Today I’m VERY happy to be reviewing the Warner Archives re-release of the DVD of 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964). This one’s a little extra special. It’s not just for the fact that it’s one of my favorite films, or even that it’s the first movie I wrote about when I started The Draconic Verses back in April. It’s special because it was by request. I found on my blog’s dashboard that people were searching for a DVD review here, and I received 2 anonymous requests for a review. Warner Archives was kind enough to speedily send me a copy, as I had none to review. So a huge thank you to them!
STORY SUMMARY: (Warning – Spoilers ahead)
Note – All vidcaps are unmodified, though saved at a low resolution.
It’s the turn of the century and we are first introduced to Dr. Lao (Tony Randall) as he rides towards the town of Abalone, AZ on a golden jackass. He stops to light his pipe, and we see, right off the bat, that there’s something mysterious about him, as he uses his thumb to light his pipe.
He rides up in front of the town’s newspaper, The Daily Star. Here we see that the only thing Dr. Lao has with him other than his pipe, is a fishbowl with (what seems to be) a catfish inside of it. Inside, he waves his hand, seemingly stopping the press to get the attention of Tim (Noah Beery, Jr.), busily getting the next edition printed. Dr. Lao asks to see the boss, but Tim says he’s busy. Dr. Lao says he’ll wait, as wealthy rancher Clinton Stark (Arthur O’Connell) and his two ranch hands (Royal Dano and John Doucette) drive up in a new-fangled automobile. Stark confronts crusading Editor Ed Cunningham (John Ericson) about his efforts to rally the town against his bid to buy them all out. Ed knows Stark has some hidden reason for it, other than than ‘being a philanthropist’ as Stark claims.
When Stark leaves, Ed asks Dr. Lao what he wants, and Lao asks to place a two day advertisement about his circus. Ed is dumbstruck when Lao says he wants a full page ad for both days. Having never sold such an ad, Ed haltingly asks for $50 and is floored when Lao produces it without hesitation or objection. His curiosity is piqued and asks where the Doctor is from, and is told the Chinese city of Panohai was his last residence.
Ed goes to the library to do further research, as he senses a story like no other is under his nose. When he asks Librarian Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden) for help we discover that he’s in love with her, but she keeps rebuffing his advances. She goes home for supper, and we find out that she’s a widow with a young son, Michael (Kevin Tate) who works for Ed as a paper boy. Her mother-in-law lives with them, and she wants Angela to move on and tells her that Ed would be a good catch, but Angela ignores her and gets ready for a town meeting. At the meeting, Stark tells the townspeople that Abalone is a lost cause that will soon be without water, and they should all sell him their land. Both Ed and Angela raise questions, but are shot down fairly quickly. However, they raise some doubts among the crowd, and they ask Stark if they can take a few days to consider it. The Mayor (Frank Cady) tells them that they’ll vote on it in at the end of the week.
As George G. George (Eddie Little Sky), a Navajo whose tribe lives just outside of Abalone, leaves the meeting, Stark’s men stop him and start beating him, warning him not to help Cunningham. Dr. Lao comes over and freezes them in their tracks and knocks them over. He escorts George away, and the thugs stand up, confused when he waves his hand towards them.
The next morning, Ed rides his scooter out to the site of the circus, where a white-furred giant is hammering in a tent spike. He runs off as Ed tries to chase him, and he soon meets an old man who claims to be Merlin the Magician. Soon, Dr. Lao is calling, and Merlin vanishes in a puff of smoke. Dr. Lao comes from the other side of the tent and welcomes Ed to the circus. Ed confronts him about how he found that Panohai had ceased to exist thousands of years ago. Dr. Lao assures Ed that he bears no ill will or malice towards the town and invites him to come and see the circus, and Ed leaves.
Later that day, we see Dr. Lao putting up posters in town, and he meets Mike. The boy asks him all sorts of questions and Lao invites him and his family to the circus as his guests.
That night, everyone in town comes to see the show. The Snowman opens the show by starting the calliope, and walks behind a curtain. Dr Lao comes out (the other side) with a gong that makes different animal sounds and welcomes his guests and collects ticket money. Stark ominously tells his men to go in, wait about 45 minutes and then leave. Dr. Lao’s voice is heard through the tents, describing some of the acts and attractions.
Mrs. Cassan (Lee Patrick), the town busybody and spinster goes to have her fortune told by Apollonius of Tyana. He warns her that she might not like what she hears, but she’s determined to hear it all. He tells her that her life will ultimately have no meaning, that she will never remarry and that the fortune she spent on land in hopes of finding oil was wasted. He apologizes, saying it is his curse to tell only the absolute truth. As she runs out of the room crying, we see him running his hand on the table for her money, showing that he is in fact, blind.
