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7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a 1964 fantasy film from MGM, based on the 1935 novel The Circus of Doctor Lao by Charles G. Finney, directed by George Pal, and starring Barbara Eden, Arthur O'Connell, John Ericson, Kevin Tate, and Tony Randall in a tour de force performance as the eponymous Chinese showman, the Abominable Snowman, Apollonius of Tyana, the Giant Serpent, Medusa, Merlin the Magician, Pan, and an unmade-up, anonymous, and silent member of his own audience.
To the dying Arizona town of Abalone comes the mysterious Dr. Lao (Randall) to announce in the local newspaper the advent of his wonderful circus. The editor, Ed Cunningham (Jon Ericson) is engaged in a double struggle: to gain the affections of repressed young widow Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden) and to convince the townspeople not to give up and sell out to cynical local magnate Clint Stark (Arthur O'Connell). Nevertheless, he is also intrigued by the mysterious Lao and his circus, which seems at first to consist only of the doctor, his yellow jackass, and a fish in a bowl—but which hours later has mushroomed into an entire carnival of marvelous exhibits.
Over the next three days the citizens of Abalone have life-altering encounters with the denizens of the circus, which culminate in the spectacle of the destruction of the ancient Atlantis-like civilization of Woldercan, due to its strangely familiar citizens' giving in to the blandishments of a mysterious tempter who strongly resembles Stark. Meanwhile, Stark's thuggish mooks drunkenly attempt to destroy Lao's circus, inadvertently releasing his pet fish/Loch Ness monster, which chases them out of town and is recaptured only with difficulty by Lao and Angela's young son, Mike (Kevin Tate).
The townspeople, shaken by what Lao has shown them, vote not to sell out to Stark—who thanks them for restoring his faith in humanity, and reveals that a new railroad will soon come through, bringing prosperity back to Abalone. With Stark and the town redeemed, and Ed and Angela now safely a couple, Lao's work is done, and he vanishes, only his voice remaining to remind Mike that life itself is the truly wonderful thing.
The film greatly altered the plot and softened the mordant tone of the original novel, opting rather for a sense of whimsy and wonder, reflected in the score by Leigh Harline, best known for scoring Disney's Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. Unfortunately, despite an extraordinary performance by Randall and some (though not all) of the other cast (Kevin Tate as Mike is a stand-out), and the admirable visual effects—for which SFX artist Jim Danforth received an Academy Award nomination and makeup artist William Tuttle an Honorary Oscar—the film has something of the feel of a made-for-TV movie, exacerbated by the use of stock footage from Atlantis, the Lost Continent and The Time Machine, with unconvincing interspersed shots of the cast in ancient costume. It did not do well when it came out, but as the years have gone by, it has come into its own, and is now widely regarded as a fantasy classic.
- All Asians Are Alike: As emphasized thus:
- All Myths Are True
- The Barnum: Oddly enough, not so much the showman Lao as Stark.
- Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti: The Abominable Snowman.
- Blind Seer: Apollonius of Tyana.
- Blithe Spirit: Dr. Lao, who opens the eyes of the people of Abalone.
- Broken Bird: Angela Benedict
- Cassandra Truth: As Apollonius of Tyana says, "You see, it is my curse to tell the absolute truth." Neither do his hearers seem to act on what he tells them.
- Circus of Fear: Many of the exhibits, and particularly "The Fall of the City," are distinctly disturbing.
- Crappy Carnival: The outward appearance of Lao's circus, which seems much Bigger on the Inside.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Angela, again.
- Double Take: Cunningham when he sees that Angela is suddenly lusting after him (thanks to Pan).
- Double Vision: Lampshaded by the film when the heads of Dr. Lao's various personæ all sprout at once from from the neck of the Loch Ness monster.
- Eccentric Townsfolk: The townsfolk of Abalone, to be exact.
- Everything's Louder with Bagpipes: The soundtrack begins to skirl with these when the Loch Ness monster is released from its fish-bowl and balloons into an eight-headed dragon-fish-thing.
