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.
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. “