Greetings, friends & neighbors.
Ye Olde Dragon here to address the folks attending the #TCMParty showing of George Pal’s 7 FACES OF DR LAO (1964) who have never seen it before.
There are two matters I wish to try to prep you on. These are probably the most often asked questions I get when someone sees it for the first time:
1) Is this character a stereotype?
Yes & No. You need to think of it IN CONTEXT. The film takes place in late 1800s – early 1900s Arizona. The trains are not even running everywhere yet, and as seen in other films (both fictional and fact) many Chinese laborers worked on said railroad. Also, and perhaps more importantly, Dr Lao speaks differently almost every time we see him. The reason he speaks the stereotypical broken English, is because of the date and locale, he speaks to the locals as they EXPECT him to speak. We are quick to find out that he is much more than meets the eye, however.
2) Why is a Chinese character being played by a white actor?
This film has sadly (and unjustly, IMHO) been included in the ‘moral outrage’ of the old Hollywood practice of having whites playing Asian parts, among the likes of Mickey Rooney’s character in Blake Edward’s BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) & Marlon Brando’s in Daniel Mann’s TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON (1956). There is a very important piece of the puzzle being forgotten by the ‘outraged’ individuals when it comes to Tony Randall’s portrayal of Dr Lao. He’s not only playing Dr Lao, but 6 additional characters that Dr Lao himself turns into. Among these are an ancient British wizard (Merlin), a blind Greek prophet (Appolonius) and even a female character (Medusa). I’m sorry, but can anyone name an Asian actor who might’ve been able to handle that, working within the studio system still so prevalent in 1964?
The additional thing is, is that you’re not sure WHAT Dr Lao is, and that mystery is brought out so well in Randall’s performance. The thing to keep in mind is, these are not disguises he just ‘pops into’. He becomes these beings. The proof of this is that Appolonius truly cannot see the coin left for him on the table and only finds it when feeling for it. So it’s not a case of Lao’s ‘trickery’ but true ‘magic’.
I hope this might help some of you avoid the ‘moral outrage’ so often lobbed at this magical film.