7 Faces of Dr. Lao

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

It is the dawn of the 20th century, and an elderly Chinese man rides a jackass into Abalone, Arizona, his only visible possession a fishbowl occupied by an innocuous-looking fish. This magical visitor, Dr. Lao (Tony Randall), visits Edward Cunningham’s (John Ericson) newspaper and places a large ad for his traveling circus, which will play in Abalone for two nights only.

Though quiet, Abalone is not peaceful. Wealthy rancher Clinton Stark (Arthur O’Connell) has inside information that a railroad is coming to town and is scheming to buy up the place while the land is cheap. Cunningham, who is also romantically pursuing the town’s librarian, Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden), a beautiful young widow still grieving the death of her husband, opposes Stark’s power grab.

After doing some research, Cunningham visits the circus site that has sprung up at the edge of town and confronts Lao with the fact that Lao’s alleged hometown vanished centuries before. Lao deflects Cunningham’s questions and he “leaves in a cloud of befuddlement”.

That night there is a town hall meeting to discuss the proposition to sell all of the town to Stark. It becomes apparent, largely through the obsequious deference paid to Stark by Mayor Sargent, and the objection of old maid Mrs. Cassan to questions from Cunningham and his love-interest, Angela Benedict (sitting nowhere near him), that greed has possessed most of the town’s citizens and they are just one step away from selling out.

Dr. Lao’s enigmatic entrance, however, and the sound of the chair he pulls back scraping the floor, momentarily catch everyone’s attention, and are a forerunner of changes to come.

Mr. Stark’s premise for selling the town is that its 16-mile long water supply pipe from a neighboring town is decaying and would be too expensive to replace. His answer to Angela’s inquiry as to why he’s interested in the town, then, uses the analogy of her ability to turn a bad child into a good one; he is a businessman and knows how to turn a bad venture into good. More detail he does not give.

Cunningham introduces everyone to George C. George, a Navajo Indian who lives in “another city, close to our own”, and points out that the lives of its residents depend on Abalone’s continued existence.

Stark reluctantly allows the townspeople to ponder their choice “until Friday night” and the meeting is adjourned.

After the meeting, Stark’s henchmen assault George C. George, and Dr. Lao uses his magic to rescue him.

The next morning, as Lao puts up posters around town advertising his circus, he is assisted by Angela’s young son Mike (Kevin Tate), who learns that the mysterious wanderer is 7,322 years old.

The circus opens its doors, and the townsfolk flock in. Along with the main cast, the gawkers include Luther Lindquist and his shrewish wife Kate, and Mrs. Cassan, a foolish widow who clings to her self-image of a young beauty. Lao uses his many faces to offer his wisdom to the visitors, only some of whom heed the advice. Mrs. Cassan has, to her dismay, her dark future pretold by Apollonius of Tyana, a blind prophet who is cursed to tell the absolute truth, no matter how cruel and shocking it may be. Apollonius tells her she will never be married and will live a lonely, meaningless existence, having accomplished so little she might as well have never lived at all. Stark has a disquieting meeting with the Great Serpent, Mike befriends the pathetic Merlin, and Angela is aroused from her emotional repression by Pan’s intoxicating music. After Medusa turns the disbelieving Kate Lindquist to stone, Lao calls an end to the proceedings as the guests flee. Merlin appears, restoring the woman to life, her experience causing a much-needed reformation in her character.

Later that night, Mike visits Lao and tries to get a job, displaying his novice juggling and conjuring skills. Lao instead offers some advice and observations about the world (“… the whole world is a circus, if you know how to look at it …”), which Mike doesn’t understand, and Lao claims to not understand either.

Meanwhile, during the show, Stark’s two henchmen have destroyed the newspaper office. Cunningham and his pressman discover the devastation, go drown their sorrows, then stagger back to learn that the damage has been magically repaired by Lao. They rush out an abbreviated edition of the paper, which Cunningham delivers in person to Stark.

The next night, Lao stages his grand finale, a magic lantern show in which the mythical city of “Woldercan,” populated by doubles of the townfolk, is destroyed when it succumbs to temptation personified by Stark (as a sort of devilish tempter). The show ends in explosions and darkness, but as the house lights gradually come back up, the townsfolk find themselves now in a town meeting, voting on Stark’s proposal. They reject it, and a redeemed Stark tells them about the coming railroad while noting that they owe a debt of gratitude to Lao. A dust-storm blows up, and as the townsfolk scatter, Angela opens up to Ed, finally admitting that she is in love with him.

