Carnival of Latex

The red balloon.

7 FACES OF DR. LAO, an uncategorizable western fantasy from George THE TIME MACHINE Pal, achieves some of the grand, poetic, mysterious beauty it aims for, despite inexplicably looking like an episode of Star Trek much of the time — low-horizon prairie cyclorama sets alternating with overfilmed scrubland locales.

(Fellini claimed he felt surprise at seeing the Trevi Fountain still standing after he’d filmed it: like all sets, it should have been torn down after serving its purpose. And the camera is known to steal souls. By that logic, Bronson Canyon ought to have been erased by now, swept away by the camera pans restlessly caressing its boulders.)

I’m inclined to blame the cinematographer, Robert J. Bronner, an experienced MGM pro who did fine work on musicals like IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER and SILK STOCKINGS, but he employs the same bright, colourful look here — everybody else involved seems well aware that this is not, despite advertising to the contrary, a kids’ film*. What it needs are shadows, both to enhance mystery and to hide the cheapness of the sets. Few films would have benefitted more from black & white.

Pan pipes.

Or from Orson Welles behind the camera. George Pal is no Welles, but I don’t want to be harsh about him, because he got this made, and he occasionally pulls out just the right shots — as in the mad spinning of the Pan sequence. Sweaty, gasping Barbara Eden emotes hotly as the camera burls round her, and her POV is an incessant pan, following Pan, whose goat-legged prance is wonderfully antic and teasing but wouldn’t amount to anything were it not for the brazen eroticism of her performance…

I dream of Eden.

Whew. That’s one of the centrepiece good scenes, the others being the incredible, brutal demolition of a fading widow by the fortune-teller Appollonius, and the Giant Serpent’s take-down of bad guy Arthur O’Connell is equally harsh and memorable.

This is the original of what became Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (and then Stephen King’s It) but Charles G. Finney’s book (titled The Circus of Dr Lao) is sharper and weirder, since Lao’s circus is neither straightforwardly benign nor malign, it inhabits a Willie Wonka Wonderland of rather cruel magic working in the service of … what? Humanity? Or Dr Lao’s private amusement? Charles Beaumont, that excellent scribe of Twilight Zones and Corman Poes, softens Lao considerably and gives him a more linear mission statement, but traces of the original remain. In the most intriguing adaptations, not all the nails are knocked flat.

Pal’s performers are rather excellent. Eden does the buttoned-down librarian act rather well, but really throws herself into the unbuttoning. The Pan scene is about eroticism in a way that seems distinctly unusual, not just for a kid’s film, but for any mainstream Hollywood product. Sex is generally part of something else, love interest or plot point, to give it plausible deniability: this is about lust and frustration and how good/bad frustration feels.

THAT’S why I think of  Star Trek — the snowman could be the Salt Vampire’s twin!

Of course, Tony Randall is “the whole show.” With a series of excellent William Tuttle makeups (WT won an Oscar for this before the make-up Oscar actually existed) he plays Lao first as a crudely stereotyped “old Chinaman,” then with a standard American accent, suggesting that Lao is actually taking the mickey out of his listeners’ expectations, then with a series of disparate and mostly quite terrible accents — his Scottish one starts out sort of identifiable, at least, before morphing into (I think) Irish and (I think) Welsh. Rotten accents aside, it’s a terrific perf, or series of perfs: his abominable snowman is just a man in a suit; his Medusa is a memorable drag act, but basically just a single facial expression, Joan Crawford green lips parted in wickedness; but the sombre Apollonius, insinuating serpent (voice-work for a combined glove puppet and stop-motion creation), dithering Merlin and Lao are all exceptional characterisations. And we get a glimpse of the real T.R. too —

Holy crap, just realized that the shallow widow is Lee Patrick, Effie from THE MALTESE FALCON. (Somebody should write a series of detective novels about Effie. Well, they shouldn’t, but I’m surprised they haven’t.) We also get John Qualen, Miser Stevens from THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, doing one of his Yumping Yiminy turns.

Leigh Harline’s Chinese-Western score is very nice, and he finds, at last, a good use for the bagpipe: it makes the perfect sound to simulate the Loch Ness Monster inflating from minnow to plesiosaur — a combination of mass air-pumping, alien drone and screeching horror. Harline also scored Disney’s SNOW WHITE.

