The King and I
Review by Rosie & PlazaQueen
Director: Walter Lang
Writer: Margaret Landon (novel); Oscar Hammerstein II and Ernest Lehman (play)
Music: Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein II
Starring: Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, and Rita Moreno
Rating: Victory Star Destroyer
'Tis the season of the high school musical and one of the Hutlets is involved in a high school production of the somewhat controversial but nontheless glittering The King and I. Not starring in it, mind you, just running the light board. Justifiably proud of her classmates' work, she constantly nattered on about how good So-and-so was, how funny Madame Director's staging was; et cetera et cetera et cetera ...
From her descriptions, it sounded like Madame Director was lifting these humorous moments right out of the classic film version. Since the lighting-whiz was constantly listening to a dramatic recording we already owned to learn the sound cues, I thought she might also benefit from seeing the movie ... at the very least, have an understanding of where the "brilliant ideas" were actually coming from. Besides, I always thought Yul Brynner's King was brilliantly funny as well as touchingly poignant.
Yul Brynner had created the role of King Mongkut of Siam on Broadway and performed it again in the 1956 film adaptation as well as in numerous revivals and touring productions. As far as I'm concerned, the deliberately mysterious and exotic actor still owns the part, though he died in 1985 (his tombstone reads, "Don't smoke" for those of you who are wondering ...)
The musical tells the (very highly) fictionalized story of Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr), a widow who goes with her young son, Louis, to the court of the King of Siam to be the live-in governess of his children. The culture clash is apparent right from the beginning when she defies the Prime Minister and confronts the King about the terms of her employment. She is won over during the introduction of the King's many children, but the conflicts continue.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's music and Hammerstein and Ernest Lehman's delightful story brilliantly illustrate the cultural clashes between East and West in numbers like A Puzzlement. When the Crown Prince Chulalungkorn confounds his father with an observation on the English teacher's teachings, this tune expresses just how frustrating being a king (and father) can be. The Crown Prince's mother, the King's chief wife, sings Something Wonderful to explain to the English woman how hard the King is trying to do what is best for his country. Small House of Uncle Thomas is Lady Tuptim's (Rita Moreno) defiant adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's diatribe against slavery; this is potent stuff, as Tuptim is the King's newest "gift" and concubine. The best known number though is Shall We Dance, the energetic ballroom waltz The King insists Anna teach to him.
The King learns as much, if not more, from Anna as his children. And although ultimately he cannot adapt enough to survive the changes he himself has brought to his country, he is pleased that his son will be a good and wise king in this new world. The King and I is a love story on many levels: the love of the King for his country; the forbidden love of Tuptim, and Anna's love for the King in spite of the huge cultural gulf between them. Who wouldn't be completely enchanted by that?
As a movie, this DVD was great, but I'm a big time special features fan. This one offered the theatrical trailer; a couple of newsreel shorts dealing with the film premiere and Yul Brynner's short acceptance speech for the Best Actor Oscar, "I hope this is not a mistake, because I'm not giving it back. Ever!"; a sing-along; and a brief trivia game about the film. Back in those days, very few film productions were documented with all the behind the scenes things they do today, but this would have been a great one. Heck, I wouldn't have minded seeing the public service announcement Brynner taped shortly before his death from lung cancer that was shown after his death as a warning against smoking, but that's just me.
If a deluxe edition of this movie is ever released, I hope they will find more background material to include. I'll buy it, for sure!
About the controversy surrounding this tale: this film and the book it's based on are banned in Thailand (the former Siam) for it's ludicrous historical inaccuracies and the deep disrespect shown to the royal family. The King did not die of "broken heart" but instead was felled by malaria. His son, Chulalongkorn, did in fact become the man who modernized Thailand and instituted many cultural and social reforms for his country. Other than these, nothing in Anna Leonowens's book had any basis in fact, and is now looked upon as an outrageously fabricated resumé of her time in Siam. But despite the blatant falsehoods and out-right fiction of the story, the musical is still a cheerful one, and could have been staged in any kingdom, any place, any time ... but Siam was the exotica of the day and fell under the escapist rubric of the Rogers and Hammerstein formula. So ... now you know. And we still love it, despite its many flaws. :)
Images from imdb.com and amazon.com
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