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: 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

There’s a bright golden haze…

r&hI recently purchased the Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection on Blu-Ray. This is the first Blu-Ray I have ever owned. (Fitting, since The Sound of Music was the first DVD I ever bought). I don’t have a blu ray player, but my gentleman friend does, so when the collection was on sale as an Amazon “Gold Box” deal, I couldn’t resist the temptation to buy it. The collection has come under some user-generate criticism for the uneven quality of the restoration/color correction. Two films (The Sound of Music and South Pacific) had been received top-notch restorations  individual releases prior to the creation of this collection. Carousel, The King and I, and State Fair have been “color corrected” with what appears to be questionable success (I have not yet look at them).  Oklahoma! is given two releases. One, a “Road Show” version, is taken from the 70mm Todd-AO print, while the other is based on the Cinemascope print.  I, along with my patient gentleman friend, watched the Todd-AO print, which one reviewer dubbed “the jewel of the collection.” (Click here for information on why the film exists in these two formats.) Continue reading