Yellowface, You’ve Got The Cutest Li’l Yellowface…
Yellowface -- and its illegitimate cousins black-, brown-, and redface -- carts a long and dishonorable history.
Too often racial impersonation is at the service of racism: Minority actors simply rejected sight unseen by audiences and casting directors.
Occasionally it is a little less offensive; there’s at least an attempt to portray the minority character benignly.
Charlie Chan is the most notable example, with the four actors playing him in the sound era all being whites using tinted skin and eyefold appliances.
Chan was intended as a positive role model, and watched in that context the movies are not consciously insulting.
But in a wider context, casting against ethnic or racial type is fraught with danger.
On stage, where a multi-ethnic cast may play the Scots of MacBeth or the Thais of The King And I or the Ozark hillbillies of Li’l Abner, the sheer artifice of theatricality allows audiences to overlook casting against ethnicity.
Patrick Stewart famously played Othello against an all African-American supporting cast, and stage productions where multi-ethnic casts play biological family members are readily accepted.
But film and TV impersonations (with the exception of comedy skits that play towards theatrical tropes) are supposed to be real and convincing. Trying to pass off any performer as a different ethnicity, particularly a significantly different one physically, risks alienating a huge portion of one’s audience.
But…it can be done…if one earns it…and The 7 Faces Of Dr. Lao earns it.
It is not a universally loved film:
It’s corny and derivative and producer / director George Pal steers the production with an unsteady hand, but it also possesses heart and soul and more than a little philosophy that turns out to be surprisingly profound.
If you love it, you’re going to really love it. If you’re going to stub your toe on the clunky parts, there’s a lot of clunky parts for a lot of toes.
So, is Tony Randall’s turn as Dr. Lao + 6 other characters an acceptable case of cultural appropriation / ethnic impersonation or not?
In the context of the story Dr. Lao is a quintessential Trickster come to a remote American West town to teach the good -- and not-so-good -- citizens a thing or two. As a Trickster, he employs a variety of methods to divert attention and deflect questions, including a grab bag of voices, accents, and dialects. He speaks most often in refined, flawless, unaccented English, but switches to sing-song “Chinee” pidgin when people start getting too inquisitive. Exactly who he is could be anyone’s guess since most of his cultural references are European and Greek while his few Asian references are dismissed as lies and fabrications. So for an Asian character to be portrayed by an Anglo-looking Jewish-American actor works in the story itself since Dr. Lao as a character is shown to be a fictional construct overlaying the real yet still hidden persona.
In the context of the film, Randall the actor plays a wide variety of human and non-human characters: Dr. Lao (presumably Asian, not necessarily human), Merlin (Anglo, human), Apollonius (Greek, human with disability), Pan (Greek, non-human), Medusa (Greek, non-human female), The Abominable Snowman (Asian, non-human), and the voice of The Great Serpent (Biblical, presumably Middle-Eastern, non-human). (Randall also appears in a one-shot cameo sans make-up as a spectator at Dr. Lao’s circus.) So the film sets itself up as the kind of movie where part of the deliberate artifice is that one actor will play multiple characters and actively invites the audience to search for him among the rest of the cast (the irony being that The Abominable Snowman in the film was played by a bodybuilder made up to look like Tony Randall wearing Snowman make-up; Randall only donned the make-up for publicity photos). From that perspective, Randall could have been replaced by any comparable actor of any ethnicity or gender and the end result would have been the same.
In the context of theme, transformation and illusion are crucial foundations upon which the story is built, with several characters loaning their appearance to others (including a sea monster that sprouts 6 extra heads, all of them characters Randall played). And this does not touch on transformations of heart and soul and mind and body that also take place, nor does it take into consideration that Dr. Lao never appears in the same shot with any of the other characters, suggesting all of them are really him (in fact, except for the Abominable Snowman pulling The Great Serpent’s cage in the parade and the aforementioned sea monster scene, none of the characters played by Randall appear together). The possibility that anything and everything is either malleable or an illusion permeates the film and calls into question whether Randall’s various performances themselves are self-referential to this theme.
The 7 Faces Of Dr. Lao is based on Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus Of Dr. Lao and bears the same relationship to its source as the film L.A. Confidential shares with James Elroy’s novel (i.e., same theme, and several characters and plot points port over, but otherwise totally different).
The screenplay is credited to Charles Beaumont but how much he actually contributed is in doubt. Beaumont, a prolific short story and TV writer in the 1950s, suffered a severe physiological and cognitive decline in the early 1960s. Many of his post 1963 credits were actually written in part or in total by writer friends who wanted to ensure his wife and children received health care and residuals after his death.
Most of the script is probably the work of Ben Hecht, the incredibly prolific Chicago crime reporter turned novelist / playwright / movie producer. Hecht, well known for 1930s gangster films and screwball comedies, also possessed a taste for the fantastic and macabre (read his novel Fantazius Mallare for a sample of his imaginative writing). He died in 1964, shortly after The 7 Faces Of Dr. Lao’s release, but screenplays he’d written or worked on continued being produced for decades after that.
When work on the screenplay started is unclear. Hecht’s style seems more in tune with Finney’s than Beaumont’s, but Beaumont in his prime would have been an excellent choice as an adaptor.
The 7 Faces Of Dr. Lao addresses the issue of racial prejudice quite directly, and while all three writers involved are known for their firm stands in favor of racial equality, to me the final flourishes belong to Hecht. Early in the film one grizzled old Western character wonders if Dr. Lao is “a Jap” and is immediately corrected by one of his friends who correctly identifies Dr. Lao (or at least the clothes he is wearing) as Chinese. When asked how he knows this, the friend replies: “Because I ain’t stupid.”
Through out the film there are examples of racism and racial prejudices being confronted and confounded, and by the end even the chief antagonist has come to change his ways.
Producer / director George Pal holds a venerated place in the history of fantastic cinema, but his own career was dotted with racially problematic works. Pal, a Hungarian animator who brought his Puppetoon films to Hollywood, did not harbor the racial animosity of many white Americans, but his visual style was influenced by American stereotypes.
Pal made several short films featuring a character named Jasper, based on African-American culture as seen through white eyes. One can look at those films and tell Pal did not make them with malicious intent, but unintended stereotypes sting just as badly as deliberate ones.
To his credit, Pal responded to criticisms of the Jasper shorts by making John Henry and the Inky Poo, using more physiologically accurate puppets to depict the legendary African-American folk hero.
When Pal segued into live action feature films, he tended to avoid racial issues by avoiding racial minorities. Conquest Of Space featured a Japanese astronaut but When Worlds Collide shows only white people surviving the end of the world. The Naked Jungle’s white plantation owner browbeats native workers into fighting off a massive swarm of army ants, and Pal’s last film Doc Savage tried to recapture the feel of 1930s pulp adventures but unfortunately dredged up native stereotypes of that era as well.
Pal’s feature career is rather uneven:
When he made a good film it was really good, when he misfired it was a resounding dud. The 7 Faces Of Dr. Lao marks the beginning of the end of his active career. It faltered at the box office and while it shows he clearly wanted to move into more mature, more thoughtful films, his family friendly reputation trapped him. It took him four years to produce his next film, The Power, an edgy for the era sci-fi thriller, then seven years after that for his last movie, the remarkably unappealing Doc Savage, a kiddee matinee pastiche.
Back to the issue of racial impersonation.
As stated above, it’s very, very difficult to justify racial or ethnic impersonations today. The 7 Faces Of Dr. Lao is one of the extremely rare cases where it can be excused, if not justified, based on the particular (if not downright peculiar) elements of the story and the intent behind them.
© Buzz Dixon