7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)

7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) movie poster

director George Pal
viewed: 03/02/2012

I’d never actually seen the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, though I’d read about it and seen a number of stills from it as I was growing up.  As part of our George Pal series, I figured it would be a good change up from the stuff we’d recently been watching.  The other two Pal films we’d seen, The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960), both had been really good.   On top of that, the script was by Charles Beaumont, one of the best writers from the television show, The Twilight Zone.

It’s the story of a small Southwestern town, early in the 20th Century, a town under the oppression of a tough guy landowner who is trying to get everyone to sell out their property to him.  In comes the diminutive figure of Dr. Lao, a “Chinaman” in the classic sense of the cliche, riding a donkey and smoking a long pipe.  He shows his magic early on as he brings his circus to town.

His “faces” are characters all played by Tony Randall, everything from a snake to Medusa to the Yeti to the god Pan.  His little circus reveals truths to the villains of the town, amusements and magic to the others, and ultimately brings about the happy endings that a film like this must have.

Pretty early on, Felix noted to me, “This film has racist stereotypes of Chinese people.”  Well spotted.  Though, I’m not sure it’s as racist as all that.  Part of Dr. Lao is his fluctuation in character and voice (he has even more voices than faces) and as the film plays out, his most painful Chinese accent is employed mainly when people anticipate it the most. Like when the boy first meets him and he can’t understand him when he’s speaking in Randall’s normal voice, he’s forced to slip back into the L’s for R’s and R’s for L’s.  It’s more troubling than racist.  It’s certainly not intended meanly.

Felix later said that it was the worst film we’d seen in a long time.  Clara enjoyed it more.  Me, I was a bit disappointed in it.  It’s a light children’s film, humorous and unchallenging, but lacking in major sparks or charms.  Pal only has one major animation piece in the film, the Loch Ness Monster the grows from the little catfish gives the film its finale.  Maybe its best sequence.

A young Barbara Eden appears as the lonely schoolteacher/librarian, looking very lovely.

The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds (1953) movie poster

(1953) director Byron Haskin
viewed: 09/02/2011

Like Ray Harryhausen, George Pal was a film-maker, animator, special effects specialist who put a huge stamp on his films and transcends the auteur-theory.  Above his effects and animations, Pal was also a producer, so looking at his work fits closer perhaps than Harryhausen to the sense of “authorship” usually applied to directors, though often attached to writers and producers as well.  But like Harryhausen, a lot of his work was stop-motion animation, and he was a friend of Harryhausen’s.

After watching 1960 version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, it struck me that it would be fun to watch his seminal version of Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a film, iconic as it is, I had never actually seen.  But then we watched Tim Burton’s send-up/homage of the alien invasion film, Mars Attacks! (1996), which in retrospect is really templated on Wells’ classic novel.   I was struck by the fact that Burton’s film referenced a number of films that the kids had never seen;  not that they would need to to appreciate it, but I thought it would be cool to go to one of the original science fiction films of the 1950’s, a theme that I’ve been digging on for several years.  But further still, I’ve gotten a real interest in the “alien invasion” film.

Modernized from the Victorian era to the 1950’s, George Pal and Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds was a breakthrough in pop cinema for Hollywood, and as dated as it would appear culturally and effects-wise, it’s almost quite literally the template of the modern summer block-buster.  Actually, I was surprised, perhaps unnecessarily so, by how much Steven Spielberg revisited the film in his version of War of the Worlds (2005), how one of the best scenes in the 1952 film was also one of the best scenes in the 2005 version.  I was actually eager to revisit it as well.

The film opens with newsreel-styled reports about Mars and how life there did exist, but that their natural resources were spent, that in all of the galaxy, only Earth offered the fecundity that they sought.  And when the credits burst onto the screen, the film itself bursts into rich Technicolor.

Simple, small-town America, in the outlying regions of Southern California, sees a strange meteorite crash outside of town.  They all rush out to it, including visiting scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (played by Gene Barry) and fawning post-grad Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson).  Barry is actually almost comic in his delivery, hokey, campy acting, but still, the film works because of the action, the spaceships, and the aliens.  It turns out that the meteorite is really a Martian ship, quite clearly set on the destruction of humanity, blasting down those who “come in peace”.  Soon, there are thousands of these ships all over the planet, wreaking havoc, and quite likely to take over the world.

When even the nuclear option fails America, things are looking dire.  But of course, assuming you know the story, the aliens are brought down by Earth’s smallest living things, diseases, microorganisms.

