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Film / 7 Faces of Dr. Lao

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Dr. Lao: Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart, you are part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.
Mike: I don't understand.
Dr. Lao: Neither do I!
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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.

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.

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Tropes Employed In 7 Faces of Dr. Lao Include:

  • Bigger on the Inside: The circus tent is rather modestly sized when viewed from without, but those who step inside find that it contains many large exhibit rooms as well as an arena with enough seating for the entire population of the town.
  • Blithe Spirit: Dr. Lao, who opens the eyes of the people of Abalone.
  • Bookends: The film begins with Dr. Lao on his donkey climbing up a mountain on his way to his destination and ends with him going down that same mountain.
  • 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.
  • Circus of Magic: On the other hand, many of those same exhibits have some strange whimsy and wonder to it too.
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  • Crappy Carnival: The outward appearance of Lao's circus, which seems much Bigger on the Inside.
  • Disappeared Dad: Mike's dad passed away, but he's not too sad about it.
  • 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.
  • Elective Broken Language: Dr. Lao casually switches back and forth between speaking in a heavy Chinese accent and perfect English.
    Edward Cunningham: Hey! How come you speak perfect English all of a sudden?
    Doctor Lao: Oh, it comes and goes. Whatever dialect the mood requires.
    Cunningham: Oh, it just comes and goes?
    Lao: Whassamatta you? Allatime asking silly questions! Wise guy!
  • 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.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The story takes place within the span of three days, with Lao's circus staying for two nights.
  • Flying Dutchman: Dr. Lao seems fated to travel from place to place to save people from their own folly.
  • 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.
  • Hobbes Was Right: The central debate of the story. Stark champions the former, while Lao argues persuasively for the latter.
  • Humans Are Bastards: 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.
  • Interchangeable Asian Cultures: As emphasized thus:
    Fat Cowboy: ... Looks like a Jap to me.
    Toothless Cowboy: Naaaw. He's Chinese.
    Fat Cowboy: How do you know?
    Toothless Cowboy: 'Cause I ain't stupid!
  • 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?
    Mike: No, sir.
    Dr. Lao: Wise answer.
  • Mood Whiplash: After Lao gives a beautiful and insightful speech about life being a circus, Mike tearflly replies that he doesn't understand. Lao shouts "Neither do I!" before the two start dancing.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Mike first shows off his "juggling" when he tries to join the circus. When Dr. Lao leaves, Mike finds three balls on the ground and starts juggling, symbolizing his growth.
  • Small Reference Pools: Averted big time by one of the three instrument-playing toys on top of the Abominable Snowman's barrel organ. The first two toys are of a clown and a white dog. The third one is a Fred Flintstone toy!
  • 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. Thankfully it's reversed.
  • 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.)
  • 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.
  • You No Take Candle: Dr. Lao, him speak dis way some time, yes — however, not upon every occasion.


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