Produced and Directed by George Pal
Noah Beery Jr.
The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you're tired, comes up when you want to be on the move. That's real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it. Oh, my boy, that's... that's circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. 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, you're part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.
When Dr. Lao was initially released in 1964, it came and went through the theaters like a wisp of smoke with little fanfare and not much notice. But I certainly remember it. Wouldn’t any kid of 11 who was lucky enough to see this wondrous circus brought to life? It had just about everything an eleven year old kid would want in a movie: fantasy, magic, magicians, a man that was half animal, a blind fortune teller, mysterious unexplainable magic, and a fish out of water like you’ve never seen before or since.
As an adult, I appreciate the film even more. After all of these years and quite a few viewings, I take pure delight in the work put into this by George Pal which makes this film the fantasy classic it has become. If you have never met Dr. Lao (Tony Randall) now is as good of a time as any for you to become acquainted.
In the sleepy Western town of Abalone a stranger arrives. He appears to be of Chinese descent, is riding what looks like a golden burro and his only possessions seem to be a small fish swimming in a goldfish bowl and a pipe that he magically lights with his thumb. Dr. Lao has come to Abalone to place an ad in the local newspaper to entice the good citizens to come watch his enchanged circus where they will witness strange and mysterious phenomenon.
The newspaper is owned by Ed Cunningham (John Ericson) and is operated with help from his friend Tim Mitchell (Noah Beery Jr.) But before Dr. Lao can place the order for his ad, Clint Stark (Arthur O’Connel), who seems to own everything and everybody in some form or fashion, stops by to brighten everybody’s day. Please note the sarcasm in that last sentence.
We soon find out that Stark is intent on buying out every home in town at the same time that Ed is writing editorials trying convince the town citizenry not to sell. Stark claims he just wants to help everyone, but make no mistake about it. He’s not spending thousands of his money to be named philantrophist of the year.
Ed also has a romantic interest in the town’s widowed librarian, Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden). I think all widowed women in movies from the sixties had to be the town librarian and they were also inclined to be somewhat frigid. I think there was some kind of rule about it. But as you’ll find out, being frigid is not one of Angela’s problems.
The second rule is that the widow is not allowed to be in love with the guy who is in love with her. The usual reason for this is that said widow is still pining after her dead husband and she doesn’t think any man can ever take his place or be her a father to her child. Either that or she doesn’t really trust the guy who is making a play for her. This is known as The Music Man Rule and was first instituted by Shirley Jones as Marian the Librarian. Hmm…guess you haven’t seen that classic film either.
Later that evening at a town meeting, Stark informs the citizenry that the main water line is breaking down and that it will cost over $200,000 to replace. I don’t know how much that would equal to these days when adjusted for inflation and currency value, but my guess is it would be about $200 gazillion billion. Obviously we’re not talking about chump change here. Instead of everyone having to foot the bill for a new waterline, Stark has offered to buy their homes. He says it’s because at heart, he is just a misunderstood good guy. Yeah, and have you heard about the bridge I’m selling called the Golden Gate?
Everybody in town seems to be willing to hand over the deeds to their property right there and then, but two people at the meeting doth protest. You don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to guess which two. Enter stage right, Ed and Angela.
Begrudgingly Stark gives everybody a couple of days to make up their minds, which coincidentally is the exact amount of time that Dr. Lao’s circus will be in town to conjure up a little magic.
Did I say a little magic? You better make that a few dump truck loads of magic to brighten up the day of the miserable inhabitants of this Western Version of Hooterville. Except for the aforementioned Librarian and family and the two newspaper guys, these people are a miserable lot. You have to almost wonder why someone like Dr. Lao would even want to waste his time on them. Call it the Mary Poppins Rule: Those that may not seem to be beyond redemption are never a lost cause. There are clues here and there that perhaps these folks weren’t always so lonely, miserable, and bitter. Time and misfortune can really wear you down.
It is here that we meet the other faces of Dr. Lao including The Abominable Snow Man, Merlin, Medusa, The Giant Serpent, Apollonius of Tyana, and Pan. The terrific makeup by William Tuttle won a special academy award helps but make no mistake about it. It is Tony Randall who breathes life into these characters making them much more what they what they would be otherwise. I honestly think this is easily his finest film role, way moreso than the many times he played second fiddle to Rock Hudson and Doris Day, although he was always very good in those films as well.
Each characte in Dr. Lao’s Circus interacts in one way or another with the inhabitants of Abalone. Who, how, and why, depends on which citizen they are dealing with, their motives, their life, and their personality. The result is not always pleasant and not everybody can be redeemed.
We are given a clue as to the real purpose of Dr. Lao’s circus when one woman has her fortune told by Apollonius. It is his curse to not only tell fortunes but he must always tell the truth. It is perhaps my favorite scene in the film, because what he tells the woman, applies not only to her but to so many others. For a moment, we take a small amount of delight in seeing this annoying woman being told the reality of her existence. But by the time Apollonius has finished, we feel only pity.
The wonders of Dr. Lao’s exhibits is that they mirror those who dare to interact with them. Not a superficial reflection, but an insight into who they are, their motives, and for what purpose they live. Stark, learns this better than anybody. When being chastized by a serpent, he discovers that he is the one whom has built a cage around himself. And in a visit to Appalonius, is forced to confront his own cynical view of mankind behind this attempted takeover Abalone.
It is during a visit with Pan that Angela Benedict is forced to confront not only her true feelings towards Ed Cunningham, but her pent up desires as well. The scene is as suggestive, seductive, and as steamy as it could bet in a film such as this in 1964. As a kid, I’m sure that this little confrontation went right over my head. . How was I to know he was doing more with that flute than playing some snappy music? But I sure get it now. Yet, they share very little if any physical contact during the scene. Barbara Eden has never ever done been better. There certainly wasn't anything similar when she was wearing a harem outfit on I Dream of Jeanie.
And yes, the message the film is trying to entail is obvious to anybody who is watching. But maybe it’s the obvious ones that we often need to be reminded of because sometimes we can’t see exactly what is right in front of our nose. It’s really a shame that this movie was never given the credit it deserved at the time of its release. Because of that, George Pal was never given another chance to direct. It is a classic in every sense of the
Ifyou’ve never seen the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and if you enjoy a well made fantasy film that is not just potatoes, but includes the meat and gravy as well, this may just turn out to be your cup of tea. It was not only my cup, but it was the cream in my coffee as well. So when a fantasy film magically puts all these ingredients together, I have no choice but to give it my grade which is an enchanted A.