Monday, March 7, 2011

Movie Monday: 7 Faces of Dr. Lao

For this week's newly-christened Movie Monday is the 1964 George Pal curio 7 Faces of Dr. Lao!

If you've never seen this film but are at all familiar with the fanciful work of George Pal, you may think you have an idea what this movie is. I can confidently say you're wrong.

Right from the get-go, when see our first glimpse of Dr. Lao (Tony Randall), we get an idea of what kind of movie we might be in for: Dr. Lao lights his pipe, using nothing more than his thumb:
Dr. Lao, aboard his donkey and carrying a fishbowl (we'll get to that in a minute), wobbles into the old west Arizona town of Abalone and we get a series of charming opening credits:
Some of the local townfolk find Lao a strange sight...and sound. When you first hear Randall's "ah sooo" stereotypical Asian accent, you kind of cringe, thinking this is going to be a reprise of Mickey Rooney's...un-nuanced, let's say--character from Breakfast at Tiffany's. But soon we'll see nothing in this movie--nothing--is what it first seems.

In fact, the movie comments on Randall's role right off: one of the townsfolk refers to Lao as "a Jap." Another one says, "Naw, he's Chinese." When asked how he knows that, the guy replies, "'Cause I ain't stupid."

Anyway, Lao heads for the office of the local paper, which is a tiny, shambolic enterprise, with a printing press on its last legs and only one reporter and one editor...the same guy, the strapping and idealistic Ed Cunningham (John Ericson).

Before Lao can talk to Cunningham and his partner Tim (Noah Beery Jr.), more urgent business is attended to, in the form of Clint Stark (Arthur O'Connell), a super-rich businessman who's been busy trying to buy up the town, house by house, acre by acre. He's not thrilled with Cunningham's latest editorial, suggesting people not sell their home to the highest bidder.
He and his two goons try and lean on our two newspapermen, to no effect...for now.

After they leave, Lao (who has been quietly watching all this drama) says he wants to buy an ad promoting his circus. At first Cunningham aims low, suggesting just a single column ad. He is thrilled when Lao wants to buy two full pages, and doesn't blink when he's told its costs fifty bucks. In fact, his pockets seem to be filled with currency, of all types. He pays and leaves, but not before Cunningham asks where he's from.

Lao gives him the name of a small village in China, which Cunningham looks up at the local library, run by the widow Angela Benedict (a ravishing Barbara Eden). He makes what seems like his daily play for Angela, but she's having none of it. Cunningham's research shows that the town Lao mentioned has been non-existent for centuries...what's going on here?

That night, the town has a meeting about whether to sell the whole of the town to Stark. Angela makes an impassioned speech against, but is shouted down by the crowd when Stark makes a slimy yet smooth sales pitch, acting as though he's doing them all a favor taking their soon-to-be-worthless land (the town is facing a water supply problem) from them.

Cunningham brings someone to argue for his side, an Indian whose ancestors lived on the land long before Abelone was founded. It doesn't do much; in fact, after the meeting, Stark's goons try to rough the Indian up. Luckily Lao steps in, using what can't be anything other than superpower-like abilities: he freezes both thugs in their tracks, knocking one of them down with a puff of smoke:

The next morning, Cunningham visits Lao, and sees no less than The Abominable Snowman knocking in tent poles!:

Whoever did the designs for Star Trek's "Mugato" character, I can only assume they saw this movie.

After he/it scampers off, Cunningham talks to Lao, trying to figure out who he is and why he's come. Lao is evasive, but charmingly so. Cunningham notices mid-stream Lao has lost his accent, now speaking perfect English. Lao responds by slipping right back into this thick accent.
Before he leaves, he also meets an old man who claims to be no less than Merlin (Randall again, in superb old age make-up). Merlin appears in a puff of smoke, and disappears the same way.

Later that day, Angela's young son Mike (Kevin Tate) meets Dr. Lao as he is putting up show posters (by spitting out nails, perfectly shooting them onto the corners of the paper) and they instantly like each other: Lao asks Mike "My specialty is wisdom. Do you know what wisdom is?" Mike answers, "No, sir", to which Lao replies, "A wise answer."

That night, Lao's circus opens, and he promises the crowd things sights have never seen before. One of the attractions is Apollonius the Fortune Teller (Randall again), who is visited by busy-body Mrs. Cassin (Lee Patrick), one of the people so eager to sell to Stark.
She asks whether she will ever love again, or be rich, but Apollonius doesn't quite give her the answers she wants: he quietly states that none of the things she wants from life will happen, and the rest of her life will be "A tedious collection of hours full of useless vanities." She will grow "older, but not wiser." And when she dies, she will be "buried, and forgotten."

