Seven Faces of Dr. Lao
In the midst of the Depression, a traveling circus featuring mythical beasts like Medusa and the Abominable Snowman arrives unexpectedly in the remote town of Abalone, Arizona. The ringmaster, an elderly Chinese man named Dr. Lao, invites the townspeople to see his show but the strange attractions they encounter there have a life-altering effect on the community.
Part fantasy, part allegory, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) is based on a rather dark and pessimistic novel by Charles Finney, a former proofreader turned novelist from Tucson, Arizona. The original book, The Circus of Dr. Lao, was Finney's first effort and created a literary sensation upon publication. Years later screenwriter Charles Beaumont put together a film treatment of it which was more lighthearted in tone but had no success peddling it to studios until he worked with producer/director George Pal on The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962). When Pal asked Beaumont if he had any favorite film projects he had been unable to sell, Beaumont pulled out his draft of the Finney story and the director was immediately hooked.
Peter Sellers was Pal's first choice for the role of Dr. Lao and the actor was extremely excited about starring in the film since it enabled him to play multiple characters. However, MGM studio executives were more interested in Tony Randall for the part so Pal conceded to their wishes and never regretted the choice once production began.
While 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is worth seeing for Tony Randall's tour-de-force performance alone as Dr. Lao (he also appears as featured attractions in the circus), it is Bill Tuttle's fantastic makeup creations and Jim Danforth's special visual effects that make the film unique in the history of fantasy cinema.
To create Dr. Lao and his weird menagerie, Bill Tuttle first made watercolors of each of the seven characters. Then he made a plaster cast of Randall's head which he used as a mold to build all the separate heads of each character, eventually casting all the facial pieces in sponge rubber for future application with spirit gum. At this point, Tony Randall said (in The Films of George Pal by Gail Morgan Hickman), "He then went to work on me. He shaved my head and eyebrows. Socially, it was a disaster. The effect gave me an unborn look. But professionally it was a masterstroke. All of my preconceived notions on how I would play the characters vanished. As soon as Tuttle applied his makeup magic, I felt myself actually become these strange people...I had green plastic lenses for the Medusa, blue for the Apollonius of Tyana, and old Merlin had the faded-washed-out light blue. They were extremely uncomfortable to wear because they were so big. They covered not just the pupil as ordinary contact lenses do but the entire iris of the eye..every makeup would take about two hours to put on, and on some days, I'd be in three different makeups."
Not surprisingly, Tuttle received an honorary Oscar for his remarkable makeup achievements in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Jim Danforth was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects in the same film due to the amazing transformation sequence of a goldfish into the Loch Ness Monster. Instead, the Academy Award went to Mary Poppins. Danforth would once again be nominated for his special effects work in 1970 for When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. It should also be noted that while Tony Randall received billing as all seven characters, the Abominable Snowman was actually played by George Pal's son, Peter.
Producer/Director: George Pal
Screenplay: Charles G. Finney (novel The Circus of Dr. Lao), Charles Beaumont, Ben Hecht (uncredited) Art Direction: George W. Davis, Gabriel Scognamillo
Cinematography: Robert Bronner
Film Editing: George Tomasini
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Tony Randall (Dr. Lao/Merlin/Pan/Abominable Snowman/Medusa/Giant Serpent/Apollonuis of Tyana/Audience member), Barbara Eden (Angela Benedict), Arthur O¿onnell (Clint Stark), John Ericson (Ed Cunningham/transformed Pan), Noah Beery Jr. (Tim Mitchell)
C-100m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford