Thursday, July 26, 2012

Dr. Lao is Coming to Town!

Of the many complaints about the internet, one that often comes to mind is how the rare and bizarre have now become commonplace.  I remember how long it took for me to track down movies like Eraserhead and El Topo on VHS or digging through bins for old comics, rare music, or long out-of-print books.  Now, it's not even a matter of on-line shopping, but with forums and blogs ( this one! oops!) it only takes moments to delve into whole worlds of esoterica. And while those who are into the weird and rare want to share these lost gems, but...well, the truth is WE, as individuals, want to share them, like gatekeepers.  It's a selfish act: we do the searching, and we want the gratification of knowing some rarity.  But what's more, there's a reverence for these things...they're just not for everyone.  It's all a strange cycle, since, as the lost and forgotten, they weren't for everyone in the first place.

(The cover for a later paperback, as I lack a cool dust jacket for mine)

When I was in Texas last, still in love with digging through dusty stacks and bins, I found a first edition copy of The Circus of Doctor Lao by Charles G. Finney (not to be confused, as I was several times, with Jack Finney, author of The Body in Invasion of...).  Sadly, the dust jacket was missing, but otherwise, it's a fine copy.  Now Doctor Lao was one of those oddball classics I'd often heard of in the strange circus/carnival pulp subgenre (I'm still on the lookout for a copy of Fred Brown's Madball.), but it's a far sharper satire than the pulp company I've often heard it mentioned in.  And while, it's not so well known now, it was the source for a grandiose MGM production, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) starring Tony Randall and directed by sci-fi legend George Pal.

The book's plot, what little there is, concerns a strange circus of legendary beasts and figures that comes to the small town of Abalone, Arizona led by the mysterious Dr. Lao.  The locals, after quibbling over the contents of the circus parade, attend the spectacle of strange delights in small vignettes that eventually culminate in the final show in which they experience a sacrificial ritual to the god Yottle.    The film, however, adds a well-worn Western plotline, by which a wealthy landowner seeks to buy out the locals who are unaware how valuable their land will be when the railroad arrives.  After experiencing the circus and through the magical interferences by Lao, the townsfolk and the wealthy landowner experience a change of heart.

Though the film is an enjoyable wonder to watch (it was one of the first films to receive a special nod from the Oscars for its make-up effects), it unfortunately eliminates much of the book's sharp satire.  In the written episodes, each of the local characters are explored, and their interactions with the wonders on display (the satyr, the medusa, etc.) directly corresponds to the type of people they represent. One of the few that makes it in wholesale to the film conerns an older woman who has her monotonous and boring fortune revealed to her by the legendary Apollonius of Tyana.  Though he tells her that she won't get rich off her land nor marry any handsome stranger but will live a life of petty drudgery, she still emerges claiming that he revealed the possibility of a bright future.  The tone, however, has been changed as Apollonius appears sad to reveal such things in the movie, but merely delivers the prognostication as a matter-of-fact rebuke to a wasted life in the book. (I believe the point being, in both cases, people will believe whatever they want to believe no matter what you tell them.)

The other interesting facet of the book that the movie somewhat preserves is the way that Dr. Lao's speech varies between polished and educated, and an extremely stereotypical pidgin English.  In the book, it again seems to be a part of the commentary as well as merely a trait of the contrary character of Lao.  The level of his speech often appears to change depending on the nature of the character he's addressing: those who seek wisdom get one version, and those who demonstrate their ignorance get the other.  In the movie, however, it often plays only on the level of offensive stereotype, especially when wed to the fact that this is a white actor portraying an Asian character.  While watching films from this era and earlier, it's up to the viewer whether to damn them for such portrayals, or write if off as being "just part of the time period."  Lao as a character, however, shifts from the page where he plays a more mystical guide character outside of good and bad (à la Merlin), to a more supernatural assist character who is there to help along the good characters with things they could not achieve on their own. I would argue something like Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie, but that would be inaccurate and merely to wedge in Barbara Eden who also stars in the film.

In all, it presents one of those difficult conundrums: you can't literally translate the book into a film (certainly not a Hollywood film), but while the liberties they take translate into a fairly effective film, it changes the tone of the book.  At the same time, despite the alluring possibilities with the visuals based on the wonderful characters, one still has to wonder how they thought this would ever make a movie at all.  In any event, both exist, and I would very much recommend tracking down the book as it is a fun read and provides plenty of food for thought, but if you'd like to see the movie, I can't say it's not worth if if only for Randall's performances in a myriad of roles beyond just Lao and the general gaiety of the spectacle.