Cultural tastes and etiquette definitely transform over time. While this has been a sticking point in literature for years (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn certainly comes to mind), it also holds particularly true for film. Unfortunately for 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, this is one of those movies that used a device once a cultural norm that has since given way to being considered offensive: yellowface. As a result, modern interpretation of the film can be “colored” (for lack of a better word) and difficult, because even though Tony Randall’s performance as seven different characters (along with a brief cameo in the crowd) are well executed enough to make them all feel like separate entities, and even though some of the film’s plot concerns playing with and destroying stereotypes, it’s tough to get past, well, the fact it’s a white guy dressed up as an old Chinese man.
While it’s not as bad as, say, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it’s still more than a little uncomfortable to watch. He also often speaks in pidgin English, though the movie intentionally reveals that Dr. Lao is fully capable of speaking in perfect English (and often does), he just doesn’t reveal it unless he feels it necessary. In the meantime though he’s happy to revel in the Asian mystique and the ignorance of other people. That’s why I say it’s better than Mickey Rooney, because that character was purely an offensive stereotype.
I do have to give this movie credit for a sympathetic villain. The premise is simple: a tycoon is trying to buy up all of Abalone, Arizona, because he knows the railroad will come through. Most of the townspeople unwittingly go along until Dr. Lao arrives with his circus and reveals how ignorant, vapid, and selfish many of them are, and how previous cultures have been doomed due to this. The townspeople end up siding with the local journalist who opposed the tycoon from the start, and Dr. Lao leaves mysteriously. Only in this case, the villain isn’t necessarily a bad guy, he’s just a fallen good guy who spends much of the film openly wishing he’d lose and prove himself wrong about humanity’s frailties. Even in losing in the end, he wins a moral victory and ends up restoring some of his lost faith in people. If anything, he comes off as the most multi-faceted and interesting character, far better than his feckless and idiotic henchmen.
Many of the other characters are pretty flat, including the almost-perfect journalist hero who quickly accepts that magic exists and displays an intelligent open-mindedness that most of his fellow townspeople lack. Women come off particularly bad, with the four here representing their typical extremes: the cruel and funless hag who has a change of heart after being turned to stone, the insipid airhead who crumbles when confronted with her reality and retreats further into herself, the loving and understanding mother-in-law, and the primary love interest, played by Barbara Eden, torn between her loyalty for her deceased husband and her inability to admit her own loneliness. A satyr helps her get her lust back, and suddenly everything is hunky-dory. Hey, it was the early ’60s, it was a wild time.
I won’t lie, there are things that I like about 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. There are also things that make me cringe to recall them. As a result, I can’t easily recommend it. It’s a film from a period of history where certain elements were being played with, and that I appreciate, but at the same time it is also an example of outdated (and for many, offensive) thinking. At its heart I believe it was intended to be innocent and heartwarming, but times change, and even the quaintest tale can be rendered obsolete and lost in the shuffle of time.