Color, 1964, 100m. / Directed by George Pal / Starring Tony Randall, Barbara Eden / Warner (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

The last film officially directed by the legendary George Pal, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao remains something of a celebrated cult item, a title film buffs regularly cite as a buried treasure no one else seems to know about. Based on Charles Finney's excellent novel The Circus of Dr. Lao (which is actually even better), this beguiling fantasy operates on several different levels depending on the viewer's age and succeeds admirably in every respect. Gather up the family and enjoy. At the turn of the 20th century, the western town of Abalone is shaken up by the magical arrival of Dr. Lao's circus, a series of attractions highlighting exotic creatures from around the world. Dr. Lao himself (Tony Randall) is a quirky, energetic type prone to dispensing nuggets of cockeyed wisdom to all of his patrons, though few take his words to heart. Meanwhile the people are debating whether they should sacrifice their property to the rich, scheming Clint Stark (Arthur O'Connell), who knows of plans to build a railroad in their direction and intends to cash in. Good guy newspaper editor Ed Cunningham (John Ericson) opposes the plan and spends his spare time wooing lovely librarian Angela (Barbara Eden). The townspeople keep returning to Dr. Lao's circus, where attractions like Merlin the Magician, the abominable snowman, Medusa, Pan, Apollonius, and a giant codger snake (all played by Randall as well) hold up mirrors to the faults and foibles of each person's inner nature. Ultimately everyone is changed by their encounter with Dr. Lao - some for the better, and some worse.

In many respects Dr. Lao can be seen as a wistful ode to the golden age of cinematic fantasy which preceded it. The entire production is bathed in a nostalgic glow and a sense of warmth and respect for humanity's innocence which would soon become trampled during the turmoil of the late '60s. From the beautifully nuanced screenplay by veteran Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont to the lyrical Leigh Harline score, all of the elements here come perfectly into alignment. Randall gives an outstanding performance (or is that performances?), always unpredictable and charming even at his most monstrous in appearance. (Note: many of the impressive stop motion effects during the climax were provided by animation pro Jim Danforth, who had just cut his teeth earlier on Jack the Giant Killer.) Perhaps this film remains neglected because it doesn't take place on the same lavish scale of Pal's War of the Worlds or The Time Machine, so viewers will just have to discover this treasure on their own terms.

Fortunately, there's no better place to make Dr. Lao's acquaintance outside of a movie theatre than Warner's DVD special edition, which offers a beautifully textured transfer bursting with saturated layers of gold and brown, contrasting nicely with the psychedelic color schemes inside Dr. Lao's wagons. Apart from a slightly damaged and noticeably gritty-looking opening scene, the print is in excellent condition and looks appreciably sharper than the previous MGM laserdisc. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer (which gives away far too much) and an eight minute archival featurette devoted to makeup maestro William Tuttle, who worked on almost every '50s MGM musical and really had his work cut out for him this time.

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