Mrs. Cassin bursts into tears and storms out, and something interesting happens, almost too quickly to notice: alone in the tent, you figure that Lao/Apollonius (are they two separate people?) was just having a dig at her because she's kind of rotten person. But when we see Apollonius alone, he keeps the same dour, depressed demeanor--this isn't an act!
Lao directs Angela to the tent marked "Pan, The God of Joy", and waiting for her really is the Pan of legend (Randall, of course)--horns, hoofs, and all. He begins to play his tune for her, which is weird, but okay. But then when he spins around, he transforms:
...yes, now Pan has become Cunningham, the man Angela won't allow herself to like. As Pan plays his song, dancing ever more madly, Angela quite clearly becomes sexually aroused--a lot:
In a moment of pretty startling sexuality for a 1964 film (directed by a man known for family entertainment), Angela rips open the collar of her blouse, rubbing her neck as her face begins to sweat. If you can put aside the silly context--i.e, a guy in Pan make-up--this is quite a sensual scene. It builds up to a fevered pace, and just as Pan plants one on Angela, some other customers come in, ending the fun.

It helps that Barbara Eden--just a few years away from I Dream of Genie--simply looks fabulous here. I can tell you, if this part had been played by, say, Julie Newmar or Yvonne Craig, this might be my favorite movie scene of all time.

Embarrassed, Angela hurriedly departs, passing Stark who wanders into the Giant Snake tent. Inside the tent is, yes, a giant snake, but its more than that:
The snake explains that this circus is like a mirror, showing you things that are there but that you might not want to see. The snake explains to Snark that they have similar views of the world. Snark boasts that while his reptilian doppleganger is in a cage, and he is free to walk about. The snake points out that he has his own cages, as well: some within, some without. Stark's henchmen arrive telling him news about the newspaper, and they depart, leaving the snake laughing sarcastically.

Randall provides the voice of the snake, and, par for the course for this movie, doesn't do what you'd expect: he doesn't do a slithery, snake-like voice, hissing his Ss. Instead, he takes a sort of nerdy, condescending tone, making it, to me, really kinda creepy. Pal's stop-motion effects--and the fact that the snake has a human face--make the whole effect a tad unsettling.

Merlin performs his magic act, and even though he performs amazing feats (filling the stage with flowers, transmuting objects), the minute he can't (won't?) pull off the trick a snotty young girl wants, they mock the old man and wander away. The only one left is young Mike, who is charmed by Merlin.

He climbs the stage, calling Merlin "The greatest magician I ever saw", which reduces the master to happy tears. He embraces the boy in thanks, a genuinely touching scene, but also leaves one wondering: is this an act? Clearly Lao can really do all this, so why did he fail to please the crowd when he had the chance?

Lao shows off a tiny catfish in a fishbowl (the one that rode in on the donkey), and claims it can transform into a giant, raging sea monster when it encounters oxygen. The crowd doesn't believe this is anything harmless little guppy when Lao refuses to show them what would happen if the catfish is taken out of the bowl.

They wander off into Medusa's tent, which is set up with mirrors, that way no one directly looks into her gaze, thereby turning themselves into stone. And we see for ourselves that this truly is Medusa, snakes-for-hair and all:
Unbelievably, this is also Randall, almost unrecognizable. And pretty transgressive, too: sure, men wore drag in movies all the time, and it was almost always played for laughs. But this is a male actor playing a woman, for "real."

One of the crowd, an old crone named Mrs. Lindquist (Minerva Urecal) doesn't believe any of this and looks Medusa in the eyes. Well, she was warned: she turns to stone on the spot, via a simple but totally winning effect:
Mrs. Lindquist's stone body is dragged out of the tent, and Merlin transforms her back to flesh and blood. The crowd is relieved, leaving Merlin to remind everyone what a good magician he is. The show ends for the night, and Lao asks everyone to return tomorrow night for the final acts.

In the middle of the night, young Mike returns, asking for a job with the circus. He tries some sleight of hand and some juggling, which he isn't very good at--though Lao praises him profusely.

Mike is disappointed he can't join the circus, but Lao lets him on a little piece of wisdom, in the film's best scene: "
Mike, let me tell you something. The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you're tired, comes up when you want to be on the move. That's real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it. Oh, my boy, that's...that's circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. 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, you're part of the Circus of Dr. Lao."

When Mike says he doesn't understand, Lao cheerfully admits, "Neither do I!", jumping over Mike's head (in one unbroken shot) and dancing a jig, with Mike joining in:
That same night, we see Angela can't sleep: something has been stirred in her, and she stares out into the night, more than a little...overheated.