- Fake Nationality: The Chinese Lao (not to mention the Turkish Apollonius, British Merlin, Greek Pan and Medusa, and Nepalese Snowman) are all played by European-American Randall. No wonder his accent (See Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping, below) "comes and goes."
- It's implied that Lao is a near-immortal Every Man who can shapeshift and gendershift as the role requires to teach much-needed Aesops.
- Flying Dutchman: Dr. Lao seems fated to travel from place to place to save people from their own folly.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: "Stoned again, eh?"
- Grumpy Bear: In his youth, Stark was a Wide-Eyed Idealist, but first-hand experience with human nature drove him to the opposite (yet equally wrong) end of the spectrum.
- Henpecked Husband: Mr. Lindquist; happily, his wife appears to take Dr. Lao's lesson to heart.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Besides Tony Randall as Dr. Lao and Barbara Eden as Angela, Stark (Arthur O’Connell) is Mr. Goodbody, the mayor (Frank Cady) is Sam Drucker, and Mr. Lindquist (John Qualen) is Berger, the Norwegian.
- Hot Librarian: Angela
- Hobbes Was Right / Rousseau Was Right: The central debate of the story. Stark champions the former, while Lao argues persuasively for the latter.
- Humans Are the Real Monsters: Stark and most of the townfolk seem to revel in most sins - greed, vanity, anger - and it's up to Dr. Lao with the help of Mike, Angela and Cunningham to remind the town they can be better than that.
- Intrepid Reporter: Crusading Editor Ed Cunningham.
- It's Pronounced Tro-Pay: It's pronounced "Low — Doctor Low."
- Koan: As in this dialogue:
Dr. Lao: Do you know what wisdom is?
- Loads and Loads of Roles
- Mythical Motifs: Many of the characters are figures of mythology.
- Nietzsche Wannabe: Stark, who tells Cunningham, "There's no such thing as the dignity of man. Man is a base, pathetic, vulgar animal."
- Not That Kind of Doctor: As Lao tells Mike, "My specialty is wisdom."
- Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Lampshaded; Cunningham notes that Dr. Lao suddenly switches from a heavy, stereotypical Chinese accent to perfect English. Dr. Lao replies, "Oh, it comes and goes. Whatever dialect the mood requires."
- Politically-Incorrect Villain: Stark's mooks demonstrate how stupid and rotten they are by harassing the local
IndianNative American, George C. George (Eddie Little Sky).
- Really Seven Hundred Years Old: Actually, seven thousand, three hundred, and twenty-two, next October.
- Romancing the Widow: Angela is still grieving the loss of her husband, and doesn't notice (or doesn't want to) the interest Cunningham has for her.
- Shout-Out: Dr. Lao refers to his "yellow jackass" as the "Golden Ass of Apuleius."
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids: Stark, to Cunningham.
- Stock Ness Monster: Dr. Lao keeps the Loch Ness Monster in a fishbowl. As long as it's in the fishbowl, it stays tiny. Don't let it out.
- Surrounded by Idiots: Stark has a pair of cowboy mooks; he orders one to read a newspaper article, starting at the third paragraph. "Third what?"
- Taken for Granite: Despite warnings, the shrewish Mrs. Lindquist looks at the Gorgon head-on. She gets stoned.
- Talking Animal: The Giant Serpent, which looks and sounds remarkably like Stark. (Especially remarkable when one considers it was voiced by Randall, not O'Connell.)
- Walking the Earth: Dr. Lao
- What Could Have Been: Peter Sellers was originally going to play Dr. Lao but he was too busy to fit it into his schedule. Enter Tony Randall.
- The World Is Just Awesome: The biggest lesson Dr. Lao teaches us.
Dr. Lao: 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.
- Yellowface: But then, Lao can wear whatever face suits his fancy.
- You No Take Candle: Dr. Lao, him speak dis way some time, yes—however, not upon every occasion.