Weird Western: 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)


First things first: 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a film largely done in yellowface. The character Dr. Lao is some sort of immortal trickster, but the persona he takes first and most often is a cliched old Chinese man.

The role was originally intended for Peter Sellers, whose dark ethnicity (he was Jewish) and brilliance with characterizations netted him a lot of roles he ought not have played, including an Indian man in "The Party," a Chinese detective in "Murder by Death," and Fu Manchu in "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu." Sellers was a keen enough after to avoid outright caricature, or at least to satirize it, but, still, yellowface is yellowface.

Reportedly MGM passed on Sellers, preferring an American actor to pretend to be Chinese, for some reason. So Tony Randall was hired.

For the record, Randall was a delightful actor whose classical training and sardonic sensibility mostly pushed him into roles where he was either prissy (as in "The Odd Couple") or gay (as in the television show "Love, Sidney.") But he was capable of great breadth of characterization, and "7 Faces of Dr. Lao" is a showcase for this.

The story tells of a Western town that is moments away from being abandoned by its minuscule population thanks to the scheming of the local millionaire (Arthur O'Connell): He alone knows the town will soon have a train running by it, which will cause its fortunes to explode, and so he is buying out the locals.

He is opposed by the local newspaperman (John Ericson), who has an unrequited and slightly bullying crush on the town librarian (Barbara Eden, trying, and failing, to look mousy.) Everything changes when a mysterious circus comes to town, led by Dr. Lao and containing a collection of creatures drawn from myth, including Merlin the magician, the gorgon, a satyr, and a yeti. All are played by Randall.

To Randall's credit, he follows Seller's lead and tries to produce a performance that satirizes and also undermines racist representations of Chinese characters. Most tellingly, he frequently drops a put-on Chinese accent in favor of his normal dulcet tones, signaling that Dr. Lao, like all the other characters he plays, is a mask worn by some unexplained supernatural entity.

Were he played by an Asian actor, or were Dr. Lao not Asian, the film would be unambiguously charming. It's a George Pal production, and like all his films there is a handwrought quality to his fantasy — it resembled a puppet show more than a special effects film. Dr. Lao's tent is almost entirely made up of pieces of silk, but it is larger on the inside than the outside, full of little crannies where ancient myths dwell.

Barbra Eden stumbles into one, and there is a satyr there, playing a flute and dancing in circles, and she instantly starts sweating and loosening her clothes in a scene that feels a bit too frankly sexual for a children's film.

This is not the only scene that seems a bit too mature for a young audience. A jolly matron meets Apollonius of Tyana and asks about her future, and he predicts that she will never fall in love, never marry, and always be lonely. It's a scene of blunt cruelty.

And I like it. I always liked my children's fantasy to play by adult rules, and to play a little rough. I'd love to see a reimagined version of this, perhaps returning to the original novel by Charles G. Finney, in which the encounters between townspeople and monsters is more ambiguous and generally unresolved, and where the whole experience seems to move the Western town toward paganism, culminating in a virgin sacrifice.

But, for God's sake, cast a Chinese actor as Dr. Lao.

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