"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." (Dr. Lao, from the film 7 Faces of Dr. Lao
Among the earliest films I ever saw was 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. It was one of my favourite movies as a child (it seemed as if NBC showed every year for several years). And it remains a movie I enjoy very much as an adult.
In fact, in all my years I think the only complaint I have heard about the film is that it departs from its source material, The Circus of Dr. Lao, a good deal. There is some truth to this. While The Circus of Dr. Lao is set in the Depression, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is set at the turn of the century. While The Circus of Dr. Lao is a rather cynical and even sarcastic work, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is somewhat lighter in tone. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is in their structure. The Circus of Dr. Lao has no central plotline, instead being a collection of vignettes interrelated only by the fact that they take place at the circus of Dr. Lao. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao has a primary plotline, along with a romance that does not appear in the book.
That having been said, I am not sure criticisms that the film departs from the book are quite justifiable. Most films based on books depart from those books in some ways. And, from my standpoint, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is more faithful to The Circus of Dr. Lao than many movies are to their source material. Many of the vignettes that appear in the film play out much as they do in the book. Dialogue from the book is even quote word for word in the movie. And while 7 Faces of Dr. Lao does have a lighter tone than The Circus of Dr. Lao, both works share the theme that the average American would not recognise a miracle if he came face to face with one. The difference is that 7 Faces of Dr. Lao also has a more central them that we should look for the miracles in everyday life.
Indeed, the fact that many of the vignettes from the book made their way into the film, and played out much as they did in the book, makes 7 Faces of Dr. Lao a darker film than many would expect. While the circus of Dr. Lao produces changes in many people in th movie as they come face to face with miracles, like most of the characters in the book, there are others who fail to recognise the miracles they see and don't change at all. And while the movie does not contain the undercurrent of eroticism that the book does, there is one particular scene in the movie (very similar to the same scene from the book) in which there is a strong current of sexuality. Those who have seen the film probably know the one I am talking about, in which Barbara Eden's character becomes, how shall we say, hot and bothered.
Of course, the strongest point in the film are the performances of Tony Randall. Randall played seven different roles in the film, aided by the work of legendary makeup artist William Tuttle (for which he won an honourary Oscar). Under the makeup, Randall is nearly unrecognisable in his various roles, given away only by his voice (and sometimes not even that). George Pal had originally wanted Peter Sellers for the roles, but it is hard to see how anyone, even Sellers, could have done a better job than Randall. The rest of the cast is largely made up of many faces recognisable from television: John Ericson (who played Sam Bolt on Honey West), Noah Beery Jr. (a regular in films and television from the Thirties to the Forties, who late played Jim Rockford's father on The Rockford Files), Lee Patrick (who played Henrietta Topper on Topper), Frank Cady (general store owner Sam Drucker on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres), and Douglas Fowley (Doc Holiday from The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp). Of course, the most recognisable face may well be the exquisite Barbara Eden, a year before she appeared on I Dream of Jeannie. Even in turn of the century clothing, Miss Eden was never sexier than she is in this film
As mentioned earlier, the film is boosted considerably by the makeup work of William Tuttle. It also has some very good special effects for its time, complete with stop motion animation provided by FX legend John Danforth. Over all, the special effects still hold up well today. Sadly, the special effects of the time did not permit the appearance of many of the creatures that appear in the book (there is no chimera or werewolf in the movie).
7 Faces of Dr. Lao is hardly a perfect film. It does have its share of flaws. But for the most part those flaws are very few and will not take away from enjoying the movie for most viewers. While it bombed at the box office upon its debut, I can easily see why it has become a cult film over the years. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is one of director George Pal's best films. And one of the best works of fantasy to ever be filmed.