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.
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:
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.
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.
Irene 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.
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.
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:
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.