June 28, 1956 Fox 133 minutes
Sometimes familiarity breeds myopia. The King & I was among the first movies I ever saw—and saw again. The soundtrack among the first records I ever wore out. This and Oklahoma! were undoubtedly responsible for leading me down the wayward path of musical theater obsession. But like a beloved first toy, I soon moved on to other musicals, other loves, and over the decades King & I developed the patina of something I’d long since outgrown and didn’t need to re-engage. Revisit it I did, nonetheless, on occasion—with no rekindled passion; the reverse in fact: the last time I saw it 23 years ago, the film seemed dull; stodgy and old-fashioned. But today I am eight years old once more, and after the disturbing maturity and mood indigo of Carousel, I am all the happier to be under the spell of the King again.
The spell was first cast, some 50 years ago, the moment we entered that grand cathedral of chinoiserie, Grauman’s Chinese Theater—in an unfamiliar neighborhood across the hill, that as yet had no meaning or resonance to me: Hollywood. Entering its inner sanctum from the farthest side door of the rear orchestra, I was struck first by the vast rows of velvet seats before us, like a field of wheat. Up on screen were images of such towering height, such saturated color, and exotic atmosphere as to be instantly hypnotic. In short order music came in to lull me further into rapture. I was transported—no, converted. I had found my religion. Here was my equivalent to the story of Moses. In a parallel to the Book of Exodus, we had just emigrated, not just across the great desert (Mojave), but across an entire continent from Syracuse, New York to Los Angeles. My father, having earned a night-school engineering degree secured a low-level draughtsman’s job in the burgeoning aerospace industry, and in March ’56 loaded up our ’47 Buick and drove to the Promised Land. “Hollywood” was merely an incidental neighbor, tho its influence did seep into my parents consciousness—at least enuf to make the expedition to its hallowed palaces once in awhile. These experiences over the next ten years would rock my world; contaminate my imagination and render me incapable of ever considering any occupation outside of the arts. I still remember sitting in Kanter’s deli after one such outing, confused by how little impact the experience seemed to have on either of my parents. Was it only because I was a child, I wondered? Would I be far less impressionable, engaged or affected when I reached adulthood? By the time the corned beef sandwiches arrived they had already forgotten the movie and were worried about tomorrow’s chores. I had just journeyed to a faraway planet, a magical land where nothing was less than spectacular in sight or sound and it wasn’t so easy, or desirable, for me to come back down to earth. I see now there’s a great deal of adult material in The King & I; matters of philosophy, politics, racism, and forbidden sexual undercurrents. And yet, remarkably, the show has as much to engage a child on other levels: the history lesson, the travelogue, the conceit of storytelling thru song and dance; the depiction of childhood in a foreign and royal environment. What a heady brew for and 8 year old to digest. On top of which the film made its searing impression upon me in full Cinemascope 55 theatrical presentation, in a “palace” setting—unlike so many musicals whose introduction I later endured on a 21” B&W television. The movie’s luster was diminished over the years with faded theatrical prints, pan & scan TV broadcasts and primitive video transfers. But the joy of modern technology has allowed the glorious restoration of such relics for us to enjoy—if not in Grauman’s hallowed temples—in the convenience and privacy of our own homes.
