Seven Faces of Dr. Lao
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A mysterious traveling circus unleashes a torrent of magic and mysticism in a dusty Arizona town. "In what may be the finest performance in a fantasy film" (Guide for the Film Fanatic), Tony Randall charms and spellbinds as ringmaster Dr. Lao and his multitude of faces, a virtuoso turn that earned a special Oscar for Outstanding Makeup Achievement. Step inside the tent...and marvel.
- Behind-the-scenes documentary William Tuttle: King of the Duplicators, exploring the Hollywood veteran's Extraordinary Work on this film
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For instance, although entitled "The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao", Tony Randall plays =eight= roles - and himself as well. Another example - nobody in town, not even Mike, the little confused boy, calls Dr. Lao by Lao's own pronunciation of his name. Most people say "La-Oh" when Lao himself uses "Low". Again, although Dr. Lao rides in on a small donkey, alone, the circus tent is gigantic and has many other characters in it.
My favorite scene no one else has mentioned so far is when the crooked businessman goes into the tent of The Serpent. The Serpent, possibly even the Serpent which tempted Adam and Eve, tells the businessman he knows the secret - a railroad will soon come thru this tiny western town, making it a destination point rather than the departure point it is now. But is this just a condemnation of the businessman (saying, in essence, he is a "snake" for not telling the residents about the railroad), or is it a subtler jab at all crooked businessmen? Or both? Or more? Only Dr. Lao knows - and he isn't telling. Watch the Serpent begin to look more and more like the crooked businessman as the scene progresses.
Based on the "fact" that every other creature in Lao's circus is virtually world-famous, it wouldn't surprise me if Dr. Lao is really Lao-Tze, one of China's greatest philosophers. This role of Tony Randall's will soon have you totally forgetting his role in "The Odd Couple". As far as I'm concerned, this is Randall's greatest moment. Ever. Watch his face carefully during the scene where he portrays Apollonius of Tyana and see what I mean.
How many faces of Dr. Lao?
1) Dr. Lao
2) Apollonius of Tyana
3) The Medusa
4) The Abominable Snowman
6) The Serpent
8) The Loch Ness Monster
9) Himself (Tony Randall)
Based on the Charles Finney classic "The Circus of Dr Lao", George Pal, the director of this film, brings his knowledge of science fiction and fantasy ("The Time Machine" and "The War of the Worlds" among many others) to this marvelous blend of Western, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mysticism, and even Religion to one of its greatest achievements. Watch for the end of the circus when all of the characters parade into the center ring to say goodbye. In the crowd, Tony Randall sits, as himself, shaking his head about the absurdity of it all, when everyone else is applauding and laughing. Watch also for the townspeople's reactions to the circus performers they have met.
At the end of the movie, Mike wants to go travelling with Dr. Lao. This is one of the rare times Dr. Lao does not speak in a very stereotypical fake Chinese accent. He says: "Mike, the whole world is a circus if you look at it the right way. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand - every time you stop and think, 'I'm alive, and being alive is fantastic!' - every time such a thing happens, Mike, you are part of the Circus of Dr. Lao."
You can be part of the Circus of Dr. Lao too, when you decide to have this movie work its magic on you. One of my very highest recommendations.
Clint Stark: I was like you once, long time ago. I believed in the dignity of man. Decency.
Humanity. But I was lucky. I found out the truth early, boy.
Ed Cunningham: And what is the truth, Stark?
Clint Stark: It's all very simple. There's no such thing as the dignity of man. Man is a base,
pathetic and vulgar animal.
This is the eternal debate of human kind, captured in a cartoon-esque dialog between archetypal rubes... a perfect way to speak to us all, from both "red states" and "blue." The dialog identifies the extremes, making the boundaries of our human despair clear and unimpeded to reason. This clarity allows us - all of us grown-up seven-year-olds - to fall - plop - into the fairer middle territory where we are more human. Even though the angry and judgmental faces we've acquired through day-to-day interactions with our inner morons will not be satisfied today, we must suspend our hatred of all that lives in favor of seeing how we really are.
And then there is the truth - Apollonius of Tyana - an actual historical figure who some say was the template for writings of another sage (known as Jesus of Nazareth). He is represented to us as the stern countenance preparing our minds at yet another level within what might have better been described as "The Meditation of Dr. Lao." We are given a view of that which we know too well, the regularity, the normalcy, the boring and daily tedium of our experience, captured and summarily wrestled to the ground, then submitted for our inspection in the pathetic emotional writhing of the actress Lee Patrick who as Mrs. Cassin faces the blistering realities of her life in Apollonius' caldron of the soul:
Apollonius of Tyana: Tomorrow will be like today, and the day after tomorrow will be like the day
before yesterday. I see your remaining days as a tedious collection of hours full of
useless vanities. You will think no new thoughts. You will forget what little you have
known. Older you will become, but not wiser. Stiffer, but not more dignified. Childless
you are, and childless you will remain. Of that suppleness you once commanded in your
youth, of that strange simplicity which once attracted men to you, neither endures, nor
shall you recapture them.
Mrs. Cassin: You're a mean, ugly man!
Apollonius of Tyana: Mirrors are often ugly and mean. When you die, you will be buried and
forgotten, and that is all. And for all the good or evil, creation or destruction,
your living might have accomplished, you might just as well never have lived at all.
You and I live in fear that we shall meet our own Apollonius. And the meaning is simple - we live our lives in the darkness created of our own idiotic aspirations, comparing ourselves to what we perceive to be our failures. The truth is simply that we live and we have upon our living to reflect and understand - but few appear to weather the intensity of that simplicity without a great deal of existential angst - which is the soul of Apollonius and Mrs. Cassin' interaction.
The extremity of the philosophical "debates" in "The 7 Faces" leaves us open and empty again, watching the adults for cues as to what comes next. It gives us the realization of our own frailty, and diminishes the expectations of ourselves that somehow we should have mastered all this stuff by now. We can allow the "living clowns" of Hollywood act out the drama in which we are ourselves living at this very moment. And so finally we must conclude: The world is as it was, and probably will be for all time - and therein is the miraculous world of Dr. Lao. And, as the carnival barker once said, "Like the philosopher Mencius said, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!'"