Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The King and I (1956)

20th Century Fox, 1956
Starring Yul Brunner, Deborah Kerr, Rita Moreno, and Terry Saunders
Directed by Walter Lang
Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Anna Leonowens was, in fact, a real person who was indeed the governess for the King of Siam in the 1860's. Though the truth of her encounters with the King of Siam are called into question today, they did inspire a semi-fictional novel in 1944, Anna and King of Siam. The book had already been made into a black-and-white drama in 1946, with Rex Harrison as the King and Irene Dunne as Anna, when Gertrude Lawrence's agent thought she would be perfect as a musical Anna. 

Lawrence did ultimately go over well in the part, but she passed away before the end of the show's run. Yul Brunner was even more of a sensation as the King and was called on to repeat his Tony-winning role. Joining him was Jerome Robbins recreating his award-winning choreography. How does this story look nowadays? Let's begin as Anna (Kerr) and her son Louis (Rex Thompson) as they arrive in Siam and find out...

The Story: Anna immediately clashes with King Mongkut (Brunner) over his not building her a promised house. He convinces her to remain once she meets his many charming children, who she's to teach. She's also to teach his wives English and becomes friends with his head wife Lady Thiang (Saunders). Romantic Anna encourages his newest slave Tup Tim (Moreno) to meet her lover Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas), who brought her to Siam, in secret. 

Mongkut is more interested in proving to the rest of the world that Siam is a modern, scientific country. He and Anna set up a banquet and ballet for the visiting English consulate to prove that Siam isn't the barbaric country many in the West see it as. Things go swimmingly, until Tup Tim runs away. The King wants to punish her...but to do so would truly make him a barbarian in the eyes of the only person in Siam who ever dared challenge him. 

The Song and Dance: Kerr and Brunner put in some of their best performances as the strong-willed teacher and ruler whose constant battle for control eventually mellows into something like respect...and maybe more. Brunner won an Oscar to go with his Tony, making him the first person to win a Tony and Oscar for the same role. The stunning and elaborate period-accurate costumes and sets also won Oscars. Those heavy hoop skirts Kerr wears were so period-accurate, in fact, she lost twelve pounds by the end of filming. 

Favorite Number: We open with Anna teaching a nervous Louis to "Whistle a Happy Tune" as they step off the boat and into a new land...at least until they meet the imposing Kralahome, the King's prime minister. "The March of the Siamese Children" is too adorable as each child impresses Anna in their own way in time to the music. The kids also join Anna as she explains in the school room while she's glad to be "Getting to Know You." 

Lun Tha and Tup Tim meet secretly under the moonlight, admitting that "We Kiss In a Shadow," but love each other no matter what. All of this romance and talk of the Bible and creation is "A Puzzlement" to the amused King. Lady Thiang explains why the King is "Something Wonderful," even if he's also stubborn as a mule. He and Anna do better when he says "Shall We Dance?" and convinces her to teach him a western polka. 

The major set piece is "The Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet." Actual Asian theatrical tropes are used to bring Tup Tim's version of Uncle Tom's Cabin to delicate life. It seems more Thai than almost anything else in the film, with its brilliant costumes and Asian-tinged re-write of the famously controversial novel. (In fact, to date this is the only theatrical sound version of Cabin, though it has turned up on TV.)

Trivia: Three of the songs cut from the show, Anna's "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" Tup Tim's "My Lord and Master," and more of "I Have Dreamed" were recorded; the first two were filmed, but the footage has since been lost. All three are on the soundtrack LP. "Western People Funny," a song for the ladies before the ball, can be heard briefly in underscoring. 

This was a four-year hit on Broadway in 1951 and also did well in London. Revivals in 1977 (with Brunner in his original role), 1985 (once again with Brunner), 1996 (with Donna Murphy and Lee Diamond Phillips) and 2015 (with Kelli O'Hara and Ken Wantanbe) were all fair-sized hits in their own right, with the latter two winning Best Revival Tonys. 

Paramount announced last year that they're currently developing a remake. 

What I Don't Like: First of all, Kerr, Moreno, and Rivas were all dubbed, Kerr infamously by Marni Nixon. Second, every version of Anna and the King is banished in Thailand for a reason. King Mongkut, his court, and their culture aren't always shown in the most flattering light, and can even be see as annoying stereotypes today. Doesn't help that none of the Thai characters are played by Asians (the lovers are actually Latin American). Those massive sets also feel a bit stagey nowadays, making the movie look more like a filmed play. Not to mention, there's all those cut songs that could have fleshed out characters other than Anna, the King, and Lady Thiang.

The Big Finale: Highly recommended for Kerr and Brunner's sparring and the musical numbers alone if you can deal with the dated portrayal of Thai culture.

Home Media: Easily found in all formats.

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