|7 Faces of Dr. Lao|
film poster by Joseph Smith
|Directed by||George Pal|
|Produced by||George Pal|
|Written by||Charles G. Finney (book)
|Music by||Leigh Harline|
|Cinematography||Robert J. Bronner|
|Editing by||George Tomasini|
|Release date(s)||March 10 1964|
|Running time||100 min.|
7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a (Metrocolor) 1964 film adaptation of the 1935 fantasy novel The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney. It details the visit of a magical circus to a small town in the southwest United States, and the effects that visit has on the people of the town. The novel was adapted by Charles Beaumont, directed by George Pál and starred Tony Randall in the title roles.
It is the dawn of the 20th century, and an elderly Chinese man rides a jackass into Abalone, Arizona, his only visible possession a goldfish bowl 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 he is scheming to buy up the place while the land is cheap. Stark is opposed in this power grab by 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.
After doing some research, Cunningham visits the circus site which has sprung up at the edge of town, and confronts Lao with the fact that Lao's alleged hometown vanished centuries ago. Lao deflects Cunningham's questions. However, 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 a shrewish wife and a self-absorbed matron 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 them take heed of this advice. The self-absorbed matron has, to her dismay, her glum future pretold by Apollonius of Tyana, 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 shrew to stone, Lao calls an end to the proceedings and Merlin restores the now-reformed woman.
Meanwhile, Stark's two thuggish henchmen destroy 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.
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 look at it the right way"..), which Mike doesn't understand, and Lao claims to not understand either.
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, confused by their boss' apparent change of character, in a drunken spree decide to trash Lao's circus. Unfortunately, they shoot at, and break, Lao's goldfish bowl. The inhabitant is revealed (to the accompanying sound of bagpipes) to indeed 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, and Lao's voice reminds the viewer what he told Mike: the Circus of Dr. Lao is life itself, and everything in it is a wonder.
According to notes on the Leigh Harline soundtrack CD released by Film Score Monthly, Pal's first choice for the role was Peter Sellers who was strongly interested in the role. MGM decided that they wished an American in the lead role.
William Tuttle received an honorary Oscar for his makeup work on this film. It was the first of only two honorary Oscars awarded for makeup; the other went to John Chambers in 1968 for Planet of the Apes. As part of Tuttle's work, Randall had his head shaved, not only to play the bald Dr. Lao, but also to make it convenient for the "appliances" which he had to wear. The studio publicity department arrived at the barber too late to photograph the process, so they had a make-up artist glue hair back on Randall's head and the barber once again removed it, this time for the cameras.
Jim Danforth's model animation of the Loch Ness Monster, the Giant Serpent, Medusa's snake hair were nominated for an Academy Award.
The film is only loosely based on Finney's novel, which is essentially a series of loosely-connected vignettes centered around the circus's visit, without the overarching plotline of Stark's scheming and redemption. The novel is also far more biting and cynical in its depiction of average Americans' inability to accept magic and wonder into their lives; this attitude climaxes in the Woldercan sequence as originally staged, which ends with the townsfolk being physically scattered to the winds.
The "Woldercan" spectacular that Dr. Lao presents as the grand finale of his circus contains much footage from an earlier George Pal production, 1961's Atlantis, the Lost Continent as well as some footage of flowing lava from The Time Machine.
Outside of Appollonius of Tyana's can be seen the crystal ball used by the Wicked Witch of the West in 1939's The Wizard of Oz; the prop had previously been used as part of a fortune teller's paraphernalia in the 1956 film Diane. Also, in the scene where Mike visits Lao at night, a Two-Headed Tortoise can be seen; this made a few later appearances in the television series The Addams Family.
Many of Dr. Lao's characteristics can be found in the BBC tv character Doctor Who, specifically his long livedness, his unbelievably fantastic place of origin, familiarity with celebrated people of history, his confusing explanations, his nonplussed command of confrontational moments, and a headquarters that is bigger inside than out.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a 1964 film directed by George Pál and written by Charles G. Finney (novel) and Charles Beaumont (screenplay). A mysterious man brings a circus to a small Western town. As the townspeople explore the exhibits, they discover many surprising and often unpleasant things about themselves.