For this The War of the Worlds, this whole experience takes a Christian slant.  These microorganisms are God’s creatures, sanctuary is found in churches, and a big part of American idealism is tied to religion.  Whether this seam came from writer Barré Lyndon, director Bryon Haskin, or George Pal, I don’t know, but it’s actually surprisingly pervasive.

The alien ships, made to look like manta rays with cobra head periscopes, are the most iconic of the film’s images.  But the film pulls off some other iconic images that have also been copied ever and since, namely the shots of deserted downtown Los Angeles, with Barry running through the empty streets, with newspapers and other detritus blowing by like so much tumbleweeds.  Also, the slow “march” of the ships, laying waste to all the best that American heroism, nobility, and technology can offer, is still effectively eerie.  In some ways, even more so than in many more modern films, even knowing what the outcome will be.

The great scene, in the abandoned farmhouse, where Barry and Robinson cower and hide from the probing eye of the alien ship, is also very effective.  And when the Martian sneaks up on Ann and lays his three suction-cup fingers on her shoulder, her turn and scream is just pure classic Americana.  Another iconic moment repeated and copied ad nauseum and beyond.

The effects are really striking, even when you can see the wires holding up with spacecraft.  Even the sort of dated image of the alien physique, the low-tech nature of the effects, it still made the kids comment that it was “creepy”.

Really, when you get down to it, this is just plain great stuff.  Another film enjoyed by all, inspiring much else in our future viewing queue.  It’s brilliant.

The Time Machine

The Time Machine (1960) movie poster

(1960) director George Pal
viewed: 06/10/2011

This 1960’s version of The Time Machine was the version that I grew up with.  I never read the book, and though I might have seen some other treatments of it, when I think of a Morlock, I think of a Morlock from George Pal’s version of the story.

The kids were really into it, pretty rapt during much of the film.  Actually, the Morlocks are pretty scary in a pre-Star Trek special effects sort of way.  I was actually a little surprised how well the film went down with them.  I mean, I know it’s H.G. Wells but a story written around 1900, filmed in 1960, in which a vision of the future of 1966 has people wearing those kinds of “future civilization” outfits that it’s doubtful that people will ever wear outside of a science fiction movie.  There is a lot of inherent anachronism.

But it’s brilliant as well.  Rod Taylor is very charming in the lead role, the scientist named George (Wells) who invents a time machine to look into mankind’s future, hating the increase of military might and destructive weaponry, technology to kill people, that dominates his present.  When he does go forth, he manages to land in London first of WWI and then in WWII, and finally in the 1966 in which the world is destroyed by nuclear missiles.  Bad timing, you might say.

So, what’s he do but fly far, far into the future, through a time in which for several millennia he spends encased in solid rock (but only for a few minutes of his time), and he lands in the future future future state inhabited by the bland, beautiful, mindless Eloi and the creepy, Trogodyte-like Morlocks who harvest them.  If you don’t know the story, I’m sorry if I spoilt it for you but you really should know this story by now.

Pal got his start in puppet-oriented stop-motion animation and many of the key special effects are achieved through this technique, and in many cases are very effective.  In fact, when George starts up the time machine at a slow pace, minutes passing in seconds, one of the first things he witnesses is the spinning hands of a clock and the melting of a candle at high speed.  Felix wow’ed at this aloud, which is pretty impressive for a kid of this generation who’s seen all kinds of computer special effects of greater magnitude.  It speaks to the power of the technique when employed well and executed in stylish fashion.  Equally, the sun and moon, passing over the glass-windowed porch in which he sits, effectively communicates the concept of the passing of time.

Both Felix and Clara were really intrigued by the concept of time travel.  The way that the film depicts George sitting the in the same place in space, while moving through time really came across to them vividly.  And even though Felix derided the lava flowing through London in 1966 as “totally a model”, other aspects of the film’s effects struck them significantly.  We also watched part of but not all of a feature-ette shot in 1993 that describes some of the effects and designs, which they were both pretty into, as well.

It’s the fun, funny, thing about watching these curated films that we watch together, such a span of time and experience and history and culture.  It’s most funny to me because this wasn’t one of the first things I’d thought to show them by any means, but it was a big success.  We’ll have to watch a couple more George Pal films now, like his 1953 War of the Worlds or his 1962 The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm or his 1964 The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.  Another trope has been opened.