7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964)
Dir.: George Pal
Cast: Tony Randall, Barbara Eden, Arthur O'Connell, John Ericson, Noah Beery Jr, Lee Patrick, Minerva Urecal, John Qualen
Scr.: Charles Beaumont; from Charles G. Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao
Director George Pal's 7 Faces of Dr. Lao surprises on multiple levels: its witty screenplay by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont, an odd assortment of well-defined characters, a brave performance by Tony Randall, and some of the best special effects of that time.
In the film, a strange traveling magician drifts into a small western American town with the announcement that he is bringing with him a "Magic Circus." Calling himself "Dr. Lao," the eccentric Chinese character places his ad in the local newspaper and makes friends with the editor.
But things are not as they seem. When the Circus magically appears, Dr. Lao changes appearances and personalities, interfering in the lives of everyone in the community.
John Ericson plays the handsome newspaper man who rebels against the small town's political status quo, while suffering in love for a sexually repressed widow (Barbara Eden), who lives with her precocious young son and her mother-in-law. Outwardly, she resists the newspaperman's advances; privately, she has intense hot flashes every time she thinks of him. At the circus, she enters the tent of "Pan, the God of Joy," and at first is repelled by the mythical goat creature. But when he begins to play his "pipes of seduction," he turns into a sexy, muscular, shirtless Ericson; the widow lustfully loosens the bodice of her blouse from the heat. The sexual tension is palpable.
Another potent scene involves an aging, flirty, good-time-gal (poignantly played by veteran actress Lee Patrick), who goes into the tent of Merlin, the Fortune Teller. She is told that her future will be bleak, her investments will fail, she will never find a man, her life will be inconsequential and insignificant, and she will die a lonely spinster! The former beauty refuses to believe it at first, but then falls apart before our very eyes as she dissolves into tears at her pathetic fate.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao's psychological ponderings do not always work, but there are some situations that do. Actress Minerva Urecal plays a bitchy old harridan who is always carping to her meek and gentle Scandinavian husband, calling him an "idiot" and ordering him to "shut up!" She finds her transformation at the Circus when she gazes into the eyes of Medusa, the snake-haired goddess. She turns to stone and then is reborn again as a happy and loving woman.
One by one, the townsfolk are shown their faults and errors; the film's visual imagery of human destruction is in fact a bit disturbing. I kept telling myself that it was all padded footage in order for Pal to use clips from his earlier movie, Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961).
Racial stereotyping can be expected when the main character is referred to as a "crazy little Chinaman." There is also an American Indian assaulted by malevolent townsfolk, but Dr. Lao quickly comes to his rescue and neutralizes the bad guys.
No description of 7 Faces of Dr. Lao can be made without commenting on the talents of Tony Randall. His portrayal of Dr. Lao and the wide assortment of other creatures and incarnations is something to marvel at. A performance like this would be a challenge for the most accomplished of actors, but Randall pulls each character off with a showy combination of wit and realism. These cinematic manifestations were enabled by long-time make-up artist William Tuttle, who garnered 1964's Honorary Academy Award for outstanding make-up achievement.
Admittedly, the tricks and illusions found in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao can be didactic, preachy, and even a bit condescending at times, but its whimsy and fantasy forgive all.
© Danny Fortune
Note: A version of this 7 Faces of Dr. Lao review was initially posted in March 2010.
1 Academy Award Win
Honorary Award: William Tuttle, for outstanding make-up achievement
1 Academy Award Nomination
Best Special Visual Effects: Jim Danforth