, John Qualen, and John Doucette. 

There is a proverb that states that youth is wasted on the young, and, in regards to some children's films, that is true. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a simple film, at moments childish, that is often overlooked by adults but beneath its garb of innocence it offers a philosophical tale of self-reflection that makes it well worth watching. We could all do with a visit to Dr. Lao's Circus of Marvels. 


  1. This is one of the movies I remember most fondly from my childhood, and it's definitely one adults can enjoy as well. I rewatched it recently on TCM and I still adore it! Of course, the book on which it is based, The Circus of Dr. Lao, is highly recommended too!

  2. Well I'll be hornswoggled! This is my movie pick for Christina's "Dual Roles" blogathon next month. You've upstaged me! Still, I think I can do justice to the movie... I remembered this one from a showing on "Saturday Night at the Movies" when I was a wee lad going to grandparent's house on the weekend. Only remembered vague little pieces of it, but I was determined to find a copy so I could review it for that blogathon. I enjoyed reading your review.

  3. It's an intriguing film that doesn't always work (you're right about the slow opening), but I always enjoy it and Tony Randall is delightful in his many parts.