Monday, February 4, 2008

The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao

"The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao" (George Pal, 1964) One of those movies I wanted to see as a kid, but never got the chance. An ersatz Western directed by film-fantasist George Pal ("The War of the Worlds," "The Time Machine") with a screenplay by the mordantly sunny Charles Beaumont, responsible for many of the best mind-twisting "Twilight Zone" episodes. Dr. Lao is the "Mysterious Stranger" who comes into the troubled town of Abalone with a circus that exposes truth, shines a light on hypocrisy, and turns lives around. One might be a bit off-put by Lao's initial pigeon-English, but it's as epehemeral as everything else about Dr. Lao, for he's not any nationality ("He looks like a 'Jap' to me" "Naw, he's more Chinese" "How d'you know that?" "'Cause I'm not stupid!"), sticks to no dialect or any sex, for that matter--if he's made of matter, at all! One should be more concerned with the idea that a "Good Man" will unstarch the collar of the Local School-Marm, except that this transformation (by the Circus' "Pan") leaving Barbara Eden sweating and panting is bravurely provocative for a G-rated kid's film. That's something Disney wouldn't try! Everything turns nicely-nicely at the end, but there is trauma along the way to balance it. Tony Randall plays Lao beneath all sorts of William Tuttle (another "TZ" alum) make-up that doesn't hamper the elasticity of his performance, and as a kind of bow/acknowledgement he appears in the circus audience gravely shaking his head.

But back to Beaumont. Check out this thesis speech delivered in low reverent tones by Randall:

"The whole world is a circus, if you know how to look at it. The way the sun
goes down when you're tired, and 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 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 a part of the
Circus of Dr. Lao."

That is heavy stuff, delivered in an intoxicating rhythm and smoothness of tone--it's joy mounting as the commonness of the examples increases, getting down to the dirt. That's a great speech. And as Beaumont could be dark in tone, his words could excite and throw apart any veil of despair. But even if that speech gets a little heavy, Beaumont has the cure. "I don't understand," the child answers. Lao grabs the top of his head and leaps over it. "Neither do I!" he exults, and begins a high-kicking dance. Life is too wonderful to spend your time saying how wonderful it is. Use it. Dance!

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