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with an assist from Craig Reardon
George Pal's 7 Faces of Dr. Lao was a great matinee item for kids with big imaginations. The gentle producer-director chose a more ambitious project than his previous Atlantis, The Lost Continent, a mishmash spoiled by studio interference and a writer's strike. Stuck in a rut of odd comedies and second-banana roles in Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies, the talented Tony Randall was here promoted as a master actor playing multiple parts, like Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers (who was reportedly approached for the part). At twelve years old I didn't know Tony Randall from Tony the Tiger, but the special effects clips shown in TV spots made the show a must-see. Actually, the mention of The Loch Ness Monster guaranteed my attendance.
Only later did I discover that 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a gelded, family-safe adaption of a weird, sardonically disturbing novel, The Circus of Dr. Lao. The Mysterious Dr. Lao (Randall) comes to the dusty Arizona town of Abalone with his tiny circus of wonders. He places an ad in the paper promising a fantastic supernatural experience, and the citizens are confounded and confused by what they find in his circus tent. Prim librarian Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden) rejects the advances of the sincere newsman Ed Cunningham (John Ericson) too vulgar, yet is aroused by Lao's captive Pan (Ericson / Randall), a mythological creature resembling a seductive horned half-goat. Foolish ninny Mrs. Howard Cassin (Lee Patrick) is unnerved when the enigmatic seer Appolonius of Tyana (Randall) tells her fortune, but refuses to indulge her romantic fantasies. Crooked land speculator Clint Stark (Arthur O'Connell) confronts a Giant Serpent who looks just like him. The creature also talks, spouting facetious remarks and cynical insults. Discontented battle-axe Kate Lindquist (stereotyped battle-ax Minerval Urecal) ignores her meek husband (stereotyped meek husband John Qualen) and defies Lao's warning not to look directly at the deadly Medusa (Randall).
The general town folk jeer the feeble Merlin the Magician (Randall), mostly ignoring his fantastic magic. Neither are they impressed by Lao's fearsome circus roustabout, an Abominable Snowman. Dr. Lao talks in pidgin English for Abalone citizens that dismiss him as a Chink, but slips into un-accented speech when giving advice to Angela's young son Mike (Kevin Tate). Lao also gets along well with Ed, and encourages the young man not to abandon his campaign warning the citizens of Abalone against falling prey to Clint Stark's greedy tricks. Paying a drunken after-hours visit to Lao's tent, Stark's reckless henchmen Carey and Lucas (Royal Dano & John Doucette) take target practice on a glass bowl containing a tiny fish identified as The Loch Ness Monster -- ignoring Lao's earlier statement that the fish comes with a Gremlins-like warning.
If the film world weren't intent on maintaining vast and profitable comic book franchises, a prime fantasy book begging for a remake/rethink would be Charles G. Finney's strange The Circus of Dr. Lao. The George Pal picture translates the encounters with Appolonius, Medusa and Pan somewhat intact, but puts the rest of Finney's acid-soaked prose through the strainer marked "innocuous TV family drama." The writer of the challenging Burn, Witch, Burn and The Intruder, short-lived Charles Beaumont was an excellent choice to adapt Finney's perplexing book. But 7 Faces is as heartwarmingly positive as the rest of George Pal's filmic output. Lao's ultimate moral nugget is meaningless drivel about life being a circus, but he sells it to little Mike as if it's the wisdom of the ages. 1
For what it's worth, the fairly inspired Tony Randall brings the folksy fable richly to life. A fairly unique character, Dr. Lao is too interesting to be dismissed as a stereotype, and he uses the demeaning "chink-speak" dialogue only with racists who expect to hear it. We very soon realize that Randall's Lao is still far more legit than "magic" Chinese characters that spout Charlie Chan fortune-cookie wisdom. 2 As the story's various characters, Randall is nowhere near as versatile as Guinness or Sellers. The difference is made up with excellent character makeup by William Tuttle, who won a special honorary award for his work. His animated scalp-snakes for the Medusa are far better than the stiff serpents atop Hammer's The Gorgon of the same year. 3
John Ericson is colorless as the noble publisher trying to steer Abalone into a bright future, with the much-better Arthur O'Connell excellent as the slimy Clint Stark, who wants to buy up the town before its citizens realize that a railroad is on the way. Barbara Eden has what might be her best role. Her Angela initially seems a re-tread of librarian Marian Paroo of The Music Man, complete with a sweet mother (Argentina Brunetti) and a towheaded young son.