It took only a dozen years for Margaret Landon’s highly-fictionalized biography, Anna & the King of Siam, to be translated from a best-selling novel to major Hlwd film, to Bway musical and back to film. But Darryl Zanuck’s ’46 movie is what inspired the musical, not the book. Stage star Gertrude Lawrence saw in it the makings of a vehicle for herself and bought the rights before selling R&H on the project—with a contractual guarantee to star in any subsequent film. But the show was her swan song as well as triumph, and she died 18 months into the 3-year Bway run. She was only 52 years old. With screen rights still at Fox, Zanuck found himself back in charge. Eschewing the trend du jour, he handed directing reins to a veteran of Fox musicals: Walter Lang—who had shepherded many lightweight Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, Dan Dailey pics, as well as R&H’s luminous State Fair, and more recently Call Me Madam. But The King & I was something else; a serious story of culture clash, race-relations and gender inequality. While Hlwd was still toiling the fields of frivolity with such fluff as The Girl Rush and She’s Working Her Way Thru College, Bway was maturing in subject matter as well as craft. King & I was something new for Lang: depth. But he easily stepped up to the challenge, besting Zinnemann, Mankiewicz and Henry King with an Oscar nom for direction. Better still he cracked the Hlwd ceiling, earning the film a Best Picture nod—the first Bway musical of the Golden Age to be so embraced by Hlwd. Variety reviewed it as “The Blockbuster of the Year.” But the year was still young, and largess was in. As if in flagrant response to ‘55’s Oscar king, the low-budget Marty, the studios went on an Epic spree—with record-setting lengths. Clocking in at 133 minutes, King & I was in fact the shortest of the years Best Picture nominees: Friendly Persuasion clocked in at 139 minutes. Around the World in 80 Days: a leisurely 178. Giant: a gigantic 197. But The Ten Commandments topped them all with a butt-numbing 219 minutes. These last 3 films would be the top 3 grossers of 1957, but King was second only to Guys & Dolls as the top film of 1956 earning $8,000,000. Now that Bway shows were earning big bucks, Hlwd was finally showing them more respect. Another sign of the evolving musical theater was just how important the choreographer was becoming. Studios assigned their own directors to adapt the new Bway hits, but more and more they were using a show’s original Bway choreographer: DeMille, Kidd, Jack Cole and now Jerome Robbins. In retrospect it seems blasphemous that MGM didn’t hire Robbins for On the Town, tho Kelly & Donen were no slouches. With King & I, Robbins was deemed essential, in particular to recreate his ballet: The Small House of Uncle Thomas. But his sure hand is felt in other musical scenes as well. Lang would generously credit him for much of the film’s success. It is astonishing, if unfortunate, that aside from one other film, this remains the sum total of Robbins’ work in Hlwd.
Rex Harrison and Noel Coward were courted to star in the original stage production; this at a time when Anglo actors were still absurdly accepted in ethnic roles. (Harrison is simply ludicrous in the film Anna.) Then along came Yul Brynner; exotic, of indeterminable origin: Slavic? Gypsy? Mongol? At any rate: unique. Not very Siamese, but did it matter? But effective as he was, Gertie was considered the Star of the show at first; Brynner won his Tony Award in the category of supporting actor. And tho technically the role is lesser (the King has only one real song—a soliloquy; Anna has five, each one a Rodgers standard) Brynner grew into such a force with the role that by the end of his life he alone was headlining the show in revival. There was little doubt he would recreate the part on film, tho some sources report that Brando (and for once, not Sinatra) was under consideration—what an interesting King he would have made! But just as well. . . Yul owned the role like no other and leveraged it into Hlwd stardom. He won an Oscar for it—the first win ever for an actor recreating a Bway musical performance. It didn’t hurt that he had leading roles that same year in Cecil DeMille’s Ten Commandments (in battle with Moses) & Anatole Litvak’s Anastasia (which brought Ingrid Bergman her comeback Oscar). In the history of Hlwd there are few 3-punch screen debuts as auspicious. In ’56 Brynner was King. Perhaps it’s a sign of my age, but I’d never responded before quite so much to Brynner’s magnetism. Of course nowadays the bald head as fashion statement is so prevalent—even among the young—it’s amusing to consider that Brynner’s dome was so unique in the ‘50s as to be virtually exclusive. And he was the first to show us that being hairless went a long way toward looking ageless as one aged. Irene Sharaff’s Oscar-winning costumes are among the most essential and decorative of the decade, but I’d not realized the King’s wardrobe was actually more varied, more colorful and interesting than Anna’s. It’s also fairly erotic. While Kerr is stuck in one enormous Victorian tent after another, Brynner struts about in silk pajamas, gilded jackets and studded vests; gold ankle bracelets and diamond earrings. Frequently bare-chested and often barefoot he revels in his physical freedom, puffing his chest with pride, planting his feet with pagan firmness. He throws his sexual charisma about the screen—while Kerr is swallowed up in oversized hoops, strangled in delicate lace. It’s hard to imagine why those Victorians would maintain their stiff British wardrobes in climates such as India and Siam. Bangkok is one of the hottest, most humid cities on earth—don’t you think some accommodation could be made short of going native? There’s one fairly laughable moment where Anna is summoned by the King in the middle of the night. Insisting to the guards she be allowed to “put something on,” she enters his study moments later in full throttle Bo-Peep gown. Even if Anna were such a prig as to cling to her absurd dress code, couldn’t she at least let her son join the other children in running barefoot, or in short sleeves? A sexual undercurrent runs thru-out the film. When the King’s wives are dolled up in hoop skirts for the visiting dignitaries, their habitual bowing reveals a lack of underwear. Fleeing the British arrivals, screening their faces with their skirts, the ladies run off flashing the Englishmen. But Anna doesn’t seem to react to Sir Edward’s smarmy comment, “I have never received so good an impression in so short a time.” Moments earlier the King has reacted to Anna’s bare-shouldered ball gown—having never seen her in anything less than a full-buttoned collar. Suddenly there’s a whiff of sex in the air.
