7 Faces of Dr. Lao/The Secret World of Dr. Lao (1964) **
I believe this is some kind of record. I could tell within the first ten seconds that I was absolutely going to hate 7 Faces of Dr. Lao/The Secret World of Dr. Lao. It isn’t an especially bad film, but this painfully corny family-oriented fantasy could still almost be used as a checklist of things that a movie can do to piss me off. It has broad and unimaginative ethnic humor, a laboriously uplifting moral, a romantic pairing of the “awwww... Isn’t that cute” school, and even a hypothetically adorable little blond boy who ends up running off after the Magical Stranger from Out of Town, begging to be brought along on whatever adventure lies on the far side of the closing credits. Ugh.
The mysterious Dr. Lao (Tony Randall, who underneath that admittedly pretty convincing makeup is about as Chinese as I am) arrives by donkey in the tiny Southwestern town of Abalone. (In our first look at him, he lights his pipe by using his thumb as a Zippo— it was then that I realized what a long, hard ride I had ahead of me.) Despite its idyllic appearance, Abalone is a troubled little hamlet. Its people are, for the most part, dissatisfied and unhappy with their lives, isolation and economic backwardness take a heavy toll on the life of the village, and a hard-hearted man by the name of Clinton Stark (Arthur O’Connell, from Fantastic Voyage and The Power) has used his ruthless business sense, along with his pre-existing wealth, to make himself the de facto ruler of Abalone, no matter who officially holds the title of mayor. At the moment, Stark’s main interest is in talking his fellow citizens into selling him literally all the land in Abalone. As he explains at a town meeting, the underground pipe that provides the town with all of its water is disintegrating rapidly, and the repairs are going to cost somewhere around $237,000. Keep in mind that this is apparently the second decade of the 20th century we’re dealing with here, and you’ll understand just what a stupendous amount of money that is. Since there’s no way the people of Abalone will be able to come up with that kind of cash, the town is pretty much doomed, and Stark pitches the sale of the land as an opportunity to get while the getting is good. What he isn’t telling his neighbors is that a railroad is going to be built right through the area in only a couple of months, which will have the effect not only of revitalizing Abalone, but of providing a source of revenue for the repairs to the pipe— the railroad company is going to have to buy or lease the land on which it intends to lay its tracks, after all.
The only person in Abalone who is neither impressed nor intimidated by Clinton Stark is newspaperman Edmund Cunningham (John Ericson, from The Bamboo Saucer and Slave Queen of Babylon). This stands to reason, because Cunningham hails originally from one of the big cities back east, and has thus presumably seen much worse than Stark come and go more times than he can count. The long and short of it is that Edmund’s paper (at which he wears the hats of writer, editor, reporter, and just about everything else) can be counted on to feature a story or editorial taking a strong anti-Stark line in practically every edition. While he’s not squaring off against his arch-nemesis, Cunningham devotes his time to wooing the local librarian, Angela Benedict (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’s Barbara Eden), who professes to have no interest in or patience for him whatsoever. Not that that stops him, or anything. Edmund Cunningham is also the first person in Abalone whom Dr. Lao wants to see. Evidently the doctor is a circus proprietor (nevermind the obvious fact that there’s no room for tents, acrobats, or animal acts on the back of his donkey), and he’s going to be setting up shop just outside of town in a couple of days. With that in mind, he wants to place full-page ads in Cunningham’s paper advertising said circus tomorrow and the day after.
Lao’s circus, which features such acts as Apollonius the fortune-teller, Merlin the magician, the Abominable Snowman, the satyr-god Pan, a descendant of the gorgon Medusa, and a huge, talking snake— all of them really avatars of Lao himself (and all of them played or at least voiced by Tony Randall, though you'll need sharp eyes to pick up on that)— ends up being the device by which all the big conflicts in Abalone are resolved. As the various characters encounter Lao’s various alter-egos, they have the personal failings that cause so much trouble in their lives exposed to their attention, and become motivated to find ways around them. Angela, for example, is forced to face and overcome the fear of loss that has been her romantic undoing ever since the death of her husband some years before, when Pan takes on the dead man’s features and comes on to her. The shrewish wife of a put-upon Norwegian immigrant softens up after she is temporarily turned to stone by the gorgon’s gaze. Even that rat-bastard Stark sees the error of his ways, although it takes the combined efforts of both Apollonius and the giant serpent (which appears to Stark wearing his own face— how's that for subtlety?) to do the job in his case. His buyout proposal is defeated when put to a vote at a the next town meeting, and Stark goes so far as to come clean about the railroad that's soon to be built.
In its defense, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a very well made film. Its big selling point— the seven faces of the title— is an especially fine piece of work, even though it really amounts to little more than showing off on the part of the special effects crew. The acting is also reasonably good all around, despite the lack of any real standout performances. But in the truest tradition of Production Code-era MGM movies, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is insultingly pedantic and almost unbearably maudlin. Except for those scenes in which some strikingly unfunny situational gag or other is the center of attention, the entire film takes a finger-wagging, “listen close, boy— I’m trying to teach you something here” tone. Anybody who would score above dull normal on an IQ test will have gotten wise to the moral of the story by the time two or three of the townspeople have been introduced, but the filmmakers continue belaboring the point for another hour and change anyway. The superficially similar Something Wicked This Way Comes does a much better job of using essentially the same device to get its message across, and does so without giving the impression that it’s talking down to its audience.