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Junkfood Cinema: The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao

By  · Published on May 14th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; apology letters pending. You poor schmucks have stumbled upon the internet’s biggest affront to quality filmmaking. Every week I dig up one of my guiltiest of guilty pleasure films and proudly parade its faults all over the room while your eyeballs pay the ultimate price. These films aren’t…the best. But they offer enough redeeming qualities to make them incessantly watchable and that have allowed them to worm their way into my greasy heart. Just to add calories to injury, I will also pair each week’s film with an appropriate junkfood item on which you can gorge while you gut-check your own IQ.

This week we sample each of The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. This “kids” movie from 1964 tells the story of a mysterious Chinese man who wanders into a small town in the old west with his traveling circus. But Prof. Lao’s circus is unlike any you have seen before. He enlists the strangest characters and creatures he can find to wow audiences all over the globe. Not only that, but all who attend his circus usually find themselves learning valuable lessons in the process. Plus, Tony Randall gets to play 7 different people!!

What Makes It Bad?

I don’t know where to begin to penetrate the various strata of weirdness that is this film. It is one of the strangest films I think I’ve ever seen. First of all, it has no concept of its own audience. The abject silliness that runs rampant throughout and the fantastical moments of hocus pocus would suggest a film for children. The talking snake puppet is also a bit juvenile and Tony Randall is just too goofball-ish to not be playing to the kids. But then the film’s plot paints a strikingly different picture of its target demographic. The conflict at the center of the story revolves around land disputes and shady real estate developers. So if this is a kid’s film, it demonstrates a George Lucas sensibility of children’s fare (his excuse for Episode I was that it was made for kids…featuring a plot about trade embargoes).

As if that weren’t too lofty for the kids, just wait until we get to the weird, Something Wicked This Way Comes angle of the circus itself. There is a scene where a lonely old lady goes to see a fortune teller who, with deadpan solemness, informs her that she will never again meet a man and will die old and alone. It is not only a scene that would bore a child to tears, but made me want to put the business end of a shotgun in my mouth. But that was nowhere near as unsettling as the scene where Barbara Eden dances with Pan. She dances with the legendary half-man-half-goat of Greek lore who magically dons the face of her late husband and clearly gets her sexually aroused. I like Barbara Eden and all, she was quite the dish at that time, but I don’t need to see her getting hot and bothered over a goatboy and his magic flute.

The thing that really makes The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao so questionable is the titular character himself. Well, let me be more specific here. It’s not the character that makes the movie so dodgy, but rather Tony Randall’s more-than-offense portrayal of an Asian man. It’s as if Tony had a blueprint for racism and followed it to the letter with his fast-talking, half-witted, replacing l’s with r’s stereotype that could not possibly fail to offend. And what’s worse, it’s revealed to us during the course of the film that the character is completely bullshiting his Chinese facade and begins speaking in every accent imaginable from dopey cowboy to Scottish brogue. So if he’s not really Chinese, it makes it that much more offensive for him to be such a monument to prejudice. And again, being that a good deal of the film seems aimed at children, it was very bold of MGM to instill racism in the youth market before they were old enough to know where China is.

The movie ends in a truly hokey cautionary tale that is about as overstated as it gets. Right after an agonizingly childish moment wherein he shows the crowd his pet fish, Dr. Lao tells the fable of the city of Woldercan. Apparently this was a humble city corrupted by a rich man who offered them wealth if they would forsake their home and their god.The result, as you can imagine, was the god visiting a plague upon them that wiped their city from the Earth. The film goes so far as to insert the various townsfolk in the audience into the visual adaptation of the story as if the parallel weren’t painfully obvious already. It turns out to be the turning point for these simple, simple people and they change their wicked ways. The problem I have with this, beyond the fact that it harbors enough moral fiber to keep a man regular for a decade, is that it is a bit much considering the utter lack of wickedness. A savvy business man offers to buy up the tremendous debt of a failing town? Mutually beneficially apparently equals wicked.

Why I Love It!

There are moments in this film that are so whacked as to demand your attention. When I first saw this film, in the movie cave of fellow reject Adam Charles, we had to rewind certain scenes over and over to 1.) make sure we weren’t insane and those moments had actually just occurred and 2.) catch all the lines we had missed while engaged in gut-busting laughter. This film strives so hard to stand out amongst the family fare of the time that it overshoots it mark and ends up in the universe of lunacy. I’m not sure I can adequately dissect the insanity of this film so I shall allow you to assign your own assumptions as I describe a scene.

There is a moment wherein a young boy in town is pleading to Dr. Lao to allow him to join the circus to escape his troubled life. Dr. Lao, in a moment of sincere empathy, explains to him how he needs to stay and take care of his mother. He assures the boy that as long as he is in Dr. Lao’s heart, he will always be a part of the circus. The boy pauses, and through his tears states that he doesn’t understand. At which time Dr. Lao leapfrogs over him and shouts, “neither do I!” He then commences in a silly dance to a chorus of silly music. The boy flinches and then joins the dance with no apparent memory of the conversation in which they were previously engaged. It is the single cheapest writer’s block parachute I have ever seen. However I am now filled with the inescapable desire to end all my difficult conversations in just such a manner.

As incendiary as Randall’s Dr. Lao tends to be, his numerous performances are truly impressive. It is clear from the get-go that Randall is not half-assing this project as he throws himself entirely into each of the varied characters he is playing. I think his fortuneteller, as morose as he is, offers the best example of his acting talent. Hell even some of his most amiable moments are when he’s in the guise of Dr. Lao…just not when he’s also doing that horrendous Chinese accent. I think the most unusual however has to be Randall as the gorgon Medusa because he looks like a very disgruntled drag queen with a snake wig. This movie actually received an honorary Oscar for the special makeup effects employed to turn one actor into seven outlandish characters and with good reason. I did find it funny that at one point, during a crowd reaction shot, we see an undisguised Tony Randall sitting in the audience with a look of total disgust on his face. Hilarious!

The Loch Ness monster scene at the end is a heck of a lot of fun. It’s not the most technically proficient use of stop motion effects, even for its time, but it offers some laughs. It’s also the scene that most seems designed to inspire the amusement of younger audiences. A tiny fish grows into a huge monster, attacks a pair of cowboys, and is thwarted by a storm brought on by fireworks! What’s not to love?

Junkfood Pairing: Chinese Buffet

That’s right my Junk Brood, as ludicrous as it sounds I am advocating going out for dinner tonight. Get yourself to the nearest, dingiest, most questionable Chinese buffet your strip mall has to offer and let your culinary inhibitions go. The more questionable the establishment, the more likely it is that you could put together a combination of seven items that have no business cohabiting on the same plate. For example, and I’ve seen this in real life, sweet and sour chicken, beef lo mein, hotdogs, chicken chow mein, pizza, fried shrimp, and corn on the cob. If you fashion an impression of China from looking down at the dubious collection of foods before you then you have learned exactly as much of their culture as if you based your assumption on Tony Randall’s performance.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.