The King and me2ism: Anna and the King of Siam (1946 Film)

The mythology surrounding where Rodgers and Hammerstein’s impetus to musicalize Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam is a bit fuzzy. Gertrude Lawrence had her lawyer acquire the stage rights and asked Rodgers and Hammerstein to musicalize the property (after previously approaching Cole Porter). The respective wives of R&H, unaware of Lawrence’s intentions, also suggested the material. The fuzziness in lore lies in the sequence of those two requests/recommendations particularly with respect to the 1946 film (the rights for which were purchased before the biographical novel even hit shelves). Some sources say Lawrence was inspired by the movie and the wives seem to be generally regarded as having based their recommendation on the book. Legend also states that Hammerstein was unsure of his ability to reign in the novel’s episodic sprawl to a conventional theatrical arch, but was convinced by the film’s treatment to do his own adaptation. On its own merits, the film is elegant and engaging, if a bit overlong and dated. Its screenplay (by Sally Benson and Talbot Jennings) and Bernard Herrmann score were nominated for Oscars, as was Gale Sondergaard’s stately portrayal of Lady Thiang. The film won Oscars for it’s cinematography and art direction.

anna-and-the-king-of-siam-149400 poster

Of all the adaptations of Margaret Landon’s novel, this movie is probably the least culturally sensitive. Before any actors appear on screen the 1946 movie is clearly states its viewpoint of Anna as a saintly educator of the otherwise barbaric Siamese, as stated in the conclusion of its written prologue: anna king prologue

It should also be noted that almost none of the actors playing Siamese characters are of Asian decent with bronzer seemingly accounting for the bulk of it’s production budget.

Sexy-Rexy

Sexy-Rexy

Rex Harrison is an impish King with a frequently childlike sense of wonder and amusement and gives a winning performance, though he occasionally adopts certain physical and vocal mannerisms that can evoke unpleasant “yellowface” stereotypes. Those issues aside, Harrison brings warmth, dignity and humor to the role and one sees why he was an early choice for the musical.

miss annaIrene Dunne makes a wonderful Anna and would surely been a wonder in the musical if given the chance. She has a particularly strong moment when she realizes the rooms provided for her at the palace have her situated in the middle of a harem: she initially reacts with incredulous, almost crazed laughter that soon segues into disbelief and ultimately despair. The film dramatizes the novel’s scenario involving Anna being told she has a house only to be led to a decrepit residence in a fish market, and Dunne’s reaction is as satisfying as it is in the harem scene.

burning tuptim

A most unfortunate ending for Tuptim

The ’46 film’s portrayal of Tuptim (played by Linda Darnell) follows the book with respect to her demise (complete with her disguise as a priest and the false accusal–and execution–of the man suspected of being her accomplice and lover), but takes liberties elsewhere, inserting her into scenes that were about other palace women in the novel and setting her up as a rival to Anna. Anna and Tuptim first cross words when, to Anna’s dismay, Tuptim arrives in class with a monkey on her shoulders–a gift from the King and a sign that Tuptim is the current favorite. Later Anna discovers a slave chained to a post with a baby. She learns this slave has a husband who wishes to pay for her freedom but that the sale is stopped by the slaves owner, Tuptim. Anna appeals to the King on behalf of the slave and the slave is released. When Tuptim realizes it was Anna who convinced the King to rule in the slave’s favor she runs off proclaiming, “If I am not first, there is nothing here for me.” This is the incident that prompts Tuptim to disguise herself and hide in the monastery.

As in the musical, Anna’s anger at the King over this treatment of Tuptim (here he refuses to halt her execution or hear evidence of her innocence) leads Anna to declare that she is leaving Siam. But in the 1946 film she is stopped not by news of the King’s ill health, but by the untimely death of Louis in a horse-riding accident. The King writes Anna a letter of apology for his previous behavior (similar to that in the musical) and tells her that Louis will be honored with a royal burial.

Gale Sondergaard's Lady Thiang was the only Oscar-nominated performance in the film

Gale Sondergaard received her second Oscar-nomination for Anna and the King of Siam. She was the first ever winning of the “Best Supporting Actress” category for her film debut a decade earlier 

But Anna’s decision to forgive the King and stay in Siam is ultimately inspired by a touching conversation with Lady Thiang. Thiang expresses regret and frustration at her inability to provide the education and guidance Chulalongkorn needs to become an effective leader and implores Anna to stay for his sake. Anna stays on, even after the King’s eventual death, with the express mission of educating the prince and the film ends with her looking radiantly on as Chulalongkorn takes the throne and issues his first proclamations of reform.

The films strongest performance is delivered by Lee J. Cobb as the Kralahome. He has one stirring scene with Harrison in which they described the annexation of Cambodia by France and it’s implication of threat to Siam as an independent county. In the movie’s best scene, the Kralahome explains to Anna the central dichotomy of the King’s persona:

Cobb overcomes his unfortunate bottle-tan and offers an insightful take on the Kralahome

Cobb overcomes his unfortunate bottle-tan and offers an insightful take on the Kralahome

He is an old world King raised in the manner and traditions of his father and charged with maintaining the customs and spirit of Siam while who must also try and modernize the country so it can remain strong in the face of foreign influences seek to colonize the country. Though Siam’s political situation is mentioned in the book, the discussion is typically in the form of dry history and is not integrated into the emotional framework of the Anna/King relationship. The fear of becoming a protectorate of a foreign crown factors into the musical as the reason for the dinner party of Edward Ramsey, but the ’46 film gives this fear greater weight, and the result is revelatory.

