By Dr. Mike Lano
Dr. Lao says: "It's a miracle just being alive"
Growing up in Southern California amidst a lot of industry people, I spent many Saturdays and Sundays at kid matinees at theatres all over L.A. I saw A Hard Day’s Night and Help! when they first came out, all the Disney classics including Mary Poppins (the soundtrack and songs were done by one of my best friends, Ron Gluck, whose uncles were Robert and Richard Sherman.) My stepfather's name was Robert and his only sibling's brother was named Richard, which I thought was freaky at the time.
Turner Classic Movies recently re-aired one of my favorites of all time, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, a 1964 film starring Tony Randall, Barbara Eden, and a magnificent supporting cast of 60's top period actors like Rita Shaw, Charlie O'Connell and others. The legendary Ray Harryhausen did the special effects, including a great Greek Madusa who could turn people to stone just by looking at her. Harryhausen crafted Madusas for many films, including the later Clash of the Titans in the late 70's. He's one of moviedom's superstars and is still around.
The screenplay was from the book The Circus of Dr Lao. A rare book, I finally found a copy in the archives at a local library. I don't know anyone who heard of it as a book but what a movie that came from it. Its star, Tony Randall, played an incredible eight roles: Dr. Lao, the Abominable Snowman, Merlin the Magician, Apollonius of Tyana, Pan, the Giant Serpent, Medusa (not to be confused with wrestler Deb Ann Micelli, who toiled for years under that name), and an audience member.
The only movie around that time that even came close was Jerry Lewis' The Family Jewels, a copycat that came out a year later. Lewis played seven roles, including a take on his glassed nerd character from Nutty Professor. Six were all supposed to be brothers vying for the custody and care of a just-orphaned girl. Lewis does his best, but he lacks the acting chops of the great Tony Randall, who was absolutely incredible as Lao in a total tour de force.
(Also 15 years before Dr. Lao, Alec Guinness played eight parts in Ealing’s 1949 classic comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets.)
Eden (best known for I Dream of Jeannie) plays a sexually-repressed widow and mother of a good son who idolizes Dr Lao. The kid does his best to have Lao adopt him as a circus performer, but instead learns major life lessons (as does the entire dusty town in the middle of the old west, circa 1905). Bring a box of Kleenex, even if you're a dude, because you're going to cry -- guaranteed.
There's a lot of tolerance and love for fellow man that’s taught in the form of Dr. Lao's actions and sayings. When I had Eden on my radio show last year to promote her autobiography, I mentioned how much this movie meant to me as a kid. She said it meant a lot to her too and thought "it was amongst Tony Randall's very best work. He was amazing." We agreed he should've won the Oscar that year.
At the 1965 Oscars, William Tuttle won an honorary Oscar for his makeup in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, and the film was also nominated in the category of Best Special Visual Effects.) The special effects were state of the art at the time thanks to Ray Harryhausen's brilliant stop-motion work. One of Harryhausen’s best scenes is with Dr. Lao’s goldfish, which he keeps in a small bowl. When some marauding drunks accidentally knock it over the fish doubles in size every few seconds until it becomes like a ravaging Loch Ness Monster. That is, until Dr. Lao saves the day -- again.
If we can put aside the P.C. thing of his Dr. Lao character speaking and behaving at times like a stereotypical turn of the century Chinese man who knows "little English," it's spellbinding the way Randall has the Dr. Lao character talk normally during serious moments. He veers back and forth between "Me go to sleep and speak no Engrish" to turning serious and speaking English fantastically and uttering beautiful philosophies on life ("Life is a miracle that you should cherish each day you have it.") I found it incredible then and still find it as such.
At the film's end, Dr. Lao and his circus are leave after he's finished helping the town see the sense in standing up for themselves to defeat the evil promoter's attempt to take over the town (ala Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles years later). As he's riding his faithful donkey up the mountain, disappearing into the sunset, three characters look on. The first says, "I wonder where he came from?" Then another says "or where he's going?" And a third chimes in with "or if he was ever here at all." Powerful stuff.
If you like amazing music (a mix of classic Chinese instrumentation morphed with that of Western), a warm, well-developed plot and characters, action, romance, fantasy, sci-fi and special effects, plus a growing sense that maybe most humans are relatively, inherently good, then treat yourself to The 7 Faces Of Dr Lao, often replaying on TCM. It ain't just a kid's movie.
I may be overly sentimental, but I cry every time I watch it and am reminded how I begged my parents for weeks to take me to see it the night it opened in 1964. Released not long after Kennedy's assassination, it really carved a mark in my brain and heart that comes back out upon repeat viewings. I just love this movie and it's stuff like this that should be shot into outer space along with the ashes of Star Trek's James "Scotty" Doohan for aliens out there to see that humans are capable of being good. When we think of some of the stuff we could broadcast out there we come to realize that it would just confuse and upset the possible ET's out there.