7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
Directed by George Pal

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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Dr. Lao (Tony Randall), an eccentric and mysterious elderly man from China, rides his gold-hued donkey into a town somewhere in the American Southwest. He promptly buys an advertisement for his circus in the local newspaper and observes how the paper's owner, Ed Cunningham (John Ericson), is trying to thwart the efforts of an unscrupulous businessman, Clint Stark (Arthur O'Connell), to buy out the townsfolk. Dr. Lao subsequently sets up his circus, to which the locals come and whereat they encounter various peculiar beings, including Merlin, Pan, the Abominable Snowman, Medusa, and Apollonius of Tyana (all played by Randall), as well as a huge talking serpent that looks like Stark. It soon becomes apparent that all of the itinerant players possess magical powers, and that they are using these to affect the visitors, threatening Stark's schemes and furthering Ed's efforts to win the heart of a beautiful widow, Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden).

George Pal's 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is an entertaining if flawed fantasy. While it is hardly a great movie, there are a sufficient number of appealing elements in it to make it worth watching.

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Perhaps the best thing about the film is the sense of magical wonder with which it is filled. The viewer is, over the course of 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, presented with a number of strange, otherworldly sequences. In one, the god Pan, who appears to Angela looking very much like Ed, employs his music to stir up her passions for that man. In other scenes, Mr. Stark converses with the giant snake and Apollonius of Tyana, both of whom have insightful things to say to him. At yet other times, Dr. Lao explains to Angela's son that there is magic everywhere in this world, that all things are capable of evoking wonder, if we will only open our eyes to their innate beauty. The movie's concluding sequence is, however, undoubtedly its best. This begins when a pair of Mr. Stark's goons arrive at Dr. Lao's circus in order to vandalize it and, while doing so, toss an apparently ordinary fish bowl on the ground, shattering it. Unfortunately for them, the tiny fish that had been within it rapidly grows to gigantic size and transforms itself into a ferocious dragon. This beast, which is brought to life by means of stop motion animation, is a delight, especially when it sprouts multiple heads, each of which resembles that of a person from the circus, and waggles these menacingly for the viewer's delight. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is often genuinely appealing, and its charms do make it worth seeing.

The film is not, however, devoid of faults. Perhaps the worst of these is Randall's portrayal of Dr. Lao. I should say that I have no innate problem with a person of one ethnic group portraying a person of a another. Nonetheless, the actor's adoption of an outrageously stereotyped Chinese accent and similarly stereotyped mannerisms can be a little irksome. In fact, the character is likely to offend more than a few viewers. That said, Dr. Lao is a positively portrayed character, and it could be argued that his exaggerated accent, which comes and goes, is meant to poke fun at the locals' provincial attitudes about strangers. Still, I have to admit that I was a little distracted by it.

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I was also frequently annoyed by the movie's rather sappy narrative. Ed's efforts to win Angela's heart and his fight against the cynical Stark are both revealed with so much sentimentality and so much false earnestness that I was never really able to involve myself emotionally in the story.

Although I cannot laud 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, I did enjoy the movie. It might be imperfect, but it is still entertaining to watch.

Review by Keith Allen

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