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The King and me2ism: Anna and the King (1972 TV Series)

As newspapers, magazines and countless websites spend a lot of time this month discussing the high and low points of this Fall TV season, I wonder if there was this much speculative criticism forty years ago. I’m particularly curious as to the nature of the buzz surrounding Anna and the King, a curiosity of a series that ran for 13 episodes in the fall of 1972. The pilot episode, with an optional commentary from its Anna, Samantha Eggars, is included as a bonus feature on the blu ray of The King and I.

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The King and me2ism: Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam

annakingofsiamI recently finished listening to the audiobook edition of Margaret Langdon’s Anna and the King of Siam, the source material for The King and I. To separate fact from legend, I also watched an episode of A&E’s Biography (which is include as a bonus feature on the dvd of the 1946 film Anna and the King of Siam which is on my watchlist for the weekend). Continue reading

The King and me2ism: The Film’s Recordings

The King and I (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

kandisoundtrackI recently discussed the faithful and visually opulent 1956 film version of The King and I, with it’s unforgettable (and Oscar-winning) performance from Yul Brynner and equally memorable (and similarly Academy Award-winning) sets and costumes. But the film boasted two other equally lauded and awarded assets:Carlton W. Faulkner’s sound recording and Alfred Newman’s adaptation of the score. With it’s lush cinematic orchestrations, more assessable (i.e. lower) keys and smooth vocals (most of which were dubbed), the original motion picture soundtrack was always a worthy (if incomplete) alternative to those who found Gertrude Lawrence’s vocals on the OBCR an acquired taste. Continue reading

Scene in Cleveland: Hair

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Jessie Cope Miller (center) as Sheila with the company. Miller also served admirably as the evening’s choreographer.

This past weekend I saw Blank Canvas Theatre’s production of Hair. The score by Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni, and James Rando follows no conventional rules of musical theater and is all the better for it. The story is almost nonexistent and spottily told, but the last ten minutes are deeply moving and haunting. I was pleased to see two ensemble members from Cain Park’s recent production of The Frogs have more showcased roles roles here, and the cast contained many other performers who I hope again to see in future area productions. So it’s unfortunate that I walked away thinking less about them and more about the evening’s many sound-related issues. Continue reading

The King and me2ism: 1956 Movie

Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_The_King_and_II had initially thought I would save watching the acclaimed 1956 movie version of The King and I for the end of my trip through this wormhole devoted to the R&H classic, but with no other activities planned last night, a bf as willing as he’d ever be to sit through it, and the blu ray tantalizingly sitting on the shelf, we hunkered down for a technicolor trip to Siam. Continue reading

The King and me2ism: The King and I (2000 London Cast Recording)

Many musical theater cognoscenti maintain that The King and I is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s overall strongest show (though Carousel is frequently regarded as leader on score and “feels” fronts). I will admit that for years its charms eluded me. Partially because my mom was never particularly fond of it (or Deborah Kerr), so the movie didn’t play a part in my childhood. The only live production I ever saw was a semi-professional affair that some friends were in that I mostly remember for its ugly unit set and length. The only cast recording at my disposal growing up was the Original Broadway Cast, and that disk vanished from my collection a decade ago (and didn’t get much play while I had it because of my distaste for Gertrude Lawrence’s singing).

kingandi_paigeA few weeks ago I was alerted to a promotion on amazon that offered a digital download of the 2000 London Cast Recording (starring Elaine Paige) for $5, and have since been bitten by a The King and I bug. Continue reading

Scene in Cleveland: Amazons and Their Men

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Clubbed Thumb’s Amazons… women: Heidi Schreck (reclined) and Rebecca Wysocki (photo Carl Skutsch)

In 2008 Clubbed Thumb, a theater company I had worked with in the past, presented a new play by Jordan Harrison called Amazons and their Men. Although I don’t have a ton of specific memories of the production, I remember being generally impressed with the production (such that I sought out work with that company the following two summers), especially the two actresses who represented half of the cast: Rebecca Wysocki brough shades of Norma Desmond to Nazi propaganda film auteur Leni Riefenstahl and Heidi Shreck made a strong impression as Riefenstahl’s sister and most versatile screen extra. Both women would win Obies that season (though Shreck was honored for a different performance). But regardless of its acclaim, the memory of a “downtown” theater production typically lives on only in production shots and the memories of those who worked on or saw its brief run. So when a friend from the North Coast Men’s Chorus texted me a few weeks with an invite to see a production here in Cleveland I was surprised and excited to have an opportunity to revisit this play. Continue reading

Just keep an open mind, and then suddenly you’ll find…

peterNBC has released a teaser pic of Allison Williams as Peter Pan to promote their holiday LIVE! presentation of the classic musical. I have to say, she looks pretty good. I think the costume is sufficiently imaginative and whimsical while also being somewhat masculine and rugged. That being said, Allison Williams is Peter Pan LIVE! strikes me as a somewhat strange–though intriguing–follow up to The Sound of Music LIVE! Continue reading