Film review by Jason Day of The King and I (1956), the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on the life of Anna Leonowens. Starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.
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Teacher Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) arrives in Siam with her son Louis (Rex Thompson) to educate the children of the King of Siam (Yul Brynner) – now modern day Thailand – the ways of the great, western, British Empire. She meets with difficulties from the start as the King is as stubborn as she is, but their grudging respect for each other slowly turns into a much deeper affection.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
It’s good when a Hollywood myth is debunked, especially when it concerns an artist you admire and even more so when that artist debunks it for you.
For a long time, it was believed singer and general ‘star dubber’ Marni Nixon sang for six-times Oscar nominated (but never to win) actress Kerr in this dripping-with-beauty musical.
Not so it transpires, for Kerr, according to the woman herself in the BBC’s Talking Pictures, sang the intro’s to all of the songs in the movie. Nixon jumped in for the rest and their voices were mixed.
Kerr also sang the entire of the movie’s first song ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’ by herself. No dubbing, no mixing. Well done, Ms Kerr!
In fairness, you can easily detect the rise in quality when Nixon’s work is brought on board, but Kerr’s professionalism (she spent months trying to perfect a singing voice) remains intact.
Kerr finally received an (honorary) Oscar in 1994 for her “impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance”.
To me, this lends her a slightly la-de-dah, precious air which I don’t think her performances reflect.
Even here, as the outwardly prim educatress, she jumps at the chance to reveal her character’s sexuality. When her son declares the approaching Prime Minister of Siam is “naked”, Anna quickly grabs a pair of binoculars to get a good eyeful and seems rather disappointed when she finds him to only be “half naked”.
Later, when the King’s wives enquire about her body shape under her huge, hooped skirts, she happily lifts the dress right up to show a slim, girlish figure hidden underneath.
Then, after a brisk Polka for the ‘Shall We Dance’ number, Anna pants out of breath, matching he King’s exertions.
A quick note about those ravishing, silky and creamy costumes, displayed so well as Kerr whips around the sets with Brynner to the showpiece song ‘Shall We Dance?’. They were designed by the great Irene Sharaff, who won an Academy Award for her work, one of the movie’s five wins.
Magisterial performances from the leads, with Brynner – flashing a smile and his spectacular, sculpted bod – deservedly scooping the Best Actor Oscar for the role he will always be remembered for. 1956 was the year of Brynner; he created his leading man status as a lead or co-lead in Anastasia and De Mille’s colossal The Ten Commandments.
The same can’t be said about the casting of those in support. There’s nothing wrong with their performances, but in another example of the racism that was rife in Hollywood, non-Asian actors secure the plumb, smaller roles. Rita Moreno (Puerto Rican) is soulful and throbs and trills beautifully as Tuptim, but never convinces as the King’s ‘Thai treat’.
The best number of the whole film? For me, in terms of the staging and originality, it is the ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas/Run Eliza’ sequence, which has a plushly amazing Kabuki feel to it.
Cast & credits
Director: Walter Lang.
Producer: Charles Brackett.
Writer: Ernest Lehman.
Camera: Leon Shamroy.
Music: Alfred Newman.
Sets: John DeCuir, Lyle R. Wheeler.
Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner, Rita Moreno, Martin Benson, Terry Saunders, Rex Thompson, Carlos Rivas, Patrick Adiarte, Alan Mowbray.