Nessie, animated by legend Jim Danforth, is a splendid creature, even if the optical work enabling her to interact with Royal Dano (who’s also in SOMETHING WICKED, oddly) and Tony Randall is distinctly sub-par, resulting not only in shimmering matte lines, but wild fluctuations of colour. Seems like rear projection would have worked better, but I don’t know if this problem was always apparent, or was caused by the film aging. Perhaps somebody out there can tell me? The other animation, on the Great Serpent, is remarkable for how smoothly integrated it is — most of the time, the serpent is a glove puppet, but for particularly tricky bits, like catching a cigar in his mouth, sucking it in and reversing it, he’s stop-motion.

And then there’s THIS psychedelic weird-out —

Young minds were warped… but then, that’s what they’re there for.


*It totally enthralled me as a kid, but that was because of its adult feeling, the sense of being let in on secrets normally forbidden to kids. Jan Svankmajer is very much opposed to the whole idea of films for children, feeling that they stifle imagination and infantilise us. His dream of an all-adult cinema is impossible, commercially, of course: the poor parents need something they can safely dump kids in front of without the momentary expectation of screeching trauma at the stuffed rabbit with the real tongue. What I’d settle for is kid-friendly films with adult themes — NOT a few adult in-jokes thrown in to divert the moms and dads, but actual issues dealt with in exactly as subtle and intelligent a way as we’d expect in good mature films. “But the kids won’t understand!” Yet kids cope with reality, on a day to day basis, without understanding that, either.

Let Lao explain it —

“The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you’re tired, comes up when you want to be on the move. That’s real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it. Oh, my boy, that’s… that’s circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand. Every time you stop and think, “I’m alive, and being alive is fantastic!” Every time such a thing happens, you’re part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.”

Kid: “I don’t understand.”

Lao: Neither do I. “

14 Responses to “Carnival of Latex”

  1. Christopher Says:

    thats circus enough for anyone..”

  2. YouTube’s crawling with Lao:

  3. Thanks for this! I was similarly enthralled as a kid, and hope to remain so. But I don’t think it would have been so much fun with Welles behind the camera, letting us know what was coming with shadows. The blithe “Son of Paleface” look (while probably not a decision as such) makes Lao’s revelations far more shocking. It’s a circus. Circuses look cheap.

  4. Frank Tashlin called Tony Randall “a comedy machine.” A project he longed to make, but wasn’t able to get the greenlight for was a film adaptation of Alexander King’s “May This Hosue Be Safe From Tigers” starring Randall as the famous drug addict / racconteur.

  5. The screenplay extract in the BFI Tashlin book is enticing… and the book, which I’ve read, in no way resembles anything any normal person would consider for adaptation…

    In assessing Pal’s work, I think it’s clear that when he’s made a strong choice and/or the material is at its finest, the film flies triumphant. The flat two shot of Randall and Patrick in the scene above is perfectly effective. The more dynamic filming of Pan is great. But in the more conventional scenes with the townsfolk, the flatness is deafening, the film just lies there, and all you can do is wait for the next brilliant bit.

    And Welles was no stranger to cheapniz!

    But for a circus story with a less baroque filming style than Welles, but great use of b&w, check out Nightmare Alley. Cheap is fine, prosaic is hard to do without losing interest. For good circus-type cheapness, devoid of anything resembling the bland, you can’t beat Coffin Joe.

    Like a Scopitone filmed in a madman’s mind!

  6. > Like a Scopitone filmed in a madman’s mind

    Bravo, Cairns!

    As far as circuses and directors are concerned, how ’bout the Jack Clayton of SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES?

  7. Oh, I love it, despite the Disney interference. Been meaning to do a Forgotten on it for ages, preferably around Halloween.

  8. Well Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter ? in no way resembles Axelrod’s

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    Tony Randall should prompt a Ph.D dissertation on the fluidity of Jewish-American identity and the ambiguous layering of queer/straight behaviors.

  10. I saw this during it’s initial theatrical release and the Loch Ness process shots looked the same as they do on DVD. This was one of the first DVDs I bought. An underrated film.

  11. Thanks!

    I didn’t actually know Tony Randall was from Tulsa until yesterday. I did know he fathered a child in his 80s — bow down to his virility!

  12. Oh, as to Tashlin’s adaptations — he clearly felt the screenwriter’s duty was to tamper like crazy. I guess his Alexander King film was going to be slightly more faithful to the tone and character of its subject than Rock Hunter, which is really an original piece with a couple of jokes and character names in common with the play.

  13. I saw the play on Broadway. it was a version of Faust with Orson Bean, Walter Matthau and Jayne. Great fun.

  14. Jayne’s name is the same, and her misunderstanding of the word “titular” recurs in Tashlin’s film, and that’s about it.

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