Stark’s henchmen are confused by their boss’ apparent change of character and decide to trash Lao’s circus in a drunken spree, during which they break Lao’s fishbowl. The inhabitant is revealed (to the accompanying sound of bagpipes) to be the Loch Ness Monster, which balloons to enormous size when exposed to the open air. After it chases the two thugs into the storm (and temporarily grows seven heads to resemble the seven faces of the inhabitants of the circus), Mike alerts Dr. Lao and then helps conjure up a cloudburst to wet and thus shrink the beast back to its original size.

Morning comes and the circus is gone, leaving a red-colored circle on the desert floor. Mike chases after a dust plume, which he thinks is made by Lao, but only finds three wooden balls. He is able to juggle them expertly. The closing scene shows the disappearing Dr. Lao riding his donkey over a nearby rise as his voice-over repeats his advice to Mike from two nights earlier, reminding Mike that the Circus of Dr. Lao is life itself, and everything in it is a wonder

REVIEW:

I noticed today that there is a Ray Harryhausen documentary on Netflix streaming which I need to watch at some point. In the meantime, I was in the mood for some stop-motion this afternoon and they had recommended 7 Faces of Dr. Lao a while back, so what better time to watch it than now, right?

What is this about?

In the most remarkable role of his career, Tony Randall plays six characters in this fantasy adventure about a mysterious Chinese doctor who assumes different guises in order to teach his message of pride and self-reliance. Enigmatic circus showman Dr. Lao gives the denizens of a sleepy Western frontier town the chance to peer into a looking glass and see their foibles.

What did I like?

Oddly enough. I recently found out that Tony Randall’s career was mostly The Odd Couple and starring with Jayne Mansfield in a couple of her bigger films, such as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? I can’t say that I’m too familiar with his work, but the few projects that I have seen him in are impressive. Here, he plays the titular character, as well as 6 others and a cameo as himself later on in the film. Dr. Lao and Merlin are his most impressive characters, followed by Apollonius, but these are the only ones that speak. Pan dances, Medusa stares, the Abominable Snowman sells popcorn, but the serpent is more of a visual spectacle than a good character. I wasn’t able to pay attention to him, though, because of some internet issues that were going on that required me to call my cable/internet provider. That point aside, Randall shines as he lets himself go and have fun playing these different characters that are far different from the straight-laced, uptight guys he normally plays.

I Dream of Jeannie. There are two classic tv shows that I will always go out of my way to watch, no matter how many time I see each episode, and they are I Love Lucy and I Dream of Jeannie. Barbara Eden is quite the looker. There was a picture floating around a few months back where she, a woman in her 80s these days, was back in her old Jeannie costume. She didn’t look half bad in it, either. She wasn’t cast in this film for her looks, though, as she gets to showcase her talent for acting, something we all forget she can actually do, and perhaps the reason she didn’t go on to become a bigger star.

Learn. It is obvious that whoever did the special effects on this watched some Ray Harryhausen flicks in their day, because the creatures have the distinct look about them, rather than just some generic stop-motion creation. These creatures not only have the menacing look to them, but also a life of their own. This is something that Harryhausen was able to do with his creations, and apparently he has passed it down to a new generation. Keep your eyes out for the final trick of the Loch Ness monster!

Use. I have to say that I wasn’t expecting to see the creatures used for the entire film. Usually, when it comes to creatures in these type of films, we get a glimpse of them during the early scenes, but don’t really see them until the final scenes. Thankfully, the filmmakers were smart enough to realize that these creatures were the focal point of this film.

What didn’t I like?

Mariann. As I was watching, I couldn’t help but notice that Barbara Eden’s character almost paralleled Mariann from The Music Man. There were some differences, but for the most part they were the same character. I’m not sure which came first, or if that was even done on purpose, but I wasn’t a fan. Leave Mariann to her own devices.

Attitudes. The book that this is based on was a tad bit more biting in terms of it satire of the society at the time. I loved it, but what is it that I didn’t like? Well, the attitudes of the people, and the fact that, whether you want to believe it or not, these same attitudes exist today. I just heard some lady on the news insisting that Santa Claus “just is” white. *SIGH* When will people open their minds to new things?

Merlin. Maybe this is because I’ve recently started watching Merlin episodes on Netflix, but the fact that he was made to be an absent-minded sorcerer. This is no different from most iterations, but the one that usually is constant with him is that he is capable of competent magic. I felt that he was holding back. No need to show off for the local yokels, but when the little boy showed, I thought for sure he would have done something special. Mayhaps I’m just overthinking, though.

If you’re in the mood for some good, clean, classic sci-fi fun with some stop motion thrown in there for good measure, then 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is the film for you. In some places, this is places in the category with the likes of Old Yeller, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, and the like. It isn’t violent, no foul language, and is quite family friendly. I say give this a chance. You never know, it could be something you enjoy!

4 out of 5 stars

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