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November 10, 2005

Seven Faces of Dr. Lao

George Pal - 1964
Turner Classic Movies

I am one of those obsessive types that often feels the need to see films that I missed during childhood for one reason or another. In some cases I was frankly too young to see the film in question. There were also those films that never made it to a theater near me. One of the things I like about cable channels like TCM as well as DVDs is that I can see films that unseen would haunt me for years.

I had wanted to see Seven Faces of Dr. Lao when it came out. I even read Charles Finney's novel in preperation. George Pal made a big impression on me when I saw The Time Machine in a theater at the age of eight. I also saw The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm in three screen Cinerama. For a while, I thought Yvette Mimieux was the most beautiful woman in the world. Dr. Lao came and went, completely bypassing the theaters of Evanston, Illinois, where I lived at the time.

The film has a similar set up to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked this way Comes. A mysterious traveling show appears in a small town. The residents confront truths about themselves as part of the "entertainment". Dr. Lao is the kinder, gentler version of the story, with the characters emerging with relatively painless life lessons. The only reason to see the film now is for the pleasure of watching Tony Randall taking on the parts of Dr. Lao and all six of his circus performers. Although the title character starts off as a stereotype, the image is undermined with Randall deliberately going in and out of accent. Randall also demonstrates a lithe physicality that one wishes other filmmakers had exploited. Randall seems to know that Dr. Lao and his message that "Life is a circus" verge on hokiness, but his joy of performing is his real message. Of course the real Chinese magician of this film was Pal collaborator Wah Chang.

What I didn't know until I saw Dr. Lao was that Tony Randall was MGM's choice to star. George Pal wanted Peter Sellers who became a major star in 1964. Sellers was hilarious co-starring with Terry-Thomas in Pal's Tom Thumb in 1958 as a bumbling thief. Pal wanted Sellers as one of the Grimm brothers opposite Alec Guinness. Instead, Pal got Laurence Harvey and Karl Boehm, both good, but no explanation as to why only one brother has a German accent. During this time, MGM approved Sellers for Kubrick's Lolita. Maybe Pal was easier to push around for casting decisions as he didn't get his first choice for The Time Machine either, a then unknown Paul Scofield.

Maybe it was Pal's nature to be ahead of the curve in casting matters as he was in subject matter. In some ways, Steven Spielberg's career has been the CGI remake of Pal's hand tooled films, whether directly as with War of the Worlds and the inclusion of Gene Barry and Ann Robinson from Pal's version, or indirectly, with Doc Savage as a rough model for Indiana Jones. Spielberg is reportedly set to produce a new version of the Pal produced When Worlds Collide. The effects will probably be more realistic and convincing with computer, but unlike Pal's films, they really won't seem special.

Posted by peter at November 10, 2005 06:51 PM