Carnival of Souls – Rediscovering ‘7 Faces of Dr. Lao’ (US 1964 – 100 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - March 03, 2016
Carnival of Souls – Rediscovering ‘7 Faces of Dr. Lao’ (US 1964 – 100 mins)

Although I have never been a big fan of fantasy movies, I’ve always enjoyed the colourful drama ‘7 Faces of Dr Lao’, which is at times a dark but mostly charming tale of how a troubled community learns some valuable life lessons from an unlikely source.

At the same time that the residents of a small western town are voting on whether to sell their homes to a corrupt investor (Arthur O’Connell), elderly Chinaman Dr. Lao (Tony Randall) suddenly arrives in town with his mysterious circus. Through various mythical character changes, the impressionable Dr. Lao is soon spreading his wisdom, while changing the lives of some of the town’s most troubled inhabitants, including a young widow (Barbara Eden) and her son.

A box office failure at the time, ‘7 Faces of Dr. Lao’ has rightly gained cult status over the years. In a role intended for Peter Sellers, I’ve always wondered why Tony Randall disliked this movie, as he was superb, playing these multiple characters with ease. Among them, Merlin the magician, Medusa, and even the Abominable Snowman. Arthur O’Connell had a rare villain role as the unscrupulous land baron Clint Stark, and Barbara Eden was quite lovely as the repressed librarian Angela Benedict, a year before hitting the big time with ‘I Dream of Jeannie’. The rest of the supporting cast were also excellent, with various townsfolk played by such greats as John Qualen, Noah Beery Jr, and Royal Dano. Tony Randall did appear briefly as himself towards the end, I guess to remind the audience that it was him behind all the disguises.

This was to be the final movie directed by Hungarian animator and Producer George Pal, who originally intended to make a sequel, but when the movie bombed, decided against it. William Tuttle received a special Oscar for his remarkable character make-up, while the special effects by Jim Danforth also received a nomination (‘Mary Poppins’ won). Charles Beaumont wrote the wonderful screenplay, which he adapted from Charles G Finney’s 1935 novel ‘The Circus of Dr. Lao’.

My favourite scene is the one where the self-important Mrs Cassin (an outstanding Lee Patrick) has her fortune told by Dr. Lao’s soothsayer Apollonius. At the time, I found this scene both dark yet smile-inducing, as he quietly puts her in her place. But it’s only later on that I realised how devastating a scene this is, and what consequences this could have had on her after hearing such a stream of brutal home truths. While most of Lao’s characters are memorable, I’ve never liked the Pan character, who I found both creepy and annoying, although it certainly got Barbara Eden hot under the collar!

With its impressive special effects, thought-provoking screenplay incorporating both comedy and tragedy, ‘7 Faces of Dr. Lao’ has much to appeal to both adults and children alike. It’s also a great reminder of how talented an actor Tony Randall was, as his characters take on numerous personas including sad, funny, touching and scary. A magical movie that easily holds up with repeat viewings, it’s a rare and unique one-off.

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