Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Lovers of My Fair Lady tend to be knocked over when discovering the wonderful the original
version Pygmalion with Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard. Now fans of The King and I
have a chance to experience the same kind of uplift - after this 1946 retelling of the Anna
Leonowens story, one only misses the Rodgers and Hammerstein music, a little. Rex Harrison and
Irene Dunne are magnificent in the first screen adaptation (romanticization?) of a true story.
Anna Owens (Irene Dunne) arrives with her small son Louis in Bangkok to become
the new teacher for the royal children, and initially has problems with both the vain and
forbidding King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) and his Prime Minister Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb). She eventually
wins the King's respect and is sought for his advice on ways to convince the colonial powers
that he is modern and not a 'barbarian.' But when his number one concubine Tuptim (Linda Darnell)
defies him, Mongkut doesn't listen to Anna's pleas for mercy.
A lot of the dialogue is the same as the popular musical version, but Anna and the King of
Siam takes in a wider range of themes and incidents. If one can do without the heavy-breathing
implied near-affair between the Siamese monarch and the teacher of his dozens of children, there's
a lot more of value in this version.
Instead of a musical comedy with a couple of side tragedies, Anna and the King of Siam is
a more rounded telling of the Anna Leonowens tale. Anna's holding out for her promised house is
much more complicated, as is her relationship with both the King and his prime minister. The
subplot of the unhappy concubine Tuptim is far richer - she's at first extremely jealous of Anna,
and when she's caught running away with her childhood sweetheart, a monk, the issue is a lot
more complex than Innocent Victim of ancient tradition.
Rex Harrison's King Mongkut is less of an amusing autocrat and more of a petulant, eager man
somewhat confused by his own role within a country that must change or be seized by European powers.
Why he thinks becoming more modern will keep the Colonials at bay isn't exactly clear. His absolute
power isolates him from reason and rationality, and Anna's haughty resistance to the King's constant
demands gives him an inkling of more democratic ideas, such as the concept that other beings
besides himself have a right to basic dignity. The script makes him endearingly juvenile
when he desperately wants to impress a group of visiting foreign dignitaries. He splashes rose
water in their faces as a greeting and then personally throws some late-arriving napkins in their
laps. If they're impressed by Mongkut's civility, it's because he doesn't sacrifice anybody for
their suppertime entertainment.
Harrison's achievement is all the more impressive considering the almost ridiculous costumes he's made
to wear - oddball uniforms and strange hats. But he makes much more sense than
Yul Brynner's bare-chested macho-man; the dinner party in the musical version cannot help but end on
a romantic meeting between the King and his English advisor on European manners.
When Harrison's Mongkut asks about President Lincoln or peruses Anna's quotes about honor and human
rights, he seems honestly interested in expanding his consciousness, democracy-wise.
Anna and the King of Siam counters this sensitivity by giving Harrison a 'yellow-peril'
response when she protests her torture of Tuptim and her lover: "Do you want to see what I will
do to them?" he chortles in his best Fu-Manchu tones. The film carries through with his barbaric
death sentence. That's what probably infuriated Europeans intent on bringing enlightenment to
those Third-world barbarians -
they may like the governmental reforms, but they'll never give up their customs that oppress women.
Primitive pride is indistinguishable from sexual repression, I suppose.
Anna must overlook the roasting of Tuptim and make do with the King's softening and ever-more
reasonable response to her teachings. Anna and
the King of Siam stresses the female role of teacher and civilizer. (spoiler) Deprived of her
own son, she almost begs to stay on as the royal teacher, and transfers her motherly affection to
the heir apparent (Mickey Roth and Tito Renaldo), desperately in need of a mentor but also a shoulder
to cry on, something that custom forbids him to do with his real mother, Lady Thiang (Gale
Sondergaard). As being a woman already assigns Anna a negative social status, her education and
assertiveness are her only weapons for keeping her self-dignity.
Of all the great actresses of Hollywood's Golden Age, Irene Dunne comes across as the most deserving
of higher honors. I've yet to see a movie that wasn't made better by her presence, and her vehicles
tend to be unusually intelligent. Hers are the best Screwball comedies (well, maybe a
tie with Carole Lombard) and her singing in the Universal James Whale Showboat is more
impressive than the MGM remake. 1
With Irene Dunne, one feels like one is getting a whole woman instead of one divided up into pieces;
she's the object lesson as to why a sex-object female is such a sad thing. By comparison,
Marilyn Monroe seems like an emotional cripple.
Anna and the King of Siam is a studio picture clearly given a lot of attention in the
design and art direction departments. It has that interior stage artificiality but most of it works.
We even get used to seeing Lee J. Cobb looking like he's been boiled in a lobster pot; his character
grows on us and earns our respect. Linda Darnell and Gale Sondergaard's characters surpass their
oriental makeup and just have to be taken as part of the Hollywood soup. It would be interesting
to see an Asian film with an Asian cast about the same sort of subject. Would Americans even be
able to follow it without a lot of guiding explanations?
Fox's Studio Classics DVD of Anna and the King of Siam looks radiant in a glowing
B&W transfer, with a clear soundtrack bringing out the dynamism and detail of Bernard Herrmann's
eccentric music score. He seems to know that the story is sufficiently exotic and violent to not
need his strongest efforts; it's an atypical score for him and a refreshing change from bombast
The disc comes with the expected newsreels and trailer, a textless remnant which strives for
sensational effect. The highlight is a Biography episode, Anna and the King -
The Real Story of Anna Leonowens. It very neatly charts the truth behind the story, separating
the facts from pieces of Ms. Leonowen's other fictional novels that were folded into the tale when
it was re-written by Margaret Landon almost fifty years later. Probably produced in conjuction with a
dreary P.C. remake in 1999 starring Jodie Foster, the show recounts stage productions, the much
more famous musical and even a pitiful 70s TV show with Samantha Eggar and a laugh track.
much of the same dialogue from this first movie seems to have survived all the incarnations. The
real Anna Leonowens' life may not have been the romantic idyll of the movies, but it's fascinating
to watch anyway.
The cover portraits of Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne make both actors look very weird and unreal ...
it's the airbrushing, perhaps. Dunne looked great but was in her forties when the film was made.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Anna and the King of Siam rates:
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), Spanish (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Supplements: Biography: Anna and the King - The Real Story of Anna Leonowens;
Fox Movietone News: Gala Hollywood Premiere; trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 26, 2005
1. I strongly recommend a
second-rate Warners Kern-Hammerstein musical called Sweet Adeline; the story mostly stinks but
Dunne's songs are hauntingly rapturous: Why Was I Born?, Lonely Feet.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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