Deborah Kerr had surprised many with her smoldering sexuality in From Here to Eternity, but she was still Hlwd’s go-to Englishwoman. Tho they first considered Maureen O’Hara, and allegedly Dinah Shore (can you imagine!), Kerr seems the inevitable, and perfect, choice for Anna. She hits all the requisite notes: British stiffness, haughty defiance, simmering emotions. Her one flaw: she doesn’t sing. But Zanuck clearly felt her stature and talent more important than a natural soprano. Enter Marni Nixon, a vocal chameleon who with this assignment begins a career of dubbing song-challenged actresses in Hlwd musicals. Her match to Kerr’s speaking voice is perhaps the most seamless of all her dubs. But credit must also go to Kerr, who for years (before Nixon’s dubbing was revealed) fooled audiences with her dulcet tones. Matching Brynner step by step, she also earned an Oscar nom, and might well have won if not for the collective embrace and apology to Ingrid Bergman—post her Rossellini affair. Elsewhere the casting is all over the map. The tragic Burmese lovers, Tuptim & Lun Tha, are played by Hispanic actors. I don’t know what stock Terry Saunders (Lady Thiang) comes from, but it sure isn’t Asian. And Martin Benson’s Kralahome is another Brit-on-ethnic-stage-holiday. Many sources like to mention that Tuptim was offered to Dorothy Dandridge, as tho it were the missed-opportunity of a lifetime. I don’t think it would have done her, or she it, any favors. Rita Moreno is only slightly less wrong, but apparently Oriental actors were hard to come by in the ‘50s.
Likewise, Robbins’ corps de ballet are a Benetton troupe: Caucasians, Latinos, and Japanese—not a single Thai?—all hidden under masks or heavy makeup. The children look most authentic of all, but as likely to be Chinese or Filipino. Mexican actor Carlos Rivas plays Lun Tha—tho he, too, is dubbed, begging the question: why cast him? He neither looks appropriate, nor is up to the demands of the role. It’s interesting that news of Lun Tha’s death and Tuptim’s removal are so quickly forgotten in the climactic confrontation that follows between Anna & the King. While the King is to blame for two senseless deaths, it is his death that moves us in the end. In Hammerstein’s book, Anna’s son, Louis befriends the equally young Prince Chulalongkorn and their friendship carries some added poignancy and weight. Curiously this was jettisoned in the film. Here Louis has so little presence as to be nearly forgotten. Otherwise Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is a model of economy and narrative flow—unlike Oklahoma! it doesn’t feel too long. But the story here has much greater tension, and the scenes between songs often yield just as much interest and pleasure. Having improved on Hammerstein, Lehman, who also wrote some nifty dramas like North by Northwest and Sweet Smell of Success would periodically be granted some of Hlwd’s biggest Bway adaptations in the years to come.
