The King and I
Ernest Lehman (Musical: Rodgers & Hammerstein; Novel: Anna and the King of Siam)
Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner, Rita Moreno, Martin Benson, Terry Saunders, Rex Thompson, Carlos Rivas, Patrick Adiarte, Alan Mowbray, Geoffrey Toone
Buy on DVD
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II comprise one of the most celebrated composer/lyricists teams in theater history. Together, they co-wrote a number of highly successful stage, screen and television musicals, eight of their creations are still highly popular today and six of their stage productions were turned into popular big screen features of the 1950s and 1960s. The King and I was their fifth stage production, but third turned into a film.
This is my second experience with Rodgers & Hammerstein after the classic Best Picture winner (and their only adaptation to achieve such) The Sound of Music. So, going into the film I had few expectations except to be vigilant in observing each of the film’s nine Academy Awards nominations and the five trophies it won.
Based on the real life experiences of the film’s title character, the story revolves around a young English school teacher, Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr), arrived in the kingdom of Siam in order to teach a number of children English and science. She is accompanied by her young son Louis (Rex Thompson) and apprehensive about her assignment, leading into the film’s opening number “I Whistle a Happy Tune” before the sneering royal adjutant Kralahome (Martin Benson) arrives to escort her to the palace where she will stay despite having been promised a residence adjoining the palace and not within it. Trying to assert her position as a strong woman and unbowed by his royal nature, Anna confronts King Mongkut of Siam (Yul Brynner) who convinces her to stay in the palace by introducing his precocious brood of children, more than a dozen just within the palace alone.
As she teaches the children, she simultaneously teaches Mongkut how to act as a gentleman even though his stubbornness derails much of that training. He’s a proud man set in centuries of tradition unwilling to budge from the most egregious of his set ways. All this is done in spite of his attempts to encourage the children to give Anna their undivided attention and supporting many of the scientific principles she attempts to each them.
The film relies entirely on the chemistry between the egocentric King Mongkut and the headstrong school teacher Anna. Kerr and Brynner have some great chemistry together, though being the more experienced screen actor Kerr bests him in nearly every scene. And even though her character is an excellent role model for young women, Brynner is almost the exact opposite. Brynner, who won an Oscar (and the Tony) for his performance gives an effective, if strongly-stereotyped, performance. A lot of films during this period portrayed Asian citizens a bit more harshly than may have been true. It would be several years before more honest portrayals would be found. However, considering the times much of what Brynner does skates on the edge of that line and frequently plants his toe on the other side of it.
The rest of the actors seem to lack strong personalities. Even Tuptim (Rita Moreno) and her lover Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas) fail to create a resonance with the audience that carries beyond their periodic scenes. The strangest part is that even though Kerr’s voice is outstanding and the edited seamlessly, it is not her own. Marni Nixon, who dubbed a large number of stars in that period, did most of the singing. Even Moreno would receive the dubbing treatment.
The production design and the costumes are magnificent and despite being an unnecessary diversion from the story, the production of The Small House of Uncle Thomas is spectacular. But the music never really hits me. I loved most of the songs in The Sound of Music, but here I found myself more and more unimpressed with each passing song. Only the standard “Getting to Know You” makes much of an impression on me and that comes after three songs have already come and gone. I’m not sure if it’s just the seemingly sanitized nature of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work or if I’m just not that enthralled by their style of music, but when you’re watching a big screen musical, that music is an integral part to the enjoyment of the film.
Devotees of Rodgers and Hammerstein no doubt adore this big screen version. Director Walter Lang does an excellent job keeping the film from feeling stage-bound, but that’s not enough to appeal to a broader audience. That the film was seldom edited on song and dance numbers makes for a rather lengthy production. The one benefit of this decision allows Kerr to shine in each of her scenes. This kind of old fashioned musical went out of style by the late 1960’s and has never reemerged. Not that it shouldn’t. A lot of times these grand productions provided the audience with a glimpse of far off places, inventive melodies and stories that weren’t as fluffy as a lot of more broad forms of entertainment. And while I may not adore The King and I like a lot of other people I know, it’s an interesting glimpse into the past and gives one a better understanding of how this genre managed to dominate movie theaters all over the country for three excellent decades.
May 8, 2011