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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!

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.


  • Adaptational Wimp: In the original novella, Apollonius is both the Circus's seer and powerful magician, and isn't blind. Here he gets divided in two, with "Apollonius" being the blind seer and "Merlin" being the fumbling magician.
  • The Barnum: Oddly enough, not so much the showman Lao as Stark.
  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti: The Abominable Snowman.
  • 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.
  • Blind Seer: Apollonius of Tyana is blind and is employed by the circus of Dr. Lao as a fortune teller who, as he explains, is cursed "to tell the absolute truth".
  • 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.
  • Broken Bird: Angela Benedict, still mourning the death of her husband.
  • 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. For example, he tells the haughty and self-absorbed Mrs. Cassan that her land will never produce oil, she will never re-marry or even have another man in her life, and her remaining years will be so devoid of meaning that when she dies, she might as well never have lived for all the good or ill she will have done. Far from treating this as a warning to become a better person and thus enrich her own life and the lives of those around her, she lies to Angela that Apollonius predicted that she will become rich and marry Stark.
  • Circus Brat: Mike wants to be this, but Dr. Lao helps him decide to stay in his town.
  • 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.
  • Crappy Carnival: The outward appearance of Lao's circus, which seems much Bigger on the Inside.
  • Cry Laughing: Mike sounds like he's about to burst into tears as he juggles the wooden balls Dr. Lao left behind.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Angela, after her encounter with Pan and his pipes.
  • 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.
  • Eccentric Townsfolk: The townsfolk of Abalone, to be exact.
  • Elective Broken Language: Dr. Lao casually switches back and forth between Asian Speekee Engrish 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.
  • Fauns and Satyrs: Pan, the God of Joy.
  • Finger-Snap Lighter: Although it takes a couple of tries when it's windy.
  • Flying Dutchman: Dr. Lao seems fated to travel from place to place to save people from their own folly.
  • Gorgeous Gorgon: Medusa, despite her snaky hair, is quite attractive.
  • Henpecked Husband: Mr. Lindquist; happily, his wife appears to take Dr. Lao's lesson to heart.
  • Hobbes Was Right: Stark champions this, while Lao argues persuasively that Rousseau Was Right.
  • Hot Librarian: Angela, though her profession doesn't figure much in the plotline.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Stark and most of the townsfolk 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.
  • Humans Are Ugly: The Giant Serpent tells Stark this.
    Giant Serpent: You even have to hang rags on yourself to protect your weak skin. You have to hang things in front of your eyes in order to see. [Starts to guffaw.] Look at yourself!
    Stark: I'll admit I'm not perfect, but...
    Giant Serpent: You can say that again, kiddo! You're just about the most imperfect creature I've ever seen... and I've seen some lulus!
  • 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.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Mrs. Cassan, in her youth, was a beauty who had no trouble attracting men.
  • Koan: As in this dialogue:
    Dr. Lao: Do you know what wisdom is?
    Mike: No, sir.
    Dr. Lao: Wise answer.
  • Lighter and Softer: Much lighter than the book, which is quite cynical (among other things, there's no equivalent to Mike or Cunningham; Angela's book equivalent is just a repressed young woman who becomes quite the party girl after meeting Pan).
  • Magical Flautist: Pan and his pipes.
  • Mood Whiplash: After Lao gives a beautiful and insightful speech about life being a circus, Mike tearfully replies that he doesn't understand. Lao shouts, "Neither do I!" before the two start dancing joyfully.
  • 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."
  • No More for Me: To keep the audience from getting Taken for Granite, Dr. Lao sets up a mirror so they can see Medusa's reflection instead of looking at her directly. A drunk man, on first seeing Medusa's reflection, puts the stopper back in his bottle. Later, when the shrewish Mrs. Lindquist looks at her head-on and is turned to stone, the drunkard tosses the bottle away before fleeing with the rest of the crowd.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: The Giant Serpent makes one to Stark.
    Stark: Well, whoever you are and however you work, you interest me.
    Giant Serpent: You know why? Because we look alike and have much in common. For one thing... our suspicion.
  • 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 Indian Native American, George C. George (Eddie Little Sky).
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: Toccata and Fugue in D minor plays during the volcanic eruption in "The Fall of the City".
  • Really 700 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 notice) 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.
  • Sarcasm Mode: "Oh, it just comes and goes?"
  • Shout-Out: Dr. Lao refers to his "yellow jackass" as the "Golden Ass of Apuleius."
  • Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!: Apollonius to Stark.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Stark, to Cunningham.
  • 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, Mrs. Lindquist looks at Medusa head-on. She gets stoned. Thankfully, Merlin reverses the process.
  • 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.
  • Water-Triggered Change: Dr. Lao presents a fish in a bowl. Whenever a fish goes out, it transforms into a terrifying sea monster. A cowboy shoots the bowl and the fish turns into a sea monster. Then the monster gets soaked in water, resulting in it turning back into a fish.
  • Wise Serpent: Amongst the exhibits wealthy rancher Clinton Stark visits in the Circus of Dr. Lao is the tent of the Giant Serpent, who not only looks like him but also proves to be quite wise. When Clinton tries to dismiss its criticism of him by declaring it's just a beast in a cage, the snake mocks Clinton by pointing out that this also applies to himself, with his greed and cowardice being its own sort of "cage", too. This experience proves fundamental in helping Stark re-evaluate his views on life and humanity.
  • 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.