Also going on across town, Cunningham and Tim discover their newspaper office ransacked, its machinery broken and trashed. Cunningham, sure this was Stark's work, goes off to get drunk.

But the next morning, when they return, they see all the equipment has been magically replaced or fixed, good as new. They get right to work on that morning's edition. Cunningham is so overjoyed he hand delivers the paper to Stark's house, leaving him and his henchmen dumbfounded as to how everything got fixed so fast.

Cunningham finds Lao, thanking him for what he's sure he did. Lao pretends not to know what Cunningham is talking about, busy as he is pulling a fish out of a river that doesn't exist.

That night, Cunningham and Angela meet up at the circus, but this time its different: she seems receptive to Cunningham's entreaties, and when he reveals how he sees her, they walk arm in arm into the main ring of the circus.

Meanwhile, Stark goes to visit Apollonius, who tells Stark of a grim future, even if his plan to buy the town goes through. Stark is stunned when Apollonius seems to know his secret: that a railroad is planned to run near the town, making the land worth a fortune. Stark, unnerved, departs.

The main event of the night--which the whole town attends--starts with a procession of everyone we've seen so far: Medusa, the Snowman, the snake, Merlin, and Apollonius. But the good cheer ends when Lao shows them all a vision he calls "The Fall of the City", which is a real-life, live-action parable about the greed that led to the fall of Atlantis:
Using scenes from his previous film, Atlantis The Lost Continent (a cost-saving measure Roger Corman would have been impressed by), Pal splices in new scenes featuring a Stark-like Atlantean whose short-sightedness led to the destruction of all they had built.

The crowd, at first entertained by what seems to be just a story, soon grows quiet (here we get a cameo by Randall, in his only scene not covered in make-up):

The show now over, the lights dim, and the entire crowd finds itself in the town hall, read to decide whether to allow Stark to buy up the rest of the town. In a switch from what Cunningham and Angela expected, everyone is now against the purchase...something even Stark is now okay with, having realized the error of his ways. He thanks Lao--who is there--for showing him the proverbial light.

Back at her house, Cunningham and Angela share their first kiss. Meanwhile, Stark's henchmen, drunk and angry over their boss' change of heart, decide to return to Lao's circus--in the middle of a raging windstorm--and begin to smash it to bits.

In their carelessness, they free the catfish from its bowl, and it does what Lao said it would: become a giant sea monster!
The catfish sea monster attacks the two drunk roughnecks, pulled off very effectively: many shots are in shadow. Clearly that was at least to hide the effects (when one of the guys is in the creature's mouth, he becomes a stop-motion effect as well), but it also leaves more to the imagination, and it works.

One of the henchmen is presumably devoured, and then things get even weirder:
I'm not exactly sure what this effect means, exactly, but what the hell, it looks cool and scary and odd. The guy on the receiving end of it feels the same way.

Dr. Lao gets out a box labeled Rain-Making Machine (patent pending) and by re-equalizing the moisture in the air, he shrinks the catfish back down to size, scooping it out of a puddle.

The next day, Dr. Lao leaves town, with Mike chasing after him, Shane-style. Cunningham and Angela are now together, and Mike's juggling has magically gotten a lot better--he balances three balls in the air flawlessly as Dr. Lao waves goodbye:
sg Dr. Lao heads off into the sunset, he literally fades from view. Is he real? Did all this really just happen? I guess we'll never know, because this is...The End.

Looking back over this post, I realize I went long--really long, longer than I think any other review I've done so far. Perhaps I should have edited this down a bit (okay, maybe a lot) but I love this movie so much I can't help but want to go on and on about it (mission accomplished!).

Its a really one of a kind movie--smart and silly, tender but sarcastic, visually resplendent but at times subtle. To those who only knew of Tony Randall as Felix Unger, seeing him in a role like this could seem strange, if not completely ridiculous: seven different roles, including a woman?

Dr. Lao on paper seems like a perfect role for Peter Sellers, and indeed he was Pal's first choice. But as brilliant as Sellers was, in retrospect I'm glad it went to Randall: he has a warmness that Sellers, to me, couldn't really quite pull off: I can't picture him doing the big "life is a circus" scene with Mike and not adding some twinge of sarcasm to it.

Elements of this movie later surfaced in two of my all-time favorite things: Ethan Hawke quotes the "tedious collection of hours" speech in Before Sunrise (my favorite movie, ever), and Joel Hodgson quotes and name-checks the movie in his final episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (one of my all-time favorite TV shows). While the movie was considered a flop at the time, obviously it was influential to those who saw it and went on to make movies and TV of their own.

7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a really unique movie-going experience; a wonderful, delicate fantasy with something to say and a warm, tenderhearted way of doing it.

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