7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
Here we have a tale about a sleepy, little town of Abalone, Arizona. It is a town made up of greedy, small-minded, petty people who are boring and uncultured. They are faced with the offer to sell the whole town to a conniving — and greedier — rich man named Charles Stark, who has plans for Abalone that don’t include them. But, strange things begin to happen when a little, old Chinese man on a donkey with a fishbowl on its saddle rides into town. His name is Dr. Lao. His mysterious traveling circus will change the lives of all who venture beyond the flaps of the circus tent.
Ultimately, this film is a satire that exposes the foibles of the human animal. Tony Randall plays Dr. Lao and six other characters. The magical Dr. Lao is a fairly Lokian character. He bears with him profound lessons, secular wisdom, and many mysteries and secrets — all of which are revealed through the various characters he portrays in his strange circus. He is a master of illusion and a trickster. He seems to know the dark, hidden truths of the citizenry and of all humanity. As the fortune teller, Appollonius of Tyana, Dr. Lao stoically shatters the delusions of Mrs. Cassan — an ignorant, flirtatious old woman. He holds up the mirror of truth to her banality and pettiness — reflecting back to her what she refuses to believe and admit to herself. As Pan, Lao lets loose the dark, lustful desires hidden deep within a beautiful librarian named Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden). In the guise of a giant snake, he mockingly exposes Stark’s insecurities. As Medusa, he teaches a rude fat woman named Kate a deadly lesson, much to the horror of the townsfolk and Kate’s weak, timid husband Luther. Dr. Lao also takes on the guise of the Abominable Snowman and Merlin the Magician.
With much wisdom to impart, Dr. Lao views his mysterious and magical circus as a mirror that reflects the mysteries and realities of the world and life. He exposes the vileness, pettiness, ignorance, and greed of Abalone’s citizens. He manipulates and alters situations to enlighten the townsfolk or provoke change, often in funny and/or brutally truthful ways. Above all, life to him is a circus. Life to him is magical in itself and should be enjoyed, but with unclouded eyes and a wise mind. I find the little Chinese magician to be very much like Satan in many ways. For he views life and the world from a perspective that could be seen as the “third side.” He sees what lurks in the darkness of human nature and the human mind and believes in understanding what lies hidden within.
Replete with stereotypes and politically incorrect humor, I thought it to be an enjoyable film with subtle Satanic elements that become a little more obvious as the story unfolds. Though it was based on Charles Finney’s novel, Circus of Dr. Lao, it is quite different from the book, yet it still retains much of the wisdom and profound lessons of that wonderful tome. At first, children seem to be the targeted audience. But as the film goes on, there is much that surfaces that only adults can understand. Tony Randall did a great job at portraying a very likable and humorous character to watch.
[- Michael K. Silva]