Saturday, February 20, 2016

I MIssed the Music

Film: Anna and the King of Siam
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

Sometimes, you take a small step backwards. This happened to me when I watched the 1937 version of A Star is Born. It’s a good film in its own right, but it can’t compete with the 1954 version, and that’s the one I saw first. The same has happened with Anna and the King of Siam. This is a story I know and have seen before because I’ve seen The King and I, which features the defining role for the great Yul Brynner. Anna and the King of Siam is a fine film on its own, but side by side it can’t measure up.

I think it’s likely that you know the story. Anna Owens (Irene Dunne, and this story is based on the life of Anna Leonowens) arrives in Siam in the 1860s. She has been given the task of teaching the many children of King Mongkut (Rex Harrison). There is a great deal of culture shock, and much of the film concerns this. Anna is extremely (in the word of the day) headstrong, and a stubborn woman does not go over well in the court of the King of Siam. This lesson cannot evidently be taught to Anna despite the frequent efforts of Mongkut’s Prime Minister (Lee J. Cobb).

Over time, Anna and her voluminous dresses are more and more accepted by the king, his dozens (and dozens and dozens) of children and his entire harem. She attempts to teach them English and to become a more modern society while Mongkut resists in many ways despite his stated desire that Siam become a more modern country in all ways. This is despite the continued practice of slavery, the constant kowtowing, and the impossibility of Mongkut ever being wrong about anything, even when he’s wrong about something.

The natural comparison here, of course, is with The King and I, and Anna and the King of Siam suffers mostly because it was filmed in black-and-white rather than the glorious color of the musical version. But it’s kind of an unfair comparison. There is no question that this was a spectacular production filled with lavish sets and costuming, and it’s no surprise that it was nominated for (and won) the Oscar for both black-and-white cinematography and art direction. At the same time, it’s difficult not to think of what it might have looked like in color, a stray thought in a normal situation, but a real one when comparing this with a film that uses color to great effect.

One thing that is very different is that Anna and the King of Siam doesn’t shy away from being a great bit darker than the later musical version. The fate of Mongkut’s favorite wife Tuptim (Linda Darnell) is much darker here, as is the fate of Anna’s son Louis (Richard Lyon). I rather like this about the film—it feels in some ways more real because it also feels as if it is probably closer to the truth. There is (despite the actors not aging) a better sense of the passage of time here. The ending of the film—the fate of Tuptim followed by Mongkut’s eventual demise—doesn’t happen in what seems like a matter of hours but over the course of several years, which also feels closer to the reality.

There is also the problem of whitewashing. Sure, Yul Brynner wasn’t Thai, but he was Mongolian, which is at least in the vicinity. It’s at least a hell of a lot closer to Thailand/Siam than Rex Harrison’s stomping grounds. Linda Darnell, Lee J. Cobb and Gale Sondergaard’s Lady Thiang (for which she was nominated in a supporting role) are pretty far from being Siamese or even in the neighborhood of vaguely Asian. It’s a common enough problem for the 1940s, but it still feels a bit weird.

And let’s be frank here: Rex Harrison is no Yul Brynner, and nobody else was, particularly in the role the Brynner perfected and performed more than four thousand times. It’s again an unfair comparison, but a natural one. Irene Dunne, on the other hand, handles the role of Anna very well, and I like her in the role more than I do Deborah Kerr. She manages to be properly British, constantly aghast at the customs of the Siamese, willing to stand up for herself, and not a bit any less a lady of the 1860s for any of it. How she was skipped for a nomination, I’ll never fully know.

I think Anna and the King of Siam is worth watching, but I also think it’s worth watching once. While it is far darker and more interesting because of it, it flatly lacks the pageantry and joy of the musical version released ten years later. This is a case where I’ll give over to the joy and the music and the colors and costumes instead of the realism every day and twice on Sunday. What would I think if I saw this version first? Who knows, but I suspect I’d probably end up in the same place. You don’t beat Yul Brynner at his own game, not even if you’re Rex Harrison.

Why to watch Anna and the King of Siam: It’s magnificently filmed.
Why not to watch: If you’ve seen The King and I, you’ve seen the same story in color and with Yul Brynner dancing.


  1. So I've seen The King and I (and was in the show in high school) and I was reading your review, in the back of my mind wondering who played various roles, and suddenly ::record scratch:: Rex Harrison?!? Rex "I couldn;t be more British if I tried" Harrison?

    Wow. What a casting choice.

    1. Surprisingly, he's pretty good, but yea, it's a little weird.

  2. I love The King and I but it's such a strange experience watching that one versus this. In ways they seem films telling similar stories rather than different versions of the same tale.

    The King and I while it has its moments of sadness is by and large a bittersweet romance with beautiful songs, charismatic leads, vivid colors and amazing production design. While it would have been nice if this one was in color the black & white suits the more somber pitch of the story, a lot of which was removed in the adaptation to music, especially true with Tuptim. In this she's a major player in the rethink her role is diminished and she just sort of disappears after a certain point.

    The casting of non-Asians was so prevalent then it didn't both me that every single character was filled that way. I agree that Yul Brynner owns the role but I saw this first which helped me appreciate Rex's take on the part without the extra baggage of Yul's inimitability. He comes across closer to what an absolute ruler's temperament would be. Dunne and Kerr's readings are both excellent but quite different.

    I like Linda Darnell's proud take on Tuptim more than Rita Moreno's more girlish one, like Rex's it seems more in character for someone raised with her beauty and in the upbringing we're too infer she had. The fact that she falls for someone she's not intended for wouldn't totally displace years of training.

    In a sad bit of foreshadowing Linda Darnell was slightly burnt during Tuptim's climatic scene adding to her lifelong fear of fire, she had it put in her contract from that point that her characters weren't to be in serious peril from fire, tragically that is how her life ended years later.

    I watch the musical more often but this is a very good film.

    1. I think it's likely that I would have liked this more had I seen it first, but my expectations were naturally colored by having seen the big, colorful musical before this. Rex Harrison is good, but no one could compete with Brynner in this role in the history of ever. But, as I say above, I genuniely prefer Dunne over Kerr despite Kerr winning a nomination and Dunne being overlooked.

      You may (or may not) have noticed that I did not classify this as a romance. The King and I definitely is one, but the romantic angle isn't played up here. It leads to a very different overall feel for the story.

      There's a lot to like here, but given the choice, I'll take the pageantry.