Then the film's best sequence comes along. A cloven-hooved goat man drives Marian into a state of "erotic abandon". That's shorthand for an orgasm, and in a family movie, yet. Pan's appeal can only be the hot tune he plays on his Pan Flute, perhaps enhanced by animal musk. Clearly the type that goes for jazz musicians, Angela becomes so hot and bothered that we're surprised she keeps her clothes on. The effect is heightened by the dizzying but precise cutting by ace editor George Tomasini. It's an unusually adult highlight for George Pal.
Elsewhere the film ranges from good, to formulaic and pedestrian. The Medusa and Appolonius scenes offer hints of the malice of Charles Finney's original book, as Lee Patrick's illusions are crushed and Minerva Urecal succumbs to a horror from a Greek myth. The rest of the citizens are played by older character actors -- Noah Beery, Jr., Douglas Fowley. The various Abalone dwellers are less Finney's unthinking fools than the 'cute' personalities one finds in folksy Disney fare with a moral to push. As in David Swift's Pollyanna, most of them are inspired by Lao's visit. Yet Lao's real motivational tool is not wisdom but instead a scare-tactic visual presentation. The citizens see themselves as the terrified citizens of the fabled city of Woldercan, which is destroyed despite having committed no Sodom and Gomorrah- comparable sins. This sequence contains the same volcano stock footage that returns in practically every George Pal production.
We've always loved the film's special effects. Animation tricks allow Merlin to grow magical foliage, and various mattes and camera tricks give us instant fireworks and Lao's thumb turned into a lighter for his pipe. Lao's tent is indeed much larger inside than out, a contradiction kids feel before one of the characters mentions it. Best of all is effects ace Jim Danforth's Loch Ness Monster, a follow-up to his The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm dragon that confirmed him as a go-to guy for stop-motion. Danforth's contribution was Oscar- nominated separately from five other credited special visual effects experts. The monster grows from guppy proportions to a forty-foot beast with the head of a catfish, which then sprouts Dr. Lao's seven horror-heads. The visual touches on the surreal; the movie could really have used more of this kind of irrational flamboyance.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of 7 Faces of Dr. Lao has been out for a couple of years and Savant is only now catching up with it. The enhanced transfer looks fine in all respects, presenting Pal's many effects scenes in good quality. We do see patches with higher granularity whenever optical effects kick in, but many of those are nigh--perfect, like the little flame on Lao's thumb that follows him as he lights his pipe. The good transfer makes Barbara Eden's perspiration look extremely inviting. Leigh Harline's music score has a catchy melody that mixes western and 'oriental' themes quite well ... and also enforces the film's no-irony tone of folksy family fun.
A welcome featurette seemingly made from an unfinished MGM promo shows an interviewer watching Bill Tuttle work on his makeup, with Tony Randall in the makeup chair. And the trailer efficiently sells the sense of wonder that comes across in almost all of George Pal's movies.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
7 Faces of Dr. Lao rates:
1. One could write pages about the mysterious Circus of Dr. Lao, a tale that reeks of Depression-Era disillusion. It's so experimental that it is hard to believe it was written in 1935. Charles G. Finney's "voice" is beyond cynicism, sourly surrendering to the view that individuals are selfish and cruel, and groups are a thoughtless mob ruled by prejudice. Nothing is explained and there is no moral. The lumpen citizenry of Abalone are impervious to obvious miracles, reject wisdom and ignore the truth. Lao is less likeable and seemingly resigned to the fact that humans don't appreciate creation or deserve the miracle of life. The overall tone reminds one of the disillusioned writings of late-career Mark Twain, sardonic Ambrose Bierce and Finney's fellow Depression-era misanthrope, Nathanael West. Circus is appended with a grim glossary every bit as repellent as Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary.