Scenes between Anna & the King play almost as arias in their own right; a spoken music—and not just filler between songs. And tho I love the score, dare I share my lack of enthusiasm for several items? “We Kiss in a Shadow” has a potent gay subtext, but I’m not so crazy about the tune. It’s a shame they cut the lovers’ other duet, “I Have Dreamed,” which isn’t much different in content—you can see why they thought it unnecessary. But it’s also one of my favorite R&H ballads, and possibly the best song in the show. On the other hand, “Something Wonderful” has always felt lugubrious to me—too insistent a melody; too unconvincing an argument: Yes, he’s rotten, but then he’ll do something nice. Bah!—we’re back to Billy Bigelow-land again.
We don’t need to excuse the King’s behavior. We see, and feel his struggle. His conundrum, “A Puzzlement” is a necessary window on his character but let’s face it, (like “Pore Jud is Daid”) this is one song that taxes patience on repeated playing. In fact Zanuck at first refused to use it in the movie. Brynner naturally bristled, but Darryl relented to at least reconsider the matter on the film’s completion. Seeing a dramatic hole he approved its last minute addition. Elsewhere the score is glorious. “Hello Young Lovers,” is nicely set among the King’s wives in Anna’s chamber. “Getting to Know You” is the charm song personified, with a shameless use of children to milk smiles from the audience. Even more so, the introductory “March” that gives each tyke an entrance no less grand that the broads that parade out to “Beautiful Girls” in Follies. But for sheer rahadlakum, there’s nothing to match the climactic roundelay, “Shall We Dance”—a jaunty polka in its own right that has so much more going on in context. For starters we see the first stirrings of sexual attraction between the King and Anna. Watch how subtly Kerr plays her awakening to this realization; the nervous way she folds her arms behind her, arching her back—while her bust leans forward in surrender. The rip-roaring tear about the ballroom that follows, is the film’s money shot—Kerr’s voluminous satin gown flying like a fleet of sails in a gale.
Of all the ballets in R&H musicals, easily the most successful on film is “Small House of Uncle Thomas” (Here’s a bit of nit-picking; why would Tuptim rename Harriet Stowe’s character “Thomas” when Tom is a common sound/word in the Thai language? And then to confuse matters, why would Hammerstein name Anna’s dead husband Tom also?) This ballet is not a dream or fantasy sequence, but an actual performance within the context of the show which makes a smoother transition. It also showcases the sheer theatricality of the presentation, a unique imagining of South Asian storytelling & dance—layered on a familiar tale from a radically different culture; a fascinating juxtaposition. Beyond that it serves as metaphor for dramatic conflict in the main story, and not merely a decorative tangent. Tho said to be a re-creation of the Bway original, the filmed ballet surpasses any possible stage picture. With a deep black background and judicious lighting the exotic costumes and stage effects pop in sheer relief. Without resorting to cinematic tricks or fancy editing, the brilliance of the stagecraft is unimpeded—to stunning result. Using simple props with a black-clad stage crew to create effects, the piece is a master class in stage craft. Is there anything so breathtaking as the white ribbon streamers tossed out to suggest a rainstorm? They even seem to drain away as they’re dragged offstage on the floor—the shiniest black surface you’ve ever seen. The images remain as crisp and fresh as if they were filmed today.
But The King & I is blessed with an especially exotic visual design. The native décor that graces every Thai restaurant in America today, was mostly unfamiliar in the mid-50s. Here was exotica. Zanuck’s affection for the show opened the studio’s coffers. Even the lavish ’46 movie paled in comparison. With most of the scenes taking place in the Royal Palace, there was little incentive for location shooting. Hlwd could not be outdone off a soundstage. If there was any doubt remaining that Fox’s art department was unparalleled (yes, even over MGM’s) this was case closed. One exquisite palace chamber after another is revealed, each a feast for the eye. Even after shooting was completed, Zanuck called them back to add an establishing shot of 19th century Bangkok, filmed on the backlot. Expensive and unnecessary, yes, but it’s amazing how effective it is. Adding that extra cinematic extravagance, with exquisite orchestrations, conducted by Fox’s master musical director, Alfred Newman, gives the audience entry into a rarefied world: the Royal Court of Siam. The scene is art-directed to perfection, and the film’s one window on public life: barely dressed natives carrying loads on bamboo poles, water buffaloes, rickshaws, merchants, elephants. Among the storefronts are palm-thatched huts and carved temple columns, panning to the palace entrance; a tomato-red fortress with gold studding. It’s a stunner. And then we go inside. Fox’s top art-directors, John DeCuir & Lyle Wheeler give us multiple palace settings, each carefully tinted in its own hue—a yellow receiving hall; a pearl-white harem with hot pink floors; intricate wood-carved walls of glimmering light; giant murals on green marble. A lavish palace garden wasn’t good enuf for Zanuck, so he called for a re-shoot of “We Kiss in a Shadow,” in a lush palm forest with Bellagio-style fountains; a surplus for the eye to counter any deficit to the ear. Best of all, perhaps, is the King’s study: magnificently detailed, dripping in gold and blue, warm and inviting, with views of the unique Bangkok skyline--a fitting setting for a final tableau. The Oscars won by DeCuir & Wheeler were indisputably deserved.
