In Search of the Twonky

Tony Randall as Merlin in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)

There is a category of things which one loves even if one knows they are not objectively good. This is particularly true of films, food, people, articles of clothing, and any number of things. For some reason, there is no single word in the English language that conveys the unreasoning attraction for certain things that one loves unreasoningly. (“Campy” is in the ballpark, but not close enough.)

I had been using the word twonky, though I find that my use of the term is common to no one but me. What the hell, I’ll use it anyhow.

One of my favorite twonky films is 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, directed by George Pal, better known for his sci-fi films like Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951).

It is the tale of a small town in Arizona called Abalone (an odd name for a desert burg.) A little old Chinese fakir called Dr. Lao (pronounced LOW) comes to town advertising a circus. All the characters in the circus are played by Tony Randall (except for the Abominable Snowman, a nonspeaking part played by George Pal’s son Peter). The circus takes place in the desert in a small tent which, on the inside, is miraculously roomy.

Tony Randall as Dr. Lao

The odd thing about Dr. Lao’s circus is that the townspeople learn about themselves, especially Barbara Eden (Angela Benedict) and Arthur O’Connell (Clint Stark, who is trying to buy up the town for profit). Merlin, the Medusa, Pan, Apollonius of Tyana, and the serpent—all act in strange offbeat ways to bring self-knowledge to the people of Abalone. And, in the process, the circus leaves Abalone a happier town.

The Tent Where the Circus Takes Place

I will not go to my grave insisting that 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a great film, but I will see it again if I can. It always leaves me with a warm feeling. Other films that are among my twonky favorites are:

  • Most classical old sci-fi films
  • James Bond films
  • Earth Girls Are Easy (1984)
  • Danny Elfman’s The Forbidden Zone (1980)
  • Robin Williams’s Popeye (1980) directed by Robert Altman
  • David Lynch’s Dune (1984)