“Here is the mysterious beauty of the far East and the roaring action of the far West!” [from trailer]
This film, based very loosely on the award-winning 1935 novel The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney, is a showcase for Tony Randall’s skill at comedic timing and accents — as the title suggests, he plays 7 roles in this film, including the title character. Legendary makeup artist William Tuttle also gets to display his mastery at special effects makeup — after all, he created the “7 faces” of the title — and earned an Honorary Oscar for his makeup work on this film.
It’s a strange, uneven film that combines elements of the fantasy and Western genres; mysterious Dr. Lao (Tony Randall) brings a circus to a Western frontier town in Arizona while local newspaperman Ed Cunningham (John Ericson) woos the local teacher/librarian (Barbara Eden), a widow with a young son. The film plot reads like a mash-up of 1962’s The Music Man (a mysterious, shady character comes to a small town and woos the local librarian) and 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (a mysterious circus comes to town, and the town librarian reconnects with his young son). Interesting that ALL THREE films — 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, The Music Man, and Something Wicked This Way Comes — feature reel librarians in prominent roles. Hmmmmmm…
In 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Barbara Eden — one year from her iconic title role in I Dream of Jeannie — plays the town librarian and widow Angela Benedict. She receives third billing in the film’s trailer (but second billing in the film’s credits), but her profession is not mentioned in the trailer. Rather, the trailer highlights the different roles Tony Randall plays; everyone and everything else comes second — or rather, eighth. ;)
The first library scene begins 10 minutes into the film, as Ed putt-putts up to the library in his motorized bicycle — obviously a clue to his inner rebel! This also helps date the film as early 1900s, as motorized bicycles came to the U.S. at the turn of the century.
The prop master wasted no time in featuring the main feature of the library set: a big SILENCE sign front and center on the reel librarian’s desk. (Sigh.)
Ever the rebel, Ed asks loudly if there’s anything to read, earning an immediate “Shhhhhh!!!” from the reel librarian and dirty looks from the patrons reading at a nearby table. Angela Benedict then directs him to the section on “courtesy and good manners” since he is displaying such bad manners by talking loudly in a library. Then he displays further bad manners by sneaking in a kiss on her neck!!! The librarian shouts in alarm, drawing even more attention. Ed laughs at her reaction, because sexual harassment is soooo funny. :(
Bias alert: As a librarian who has had to personally deal with sexual harassment while at work — it’s an all-too-common issue for many, many librarians — I found this entire “romance” between Ed and Angela more than a little creepy and disturbing. So fair warning that I’m bound to get all-capsy in this post!
They then settle down to a legitimate reference question, as he wants a book on China (to look up the village Dr. Lao says he’s from), and Angela directs him not only to a particular shelf — “Section on Asia, third shelf from the top” — but also recites a specific book title, The History of China by D. Boulger.
NOTE: Y’all know I had to look that book up, right? And it turns out, it’s a real book! D. Boulger is Demetrius Charles Boulger, who wrote several volumes about China in the late 1800s, including Volume I of The History of China available to read online here, published in 1881.
Ed then follows up this legitimate reference query by asking Angela on a date, something he has apparently tried several times before:
Angela: I should think it would be clear by now that I do not wish to go out with you, Mr. Cunningham. Ever.
Ed: It’s because you’re afraid.
Angela: Of you?
Ed: Of falling in love. Of being a woman. That’s what you are, Angela, underneath all those widow’s weeds.
Gross. Especially as Ed pauses to leer and eyeball her up and down before saying the last half of that sentence above, “underneath all those widow’s weeds.”
Angela is properly shocked at this.
Unfortunately, Angela is saddled with a screenplay determined to make her an example of a “Liberated Librarian” character type — with her “liberation” coming at the hands of a man who cannot take NO for an answer. Because Ed obviously knows that secretly, deep down underneath all those widow’s weeds, she desires him. After all, he is apparently the only eligible man in town.
And in the VERY NEXT SCENE, we all get to see what is actually underneath all those widow’s weeds. Right after she kisses her son goodnight, Angela changes clothes in front of an open door as she continues a conversation with her mother-in-law. As you do. The framing device of looking through the door as Angela changes in her bedroom also increases the Peeping Tom creep factor.
The next scene is a town meeting that takes place in the library, which seems to function also as the City Hall. (Note the two extra SILENCE placards in the library set below.) The scene involves a subplot about a businessman, Mr. Stark, who wants to “save the town” and buy everyone’s land before the water runs out.
So there are THREE parallel plots going on here about male saviors:
- Ed, who is trying to save the local librarian;
- Mr. Stark, who says he’s trying to save the town from going under (but is really a charlatan under his waistcoat of respectability and 10-gallon hat);
- and the mysterious Dr. Lao, who ends up saving the town from itself (even though everyone suspects he’s a charlatan and a so-called “dirty foreigner”).
