97 Down the Road

The clue for 97 Down in the Sunday crossword was “1964 Tony Randall title role.” I consider it cheating to look up puzzle answers, but this one had me stumped. So I succumbed and found it: Randall starred in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, a movie I’d never heard of. So I read more and thus began a journey down a road I hadn’t planned on taking. 

Dr. Lao’s first face is that of the Chinese ringmaster of a mysterious traveling circus that visits a dusty Western town. Casting a white actor to play an Asian character was of course typical for Hollywood in that era. But Randall’s talent, plus the special effects and Oscar-winning makeup, apparently make the film still watchable if you can get past the racist cringe factor.

As I read more, I saw that the director was George Pal and the link confirmed that he was the same George Pal of Puppetoon fame. Famous in my eyes, anyway, because of the mesmerizing stop-motion animation techniques he employed in his production of dozens of short Puppetoon films for Paramount in the 1940s. They were a favorite part of my TV diet in various kids shows in the 50s and 60s.

A recurring character in Pal’s series is Jasper – a wide-eyed African-American boy whose depiction is as racist a stereotype as one can imagine. Pal was reportedly shocked when, even in his time, people were offended. Apparently he was a good-hearted man, and the themes of many of his films (including Dr. Lao) are uplifting. But that’s the weird thing about good intentions without awareness: I’m sure Pal didn’t intend to cause any harm with his Puppetoon titled “Jasper and the Watermelons” …

I’m not sure how many of the Puppetoons that I innocently consumed in my childhood included Jasper and other racial stereotypes. But they peek through the haze of my fuzzy memories and I know that they and the surrounding culture shaped me in ways that I struggle to understand and counteract to this day. 

I’m convinced that most people want to be good, and few ever intentionally choose to cause harm – including Pal with his films. But those of us who are adults sure need to grow up. Too many are willfully blind. Don’t get me started about the battles against teaching America’s full history because some white parents don’t want their kids ever to be uncomfortable about the subject of race.

Then again, there is a growing cult that fetishizes hate and violence. A movement that wants to “own the libs” and drink “liberal tears” and where the cruelty is the point. What the hell. But the weird thing is this: I’ll bet that most of those folks also see themselves as good, and in other contexts might be “very fine people” as The Former Guy once famously said. But viewing yourself as good doesn’t make it so.

I’ll take a rest stop here. 97 Down took me down this road. We journey onward.