Angela bumps into Mrs Cassan who tells her the exact opposite of what she was told, much to the disappointment of Dr. Lao, who emerges from the fortune teller’s room. He approaches Angela, asking if she’s enjoying herself, and that she can find her mother-in-law over in another room. He holds up what looks like a Pan flute as he runs in the opposite direction. Angela walks into a room bearing a banner that reads “Pan”. When she enters, the rest of the banner unfurls revealing the words “God of Joy”. Here, she encounters Pan who startles her. As she tries to leave, he begins to play a tune on the Pan flute and she seems to be frozen in place. Suddenly, Pan’s misshapen form changes into Ed, who continues to play the tune and dances around her like a whirling Dervish. She gasps and undoes her collar, as she begins to perspire and clench her throat. When he suddenly stops, he plucks a grape and begins to feed it to her, drawing her lips close to his. Suddenly, Dr. Lao’s voice comes overhead and a group of people come in. Suddenly, as if a spell had been broken, Angela sees him for what he is and runs out, scared and completely disheveled.
She bumps into Mr. Stark, who then enters the room marked “The Giant Serpent”. Inside, he finds a thorned, wooden cage, containing the Serpent, who begins to talk to him. The snake bears a strong resemblance to him, and he says that the Circus is like a mirror, for people to see themselves, or how others see them. The snake calls him by name and tells him that he knows he has secrets and suspicions. At that moment, his men come in and tell him he has ‘nothing to worry about’ as far as the paper goes. Stark hurries them out, hissing at the snake.
Soon we find a crowd gathered around the Doctor’s fishbowl, and he tells them that it’s not a fish, but a sea monster that he caught as a baby in a certain Loch in Scotland. He says that it has to stay wet or else he’ll grow to monstrous size and that its fondest wish is to eat Dr. Lao. Lao stops one of the thugs from taking it out of the water. He then turns everyone’s attention to the room containing Medusa, telling them the story of how she turned men to stone, and that she’s thousands of years old. The crankiest, most skeptical woman in town, Mrs. Lindquist (Minerva Urecal) decries it as fake and goes around the mirrored wall to see for herself, and sure enough is turned to stone.
As the crowd panics and runs out, her husband and a cowboy carry her outside and put her in their car. Merlin comes out (having just had a horribly bad magic act) and waving his wand, turns her back to normal. What’s more, she seems to be nice now. Meanwhile, at home, Angela can’t sleep as she can’t stop hearing the song that Pan played for her. Mike sneaks out and goes to see Dr. Lao to ask him for a job. Dr. Lao tells him he has no openings, but that he’s part of the Circus anyway, whenever he lets magic and wonder into his heart.
Meanwhile, Ed and Tim arrive back at the Star and find that everything’s been smashed. The press, the windows, the furniture and even Ed’s typewriter.They know Stark’s behind it, and they go out to get drunk. As they storm to the saloon, we see Dr. Lao’s shadow.
The next morning, After a night of drinking, Ed & Tim return to find the office as if nothing happened. They wonder if somehow Dr. Lao had something to do with it, and they start to get to work. Ed rides out to Stark’s ranch and hands him a copy of the day’s paper and leaves. Stark screams at his men, who have no explanation as to how anything could’ve gotten fixed in time. Ed then rides to the Circus to thank Lao, but is interrupted when Tim rides up, telling him that the townspeople are going to vote to sell out. Lao assures Ed that he should come to the final night of the Circus. That night, Angela finds Ed, and they both talk about being lonely, and it becomes obvious that her opinion of him has changed. We then see Stark talking to Apollonius who reveals that Stark knows that the train is due to come through Abalone, while nobody else does. THIS has been his secret – insider knowledge that he can use to reap a huge profit. He tells the seer that he wants to lose, but he knows that man’s greed will get the better of them and that he’ll win.
Dr. Lao then has a parade of the different acts come through the big top, everyone averting their eyes as Medusa passes by. She walks backwards, using her mirror to see where she’s going. As Pan rides the golden jackass, Angela hears the music again, and draws closer to Ed.
Dr. Lao then begins his tale, The Fall of the City. It’s the tale of a city called Woldercan. The scenes then appear over the crowd for all to see. They see that the people in the story all resemble themselves, and the stranger that comes among them, looks like Stark. Because they sell their homes and thus, their souls, God wipes them out.
While the stranger laughs, the audience sees the city being destroyed. As the lights go out, they all close their eyes and seem to fall asleep. The lights come up, and instead of the circus, they find themselves in the town hall, in time for the vote. They vote the sale down, and Stark comes forward and tells them he’s happy to hav lost and that they’ll all do well as the train is coming through.
