“This is the Circus of Dr. Lao. We show you things that you don’t know. Oh, we spare no pains and we spare no dough, but we’re going to give you one helluva show!”
And the Good Doctor certainly did, thanks to the boundless imagination of producer-director George Pal, the cutting-edge script from Twilight Zone veteran Charles Beaumont, and of course MGM’s remarkably talented makeup wizard, William Tuttle, whose efforts for this film earned him a Special Achievement Oscar, long before Best Makeup ever became the more permanent category it is these days.
The story, based on the book by Charles Finney, takes place at the cusp of the early 1910’s. The setting is a small Arizona town named Abilone, whose inhabitants are facing a crisis that threatens the overall future of the town. The greater crisis, however, lies in the townsfolk’s own humanity, and the balance of our story follows Dr. Lao and his Circus as they transform that crisis into a better understanding.
At the heart of the town’s battle to survive is the personal conflict pitting newsman Ed Cunningham (John Ericson) against town shyster Clinton Stark (Arthur O’Connell). Only the intervention of the Circus will permit them to come to terms with who they really are, as opposed to who they should become. Ed has also fallen in love with Angela Benedict, the town librarian (Barbara Eden), and must confront his own passions for her while covering Dr. Lao’s Circus.
But when Angie’s young son Mike (Kevin Tate) befriends Dr. Lao, the film is strengthened with its greatest wisdom, one that is best explored when the entire family watches this film. “The whole world is a circus if you learn to look at it the right way,” the seven-millennia-old Dr. Lao reminds his new friend. “Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a miracle, right there in your hands — every time you stop to think, ‘I’m alive, and being alive is fantastic!’ — every time such a thing happens, Mike, only then are you part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.”
Even today, I still shed a tear when I see this film, especially during the scene in which Lao summons Merlin the Magician to perform for the good folks of Abilone. Most of them have pretty much lost their ability to believe in magic. But not Mike Benedict. How can you not be moved to tears when you see Merlin tenderly embracing the lad, to thank him for having believed in the wonder of Magic?
The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is one of the few quintessential examples of the astounding range of Tony Randall’s acting versatility…. a versatility we will most certainly miss…. and most certainly remember.
As my Wizardly alter ego Blackwolf will tell you, that one scene — Merlin’s magic show — holds a special place in the hearts of all Magic-users. With the news of Tony Randall’s death having just gone out over the wires, I think fans of Dr. Lao will want another look at this remarkable little film that reminds us all how important it is to take a look at ourselves and our future. This is Dr. Lao’s greatest feat, and to accomplish it, he tells the tale of “The Fall of the City” to the townsfolk of Abilone. Using stock footage from George Pal’s Atlantis: The Lost Continent, interspersed with new footage featuring the Dr. Lao adult cast performing double duty as various Atlantean inhabitants, and the awesome strains of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor booming in the background, “The Fall of the City” sequence is a masterpiece of drama, and an inspiring reminder that life is worth the battle so long as you learn something from it.
Overall, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is that rare curiosity of a movie, the kind that has something to say, and says it eloquently without preaching or sensationalizing its subject matter. We should all thank Tony Randall for having taken on this unique, one-of-a-kind filmmaking challenge. That, I think, is why we will miss him most of all.