The movie premiered at the Roxy in New York on June 28, 1956, to greater reviews than either Oklahoma! or Carousel. If it seemed foolish to release a third R&H film in nine short months, there were no regrets. Variety declared it “One of the all time greats among musicals. Sure to wow all classes and nations.” Zanuck didn’t bother with an intermission or Roadshow release, cleaning up at the nation’s wickets, while Oklahoma! still ran its 2-a-day exclusive bookings into 1957. The movie received 9 Academy Award nominations (a record for a Bway musical)—winning five. Kerr lost the Oscar but won a Golden Globe, which Brynner lost to, are you ready?...Cantinflas! Like the previous two R&H soundtracks the Capitol record was a bonanza, reaching the very top of Billboard’s Top 100, and charting for 277 weeks total. The 2001 remastered CD from Angel includes all the instrumental sequences, the entire “Small House” Ballet; the three songs filmed but cut: (“My Lord & Master”, “I Have Dreamed” & “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You”); and an Overture written strictly for the record. The studio orchestrations are suitably majestic, and the ample underscoring is as effective an argument for the practice as is likely to be made anywhere else.
If there was ever a year the Bway musical made its ascendance into the top tier of American culture it was 1956. Not only had R&H crossed over into Hlwd, they were among the top earners—and in recordings as well. But while they stumbled on Bway with Pipe Dream, their protégés were flourishing, In March Lerner & Loewe brought in My Fair Lady to unprecedented acclaim. Here was the culmination of the R&H revolution—the musical as cultural landmark. More so than ever, Bway had a new glamour—it had class. It also had a roster of talent about to unleash a string of classics unlike any before or since. Frank Loesser was back, too, with The Most Happy Fella, his own mega-musical, which proved to be a little too much for some. Still it was the newest smash when King & I hit The Big Street. Two weeks earlier the latest Hlwd tunesmith to roll his dice on Bway, the prolific Harry Warren, came a cropper with his high-stakes hopeful at the Winter Garden, Shangri-La, based on the old Frank Capra film Lost Horizon. Stars Jack Cassidy, Dennis King, Alice Ghostley, Carol Lawrence & Harold Lang were soon out of work, but opening night yielded one future bright spot: Jack Cassidy introduced Jerry Bock to Sheldon Harnick.
Since its Bway debut in 1951, The King & I has become the most perennial of all R&H shows. It is revived with regularity all over the world. Brynner ended his career playing the role over 4,600 times. As history, King & I is negligible, long condemned by the Thai government for its inaccuracy and patronization. But viewed as a fable, like Peter Pan, the story lives on. In 1999 Fox made a third version, a romantic drama without music starring Jodie Foster as Anna. Purporting to greater historical validity, it proved to be false in its own way, and not very popular. That same year a thoroughly execrable animated “remake” was released; with a radically revised script (including anthropomorphic monkeys, kickboxing kids and supernatural powers) and a much abridged score—the whole thing ran a mere 87 mintues. Ted Chapin of the R&H Organization calls it worst mistake in the company’s licensing history. I thought of including it as, technically, part of this survey but I really couldn’t stomach the idea. In the end that mid-century King & I was every bit as terrific and spectacular as it was back in Grauman’s Chinese.
Next Up: High Society
Next Up: High Society