When the mysterious Dr. Lao leads his gilded donkey into the dusty little town of Abalone, we are treated to what may possibly be one of my all time favorite pieces of film dialogue. Three stereotypical Old West codgers observe the strange old man as he ties his donkey and enters the newspaper offices.
Codger 1: “Who’s that, anyway?”
Codger 2: “Don’t know. Looks like a Jap to me.”
Codger 3: “Naw, he’s Chinese.”
Codger 2: “How do you know?”
Codger 3: “Cause I ain’t stupid.”
The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is full of such plainspoken wit. A satire on human foibles, Dr. Lao is based on the novel The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles Finney. Many critics are split on whether or not the film is a credible adaptation of the book. Not having read the book I must simply look at the film for it’s own merits…and it has many.
Dr. Lao takes place in a sleepy turn-of-the-century Arizona town. Abalone is embroiled in conflict, as the local land baron Clint Stark is attempting to buy the town outright. He makes what seems like a fair offer and gives the townsfolk some time to think it over. What Stark knows, and what they don’t, is that in 6 months’ time the railroad will be coming through Abalone, and the prosperity that could be theirs will be his alone if they sell.
Ed Cunningham (John Ericson) is the editor of the local newspaper and, though he’s only been in Abalone for a year, he loves the town and doesn’t want it to disappear. He is suspicious of Stark’s motives, as is the beautiful town librarian Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden). With a political awareness far ahead of his time, Cunningham professes concern for the plight of the residents of the neighboring Indian reservation if Abalone is no longer available to assist them. This is not an argument likely to sway the residents of Abalone, nor the hard-hearted Clint Stark, not to mention Stark’s bigoted henchmen.
Enter Dr. Lao and his extraordinary travelling circus. Among his attractions Dr. Lao boasts the Abominable Snowman, Merlin the Magician, blind seer Apollonius of Tyana, Medusa, Pan, and the Giant Serpent…all played, as is Dr. Lao himself, by the brilliant and versatile Tony Randall. Through the wonders of his circus, Dr. Lao teaches the townsfolk about themselves and about the pitfalls of selfishness.
It will be apparent to the viewer that the characters in Dr. Lao are somewhat shallow and “stereotypical” personalities. These characters are less stereotypes than archetypes, however: the idealistic newspaperman, the prim librarian, the greedy land baron, the silly overblown town flirt, the henpecked husband and his shrewish wife, are all necessarily one-dimensional because each character represents one particular human fault.
The one exception to this dictum is Clint Stark, beautifully acted by Arthur O’Connell. Stark is a multi-layered man who has become grasping and cruel only because he has been disappointed by those around him and has become disillusioned with humanity in general. He promotes the worst in his fellow men yet secretly wishes that they would prove him wrong.
Each of the performers displayed by Dr. Lao has something to teach the greedy and narrow-minded folk of Abalone. Aged, feeble Merlin schools the townspeople in both wonder and compassion. Pan awakens true passion in the icy and prudish librarian. The Giant Serpent confronts Clint Stark with his own innermost insecurities. The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a morality play that pulls no punches when it comes to human shortcomings. For example, Appolonius of Tyana gives a particularly gut-wrenching clairvoyant reading to the shallow and flirtatious Mrs. Howard Cannon:
Tomorrow will be like today, and the day after tomorrow will be like the day before yesterday. I see your remaining days each as quiet, tedious collections of hours. You will not travel anywhere. You will think no new thoughts. You will experience no new passions. Older you will become but not wiser. Stiffer but not more dignified. Childless you are, and childless you shall remain. Of that suppleness you once commanded in your youth, of that strange simplicity which once attracted a few men to you, neither endures, nor shall you recapture any of them any more…And for all the good or evil, creation or destruction, that your living might have accomplished, you might just as well never have lived.
This is not what we’re used to hearing from the currently beloved trend of “I’m OK, you’re OK” redemption dramas, yet it is far more honest, direct, and appealing than many modern films.
The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao was the last movie both directed and produced by the great fantasist George Pal. While the special effects are quite primitive by today’s standards but, in his heyday, Pal films such as The Time Machine, Tom Thumb, Aladdin, and of course Dr. Lao were among the most highly respected works in the genre. In fact, Dr. Lao won an Oscar for special effects. Today’s viewer should not expect George Lucas style effects from a 1964 film, but enjoy the imagination and creative work that went into the making of Dr. Lao.
The makeup is ingenious, but the film is driven by acting rather than effects. While there is little real chemistry between Barbara Eden and John Ericson, the romance provides amusement. The film would not have suffered had the romantic aspect been left out, but it would not be quite as satisfactory to explore so many human failures without also calling attention to that most wonderful and matchless human success…the ability to love.
The myriad townspeople perform their parts exactly as they should. Comic lines are beautifully timed; dramatic moments are given due weight without appearing melodramatic. Ignore the requisite “cute” child actor playing Mike Benedict (oddly, “cute” in 1960’s movies was often portrayed by whining and acting both obnoxious and mentally slow) and concentrate on the amazing performances by Tony Randall and the harsh but satisfying lessons taught by Dr. Lao and his circus performers. Moral but never preachy, sentimental but never maudlin, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is not to be missed.