A sandstorm then blows open the door, and everyone scatters. Ed takes Angela home, and they finally kiss and declare their love. Meanwhile, Stark’s men are drinking, saying that the boss went soft and that they should go take care of Dr. Lao, since it’s all his fault. They begin tearing curtains and breaking displays and then break the fishbowl. Just as Dr. Lao warned, within seconds the fish grows to enormous size and is indeed revealed to be the Loch Ness Monster (complete with bagpipes playing in the background).
Mike wakes Dr. Lao, telling him that his pet’s out of the bowl and that Stark’s men were wrecking things. Lao grabs a machine and his pipe and he and Mike run out into the night to find them. The monster chases the thugs off, terrifying them as it seems to grow the heads of the circus acts AND Dr. Lao out of its neck.
Dr. Lao reveals that the machine is a rain-maker and tries to light it with his pipe. The monster grabs him, and he drops his pipe. Mike takes it and lights the machine which shoots up a stream of fireworks, and sure enough a rainstorm starts up, shrinking the monster. Dr. Lao puts it into into his water filled hat, and takes Mike back to the circus.
The next day, Mike leads everyone to the circus, but everything is completely gone. Mike sees a dust trail and speeds after it. The only sign of Dr. Lao he finds are the three juggling balls that Merlin used, and he starts to juggle, telling Dr. Lao that he can do it.
We hear Dr. Lao repeat his speech to Mike – “Mike, the whole world is a circus. Every time you pick up a handful of dust and see not the dust, but a marvel, a mystery; Every time you say, “I’m alive and being alive is fantastic.” Every time such a thing happens, you are part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.” as he rides off, literally fading into the sunset.
I discovered this film in the 80s, when I saw scenes from it in a documentary on producer/director George Pal’s fantasy films. Until then, I’d only seen his TIME MACHINE and WAR OF THE WORLDS. As soon as I saw it, I loved it. It’s since become one of my favorite films. I love how it shows not only the obvious lessons that the townspeople each learn, but that you should never judge things by mere appearance. This is obvious, from our first view of Dr. Lao, seeming to be the stereotypical Chinese immigrant of old movies, complete with broken English, and mispronunciations. We then hear him speak perfect English, with almost a hint of a British accent. When Ed calls him on that, Lao says that it comes and goes, and then talks in broken English again. When he’s talking about the Loch Ness Monster, he does so with a Scottish brogue. When he first meets Mike, he pretends to not speak English, but soon speaks like an American to the boy when he tells Lao that he knows the old man can speak English.
Sadly, this film is often cited in tirades about non-Asian actors playing Asian parts. I feel that this objection is incorrect here, as Randall plays characters of different races, species AND genders. As for Lao himself, we’re never told flat out, he’s the others, though it seems obvious from all the visual clues. But it’s MORE than merely changing his appearance each time. He is almost absorbed by each of the personae. As Apollinius, he actually is blind.
Until earlier this year, Dr. Lao was out of print. Warner Archive has released it as part of its highly successful video made-on-demand program. Under the Archive Collection banner, like earlier release tom thumb, re-releases are made from the previous version’s source disc, and have the full features of a normal release.
Once more, they utilized the original poster art in the cover which ALWAYS is a winner. The side and back are the standard Warner Archive format, which I personally like. I like how the blue spines with orange logos look on my shelf; Nice and cohesive.
The menus are very easy to use and look nice. After about 30 seconds of the theme playing, the movie starts automatically.
Nice extras on here, left over from the last pressing of the DVD. Some are very basic, but a nice trailer and a neat featurette on William Tuttle.
The included featurette is called William Tuttle: King of Duplicators, showing how make-up wizard Tuttle goes about creating special make-ups for the biggest stars at MGM in the 50s and 60s.
The video is 16×9 widescreen and 1.85:1 . The video quality is good, but slightly grainy and a little dark. I don’t have too much of a problem with it though, since as far as I know, it’s never gone through the restoration process. The sound is exceptional, even though it’s in Dolby Digital Mono. There is only an English soundtrack, but it has English and French subtitles. It played with no problem on both my 5 year old DVD player and my HP Pavilion G Notebook*. The disc is a DVD-R (as are all Archive Collection made-on-demand program releases), with the art from the previous release nicely utilized upon it.
I give this release 4 out of 5 ‘Jaggies’, for a nice package, some nice extras and great sound, but they need to do a restoration on this film, as they did with THE HYPNOTIC EYE to get a much better picture quality. Still, you should definitely get this, as it’s a quality family film in this day of films that have no business being ‘G-Rated’. Enjoy!
Make sure to visit their site at http://www.warnerarchives.com
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*- There is a note on the back which states that the disc is designed to work in ‘play only’ devices and may not work in DVD recorders or PC drives.