7 Faces of Dr Lao (1964)

Director: George Pal

George Pal was apparently determined to get his money’s worth out of that Quo Vadis stock footage, cos it’s in this film as well, along with footage from Atlantis and The Time Machine… and he was evidently determined to get full value from Tony Randall as well; not only does he play most of the titular seven faces (the Abominable Snowman was apparently not him after all), he also plays a circus audience member for a few seconds too. I’ve not read the book by Charles Finney it’s based on, though I intend to do so, but I gather the film is only a fairly loose adaptation; in Pal’s hands the story is turned into something of a moralistic fable (courtesy of an additional plot apparently not in the book about a local rancher trying to buy up the small early 20th century town where the story takes place to profit from the impending arrival of the railroad that only he knows about) and transforms the townsfolk for the better, which seems not to be the case with Finney’s book. But there’s still a lot of charm in Pal’s telling, much of which is down to the diverse performance(s) of Randall. What a difficult character Lao would’ve been to cast, cos to do it the way Pal does you’d have a hell of a time avoiding “yellowface” accusations if you cast a non-Asian actor—which Pal clearly didn’t, and I can imagine that being a stumbling block for viewers now, particular when Lao goes into racist stereotype mode—but if you did cast someone Chinese you’d also need them to be able to, well, play white characters (i.e. Lao’s other manifestations) as well. Damned if you do, etc. But Randall is incredible; even just in the part of Lao he has to vary himself quite a bit, let alone what he has to do in the other parts. It’s terribly old-fashioned in its way, but again that’s a lot of its charm too. Enjoyed this very much, though as I said, I can imagine some people these days having trouble with a white actor playing a Chinese man, even if said Chinese man is also at least two other white men among others…

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