A more faithful film of The Circus of Dr. Lao would need the services of a writer-director as ruthless and inspired as Luis Buñuel... Guillermo Del Toro might be ideal.
2. The example that comes to mind is Pat Morita's Kesugi Miyagi in The Karate Kid. The karate coach might as well be George Lucas's Yoda. Of course the movies' most unfortunate appalling Asian stereotype is Mickey Rooney's yellowface abomination in Breakfast at Tiffany's. I'll leave others to ponder the appropriateness of casting Anglo actor Tony Randall as a mysterious Chinese spell-caster.
William Tuttle's makeup designs split the charismatic Tony Randall into almost all of the seven showstoppers in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. They were a galvanizing wonder to me at age 10, when I saw Dr. Lao in its first release. I eventually became a makeup artist and I've been amused to find others my age who were likewise influenced. Fifty years later Tuttle's designs may appear simple or 'obvious', but I think it disguises subtlety and shrewd discrimination.
Bill Tuttle was one of the VERY few makeup artists I've known who was able to draw and paint, surprising as that may seem. He would first depict his design ideas on paper as vivid watercolors actually resembling the actors in the projected makeup. He persuaded Randall to let him shave off all his hair, even his eyebrows, to streamline the applications, in effect rendering the willing actor into a kind of paper doll: neutralized and ready to receive visual definition through his makeups. As Pal conceived this adaptation, it's a kind of playful vaudeville, yet the makeup for Dr. Lao himself is played absolutely straight and emphasizes exactly the right areas to nudge Randall's expressive features into the stolid mold of an ages-old Chinese sage. I've always thought the remarkable eye appliances are the best I've ever seen; Randall genuinely appears Asian, wearing them.
The wizened Merlin required that liquid latex be sponged over stretched portions of Randall's face, which when dried cannot contract, and so gathers into antique wrinkles when the skin is relaxed. Tuttle further evokes an ancient Briton through a fine aquiline nose piece, plus the snowy beard and wig, and opaque, pale blue eyes via contact lenses. Likewise, Appolonius of Tyana, the mystic seer, evokes ancient Greece in an almost Olympian sense. Pan, "the God of Joy", has a superbly sensual face, 'Roman' nosed, with the expected appurtenances of horns and a goatee, not to omit pointed ears! Medusa is a sly transformation of Randall into a femme fatale. Love that green lipstick! The coiffure of snakes is creepily and convincingly operated like weighted marionettes; one even 'eats' an optically-animated moth! Alarmingly green contact lenses complete the reptilian effect, and seem capable of turning anyone to stone.
Overall, Tuttle's use of prosthetic additions to Randall's features is ever economical, as was his wont. He placed equal value on careful coloring and drawing with makeup directly on the face, plus the sensitive use of hairpieces. One big exception is the antisocial Abominable Snowman, which is a design only Tuttle could have come up with, a distant cousin of his Morlocks and incidentally worn by Pal's son Dave, not Randall. The insinuating Giant Serpent is the sole holdout from makeup: a delightful hand puppet, with some stop motion flourishes.
The makeups do what many makeups even today often fail to do: instantly define character. They're never simply 'disguises' but vividly evoke these creatures of legend. It's crucial to any great makeup that you emotionally believe the character exists; Tuttle's ace that test. The Tony Randall we know is lost in all of them, except for his crucial talent that George Pal somehow sensed in approaching him. Right again, George. To Tuttle, slavish verisimilitude was not the point; these expressive "faces" are full of life. As a ten-year old boy they left nothing to be desired, and I still concur with that ten-year old Craig's opinion. Tuttle ran the MGM makeup department full-time and couldn't be spared to work on any one film for its entire shooting schedule. Longtime colleague Charles Schram applied all the makeups you actually see in the film after Bill Tuttle had designed them. Charlie too was a wonderful artist/craftsman... clearly.
Tuttle supervised The Twilight Zone at MGM around the same time, and everyone will remember their own favorites among the great makeups that often perfectly evoked Rod Serling's notion of the weird and wonderful, with Eye of the Beholder being a stand-out. -- Craig Reardon
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T'was Ever Thus.