Nov. 12, 2010

filmsgraded.com:
7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
Grade: 72/100

Director: George Pal
Stars: Tony Randall, Barbara Eden, Arthur O'Connell

What it's about. A curious mix of fantasy, comedy, and romance, with the agreeable mood interrupted only by a memorably gloomy fortune told at the expense of frivolous matron Lee Patrick.

It is a western set circa 1910. Mysterious elderly Chinaman Dr. Lao (Tony Randall) arrives at a sleepy town dominated by grasping robber baron Stark (Arthur O'Connell). Stark is opposed only by small-time newspaper publisher John Ericson, a Perfect Man who is nonetheless not good enough for hottie librarian Barbara Eden, a widow and the mother of perky and well-behaved pre-teenager Timmy (Noah Beery Jr.).

Dr. Lao promotes his circus, a two-day event held just outside of town in a makeshift tent. The curious townsfolk, all one dozen of them, attend the circus on both days, where they are entertained by Tony Randall in his various visages. He is alternately Dr. Lao, the Abominable Snowman, incompetent magician Merlin, soothsayer Apollonius of Tyana, shirtless half-goat flute-player Pan, green-skinned and snake-haired Medusa, and a giant serpent. Actually, the serpent is animated, but Randall does provide the voice, which sounds more like a mixture of Peter Lorre and Paul Lynde.

Randall, via Pan, makes Eden all hot for hunky Ericson. More importantly, he warns the town against selling out to Stark, who wants to purchase all the real estate before an impending railroad makes it valuable. Stark doesn't seem to mind, though, having already been schooled by Randall in the form of the Apollonius and the giant serpent.

How others will see it. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao was a costly MGM production. Unfortunately, it was also a box office bust, and thus the last movie directed by animation specialist George Pal. It did receive win an honorary Oscar for William Tuttle's make-up, and Jim Danworth was Oscar-nominated for special visual effects.

Time has been kind to the film. Today, the Loch Ness Monster looks hokey, but Tony Randall's multiple-role performance is a gem. We are actually glad that Peter Sellers, then celebrated for his ability to play varied roles in the same film a la Dr. Strangelove, did not get the part. Pal had wanted Sellers, but cost-minded MGM already had Randall under contract.

At imdb.com, the user reviews and message board chatter is almost uniformly positive. The user ratings are a bit more mixed, averaging 7.0/10 and a rather low 6.6 from Top 1000 voters. Women between 18 and 29, who may take a motherly interest in adorable young Timmy, like it best at 7.4/10.

How I felt about it. We like it. Oh, we are aware that the sudden growth of the Loch Ness Monster looks fakey, that Stark would never reveal the coming of the railroad, and that Barbara Eden has the right to wait for cuter and more amusing Larry Hagman.

Nonetheless, Dr. Lao puts on the best one-man circus act in world history, even if he has to borrow footage from a prior and less interesting George Pal epic (Atlantis, the Lost Continent) to do so. He's even convincing as Medusa, purportedly a woman. He's particularly entertaining as the voice of the serpent, a cynical creature who knows more than his appearance suggests. His turn as Pan is less riveting, even though Eden is oddly possessed by the music of Zamfir. He can't do much in his abominable snowman costume, either, not even put a star on top of the Christmas tree.

There are two morals: magic exists, and good prevails. Both are relevant to the movies, but will disappoint you in real life. The trick to swindling is to keep a low profile. Try making a movie out of that one.

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