7 Faces of Dr. Lao

 

This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Elbee’s turn to do the damage. Here are Trey Lawson‘s thoughts on 1964’s 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.

 

I love old genre movies. They take me back to childhood, when my dad would rent old movies from when he was younger for me to watch. It was kind of a bonding thing, I suppose. Given its 1964 release date and subject matter, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is exactly the sort of movie I would have watched with my dad way back when, and yet somehow I’d never seen it until this year (Best guess? The local rental shop in my hometown didn’t have a copy). But after hearing about 7 Faces for years, I was given a copy on DVD (from my dad, naturally) AND Elbee recommended it soon after. I’m not one to subscribe to fate, but that kind of coincidence isn’t something one ignores.

I came into this film knowing very little, aside from the main gimmick of Tony Randall playing seven roles (sort of – more on that in a bit) and that it was George Pal’s final directorial effort. The former was a bit of a concern, knowing that one of those roles is the titular Dr. Lao, and also knowing that Tony Randall is very much not Chinese. And so, with no real expectations (and some concern about the inevitable yellowface) I dove into 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.

7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a difficult movie to categorize. Fantasy, for sure, but I didn’t expect it to owe so much to the Western. And yet, the film is set in the small town of Abalone, Arizona on the verge of being exploited by wealthy rancher at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, aside from Dr. Lao himself the characters more or less correspond to types from 1950s Westerns like Shane: the principled newspaperman determined to stand up to the rancher, the widowed librarian and her precocious young son, etc. However the formula takes a turn for the weird with the arrival of the title character. Lao sets up camp on the outskirts of the town and for two nights operates a circus there. The various acts, Merlin the magician, Pan the god of love, Apollonius the blind fortune teller, Medusa, the Serpent, and the Abominable Snowman, are all “played” by Tony Randall (the Serpent is a special effect with voice performance by Randall, and the Snowman was at least in some shots played by a body double). The entertainments these characters offer highlight the close-mindedness, repression, and delusions of the characters, and the circus culminates in a vision conjured by Lao which tells the parable of the city of Woldercan, whose circumstances mirror those of Abalone.

The best thing about 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is its sincerity. Its morality play tendencies are at times heavy-handed – for example, in the Woldercan episode, that mythical city’s inhabitants are played by the same actors as the town of Abalone. But there is something nice, even refreshing, about a movie that is so optimistic about human nature that the villain isn’t so much defeated but instead dissuaded from his villainy. Dr. Lao’s circus encourages among the townspeople a carpe diem approach to life – letting go of the past, recognizing the importance of love and companionship, working toward a common good instead of personal greed, and appreciating the magic that can be present even in everyday life.

The film’s visual effects are also impressive, especially for the time. The makeup effects that transform Randall into the circus acts are effective, especially in combination with his performances. The best of these characters are the ones that most allow for Randall to act through the makeup; the blind fortune teller’s matter-of-fact compulsion to tell only the truth is conveyed with a sadness that makes him more pitiable than the woman whose fortune he reads. Similarly, his aging and weak Merlin is the embodiment of melancholy as he struggles to entertain a skeptical and mocking audience. Pan is also notable for his surprisingly erotic intensity, especially in what mostly plays as a kids movie. The other Faces of Dr Lao are more showcases for the makeup and visual effects artists, and on that level they are a lot of fun (especially the Serpent who takes on the appearance of the villain), but they give Randall far less to do as an actor.

Unfortunately, the primary makeup effect in the film is the main character of Dr. Lao. And there is just no getting around the problem of yellowface. The film actually handles it better than I expected – Lao’s most stereotypical mannerisms, including his accent, are shown to be a performance, with Lao playing the part of the Chinese man that the people around him expect him to be. That almost spins the character into the overall critique of the town and its people before they’ve learned the lessons of the circus. And yet…no. It’s still Tony Randall, in makeup and prosthetics, playing an Asian man. No matter how delicately the film handles the character that is always going to be a problem. Yes it is “of its time,” and yes that’s the whole gimmick is that the same actor plays all of these roles. It’s not even “as bad” as other similar performances, such as the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films that began just a year later. But it’s at the very least problematic, and just hasn’t aged well at all.

I wish I loved this 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. There’s a lot to enjoy about it, and is very much the sort of movie I’d have watched on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon as a kid. It is an often fun, utterly sincere fantasy overlaid onto a Western setting, and that should be delightful. It’s got a stop-motion Loch Ness Monster accompanied by bagpipe noises! But it also features Tony Randall as an Asian man, and that is the sort of caveat that inevitably penalizes its entertainment value. And so my feelings are complicated. It is a film worth watching, but it is also a film that demands careful contextualization. My feelings might be different if I HAD seen it as a kid – nostalgia often has the effect of making us more forgiving viewers. In any case, I’m glad it’s available (Warner Archive very recently put out a new edition). I’m glad Elbee recommended this one and that I finally got to watch 7 Faces of Dr. Lao – it’s a fascinating snapshot of a particular style of mid-60s genre filmmaking, with lots of fun (if sometimes dated) makeup/creature effects. Randall’s performance as Lao clearly tries to complicate the stereotypes of the yellowface characterization, but it still stands in the way of a full-throated endorsement.

 

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Trey Lawson

Trey Lawson is a critic, academic, and sometimes actor who writes on topics ranging from Early Modern English Literature to genre film and pop culture. More of his writing on film can be found at Cinapse (www.cinapse.co). He's pretty sure he wears a necktie too often to be properly considered punk, but would like to think he's at least punk-adjacent.
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