Orchestrations: Leigh Harline, Gus Levene – Film Score Monthly vol. 9, #11, TT: 59.55, 33 tracks (stereo) 1-24 score, 25-33 bonus
Produced: Lukas Kendall, George Feltenstein
Performed: MGM Studio Orchestra, Conductor: Leigh Harline
Verdict: Phantasmagorial fantasy score!
by Ross Care
7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) is among the last of the famous late period George Pal sci fi/fantasy features which commenced in 1950 with the classic Destination Moon. Lao is based on the 1935 novel, “The Circus of Dr. Lao” by Charles G. Finney. As the CD notes explain “the film tells the story of a mysterious visitor from the Far East (Tony Randall) who arrives at an undernourished town in the Old West and sets up a magical circus of bizarre attractions.”
How the good doctor and his creatures influence the hearts and minds of the various citizens and how he eventually saves the town from itself is the core of the film’s offbeat plot line.
Leigh Harline had worked with Pal providing the background score for the spectacular Cinerama production, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, in 1962, though Bob (a.k.a Robert) Merrill, a Tin Pan Alley and later Broadway (Take Me Along, New Girl in Town) songwriter, provided the songs and main theme.
Fortunately Harline had Dr. Lao all to himself and the resulting score proved a climax to Harline’s long Hollywood career that commenced at the Disney Studio in the 1930s. (His amazing Pinocchio score won two Oscars). Leaving Disney’s Harline moved through the various dream factories of the studio era (including RKO and Fox) as composer and music director to conclude with several scores for MGM in the early ‘60s.
Harline’s Dr. Lao score is a melodic amalgam of American western and far eastern (Asian) themes and sonics, plus various motifs and cues for the fantastic creatures in Lao’s show. The main theme (“Main Title”) is a warmly lively tune that represents the doctor himself, and is reprised in various guises throughout the score.
A gently archaic sequence depicts Merlin the Magician (“The Magic Act”), and an exotic theme in soprano sax vividly conjures up the grotesque snake-haired “Medusa”. The score’s best track is “Pan’s Dance,” a magical backup for the choreographed sequence in which Pan, the God of Joy (and Sex), vividly awakens the erotic fantasies of the town’s attractive but emotionally repressed schoolmarm (Barbara Eden).
This virtual suite of character motifs is intercut with Harline’s original dramatic underscore (“Dr. Lao-Hero,” “Death of the Press”) and an assortment of circus source music cues (“Hurry, Hurry, Hurry,” etc.) All display Harline’s prolific melodic gifts as well as his keen ear for the appropriately atmospheric orchestral sound. (The climactic Loch Ness Monster sequence is underscored with an amazing multi-track of studio-manipulated bagpipes and percussion).
In keeping with the magical, almost claustrophobic intimacy of Lau's circus environment Harline scores for a relatively small instrumental ensemble. Both the many solo lines and the briefer big moments are beautifully captured in Michael McDonald's stereo remix and Doug Schwartz's digital mastering.
The remix also spotlights the incredible Hollywood musicianship of the late studio era. There is especially effective writing for solo and dual harps ("Ah, Love") throughout the orchestration.
Due to its integration into theme park scores Harline’s melody for what has become the Disney anthem, “When You Wish Upon A Star” (from Pinocchio), is heard by millions of people on a daily basis, though most would be hard pressed to name the composer.
Pinocchio (1940) and Lau bookend Leigh Harline's prolific and previously rather unsung Hollywood career. But thanks to CD Harline’s excellent post-Disney work is finally getting a hearing, including releases of such Fox scores as House of Bamboo, The Enemy Below on Intrada, Broken Lance from FSM.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao is given a premiere release and a definitive revival in this terrific FSM stereo restoration. 18-page booklet includes color photos from the film and notes by Jeff Bond, Lukas Kendall, and yours truly.
Nine bonus tracks are featured, including brilliant piano versions of “Pan’s Dance," the last one featuring a virtuoso performance from an uncredited voice apparently counting out the bars for the actors as they filmed the scene!
Many of Harline’s early (and uncredited) scores for Disney shorts may also be heard on the recent Disney Treasures Silly Symphonies DVD sets.
No credits other than Disney's are seen on these shorts. Harline's scores include Music Land, The Goddess of Spring, and The Old Mill, among many others.