During the town meeting, Angela stands up and asks a direct question: If Abalone is as worthless as Mr. Stark says, why is he so anxious to buy it?
In Mr. Stark’s response, he also reveals more about Angela’s role in the town: Fair question. I’m glad you asked. Mrs. Benedict, you’re a teacher. A librarian. And as such, you can take a dull boy and make him into a smart boy.
Angela starts to reply and then gets SHUSHED by another lady, who says she ought to be ashamed of herself for doubting Mr. Stark’s integrity! That earns some librarian side eye.
A majority of the film then focuses on the various sideshow acts — and characters — in Dr. Lao’s circus. One of these characters is Pan, who catches Angela under his musical spell. And OF COURSE, Angela immediately reveals her innermost desires — Ed was right all along! — as she imagines Pan’s face as Ed’s. This results in an unbuttoned blouse, messy hair, and heavy breathing. As you do.
Just as Angela is about to kiss Ed/Pan, a noise distracts her, and she runs away, ashamed of her actions. But her lust lurking “underneath all those widow’s weeds” soon rises again to the top, as we later see Angela in her nightclothes, sweating and unable to sleep.
The next night, Angela’s liberation is complete, as she has now cast off her dark, severe widow’s weeds and is bedecked in a feminine, frilly light blue dress and hat with blue flowers. She seems more at ease and flirts openly with Ed.
There are conflicting opinions expressed throughout the film about Angela, the reel librarian. On the one hand, she’s praised — however condescendingly — as a teacher and librarian by Mr. Stark at the town meeting, and Dr. Lao later calls her an “estimable educator.”
On the other hand, we witness her own mother-in-law’s disapproval at Angela’s prim parenting style as well as her loyalty to her dead husband. And we also get this conversation between Angela and Ed, in which Angela criticizes herself — or rather, who she used to be:
Ed: You remind me of someone. A woman I know. Name’s Angela Benedict… Ever meet her?
Angela: No. But I’ve heard of her. She’s supposed to be a most unpleasant person.
Ed: Oh no. Whoever told you, it’s is a lie. Angela’s, well, you see, Angela’s got a problem.
Angela: What kind of a problem?
Ed: The worst kind. Same as mine. Loneliness. It’s just about the worst thing that can happen to a person. See, people think Angela’s hard. People think she’s cold. Let me tell you she isn’t hard and she isn’t cold. She’s soft and warm. Only she’s afraid to let anyone know.
[Librarian side eye.]
There is one more scene set in the library, after Dr. Lao exposes Mr. Stark’s scheme. The public votes against selling their land to Mr. Stark, and Angela leads the clapping for Dr. Lao.
Angela Benedict as the small-town librarian is a classic Liberated Librarian role: a young, trapped woman who “discovers herself” with the help of a man or in face of an adventure (or both, in this case). Angela herself explains the transformation:
I woke up, and I found out something. Just that there’s music in the air and that I’m a liar and worse. I’m in love.
So there you have it. Life lessons for us all. Single lady librarians who seem content in their independence and sensible clothing are all liars and need to acknowledge how liberating the love of a good man is. And then change right away into feminine, frilly dresses in pastel shades to demonstrate externally how love has transformed them into real women.
After all, we had learned this lesson not 2 years before in 1962’s The Music Man. One of the first things I noted after watching the film was how many similarities there are between the characters of “Marian the Librarian” in The Music Man and Angela Benedict in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Both Class II portrayals. Both Liberated Librarians who started off as uptight prudes with spectacles (or pince nez). Both small-town librarians transformed by love (and a frilly dress and hat).
The Music Man is admittedly a superior film, and Marian Paroo has quite a bit more spunk than the character of Angela Benedict, who comes across as a watered-down, pale imitation of Marian the Librarian. It’s also telling that the character of Angela Benedict — indeed, the entire subplots of Angela and Ed, as well as Mr. Stark’s business proposition — was NOT in the book.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao was not a hit when it was first released, but it has become a kind of cult fantasy classic over the decades, most likely because of its special effects and nostalgic stop-animation sequences. The story, however, does not age well, nor do the numerous jokes at the expense of racism and sexism. The film is equal-opportunity offensive, however, making fun of the Chinese, rednecks, nagging housewives, Native Americans, “dirty foreigners,” and of course, librarians. In a film that features — no, celebrates! — a white man playing a gapped-toothed Chinaman, is it any wonder that is also includes a stereotypical librarian?
And last but not least, the 7 faces (or rather, facial expressions) of a Liberated Librarian:
Until next time… :)