Monday, February 9, 2009

Forgotten Gems: "The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao"

George Pal, the producer who gave us the original War of the Worlds; When Worlds Collide and The Time Machine, directed this fantasy adapted from the novel "The Circus of Dr. Lao," by Charles G. Finney. The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao tells the story of Abalone, a small western town on the verge of dying. In swoops Clint Stark (character actor Arthur O'Connell) with a plan to buy out everyone in town for pennies on the dollar, convincing the citizens of Abalone that their homes are worthless. Needless to say, teh townsfolk are completely unaware that the railroad is about to come through, making them all rich.
Out of the desert appears a strange Chinese man and his bigger-on-the-inside-than-on-the-outside circus, Dr. Lao. As played by Tony Curtis, Lao is both stereotype and charicature; sometimes speaking in pigeon-English, sometimes speaking in a Southern drawl and other times speaking in perfect King's English. Lao's bizarre assortment of acts features Medusa, Pan, Merlin, The Abominable Snowman and the blind prophet Appolonius (all played by Randall) as well as a tiny fish which Lao insists is the Loch Ness Monster.

Beautiful Barbara "I Dream of Jeannie" Eden is the heroine, a widowed mother struggling to raise her son as best she can, while hunky John Ericson is her romantic interest. A slew of character actors, including Royal Dano; Noah Berry, Jr; Eddy Little Sky; John Qualen and Minerva Urecal are among the townsfolk, each of whom fall under the spell of one of Lao's attractions.

Ms. Urecal, in particular, is literally petrified by her encounter with Medusa:

On the night before the town is supposed to vote on whether or not to accept Stark's proposal, Lao presents his grand finale, "The Fall of the City."

And thoughStark recants his evil ways, a drunken Dano and company decide to take their revenge on Lao by killing his beloved pet. Needless to say - it's a HUGE mistake.

I wish the video quality was better here, because the stop-motion animation is among some of the best of the era.

While many may complain that Randall's performance is racist, I would say it is typical of the attitude of the time. Chinese immigrants were often the backbone of the American rail system, providing cheap labor and a touch of Eastern mysticism into the lives of early American pioneers. And despite what you may think about Randall, Lao and the simplistic depiction of Chinese-Americans, the movie still holds up as one of the great fantasy films of the 1960's. I loved it as a kid and still love it, today. If you've never seen this delightful little fantasy, watch for it on AMC or TCM. I promise you will enjoy it.

More, anon.


1 comment:

Stephen R. said...

Thank you so much for your kind words about my blog. But I have to say that any man who has a blog and the first post I see on that blog is about "The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao" is not someone who should EVER aspire to be me - - because I NEED to be him!!!!

Love your blog! And I hope all is well with you!