Sunday 5 October 2008

The King and I (1956)

Some really big ships are dropping anchor on some really big sets, big enough to take advantage of the CinemaScope 55 process. Just as big, it seems, is the hoop skirt belonging to one of the passengers: she's Anna Leonowens, the English governess who is the I in the title. She's in the Bangkok of 1862 to become governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam, now Thailand, where apparently it is illegal to own a copy of this film because of its rampant historical inaccuracies. Then again, this is a Hollywood musical so anyone who expects historical truth must be naive, insane or both. Naturally she is as completely convinced of the superiority of her own culture as any of the travelling English of the colonialist era.

Anna is played by Deborah Kerr, who was Scots not English and whose singing voice is dubbed. However she has about the most realistic ethnicity and presence of anyone in the film. She arrives with her son Louis, in the form of a 14 year old New Yorker called Rex Thompson, who had previously played another young Englishman: King Edward VI in Young Bess. The first Thai they meet is Kralahome, a sort of prime minister and right hand man to the king who meets their boat. He's Martin Benson, an Englishman, and like anyone official in this film he prances around with his hands defiantly postured on his hips or crossed over his bare chest.

The King is Oscar winning Yul Brynner, who postures and prances even more outrageously than anyone else, presumably as befits a king, and he has all the intensity required for the role. He certainly had exotic looks, but he and his bald head came from Russia not Thailand, and there's more than a little difference between them. Even his broken English is broken in a distinctly Russian way rather than an southeast Asian way. At least many of his many wives and children appear to be of at least something close to authentic ethnicity, though naturally not the ones we pay much attention to. The rest are there as window dressing.

The most prominent wife is Lady Thiang, played by Terry Saunders, presumably another American. The most obvious (and most emphatic) son is Prince Chulalongkorn, Patrick Adiarte, another New Yorker who apparently made a career out of playing ethnic easterners even though he's about as Thai as I am. Tuptim, the newest wife is a gift from the neighbouring King of Burma (now Myanmar) and she's played by Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno, who my wife knows best from The Electric Company, which is a sort of Sesame Street type show that featured Mel Brooks and many of his regulars.

So I've managed to bias myself against this movie without getting very far in. It's a musical, so I should be paying more attention to things like singing and dancing than authenticity, right? Well, to my eyes and ears, those are just as bad. I'm admittedly not a fan of musicals, mostly because I get annoyed by everyone breaking off every five minutes for a song and dance number, though I've found some that I've thoroughly enjoyed. I enjoy the old Busby Berkeley movies because they stretch sanity in a uniquely surreal way, watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is far from a hardship and there are some true gems out there that I can't resist like Singin' in the Rain.

Yet this one seems pretty pedestrian. The song and dance numbers contain little dancing and very unmemorable songs. Then again, I'm apparently a heathen when it comes to this stuff. I grew up listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber tapes in the car and he seems to be regarded as somehow lesser than classic American musical composers like Rodgers and Hammerstein, who are responsible for the music here. Yet, with some exceptions, he writes catchy tunes with clever lyrics. Richard Rodgers wrote some pleasant music here and Oscar Hammerstein's words are certainly clever but very little of it is particularly memorable. Shall We Dance may be the exception that proves the rule: both the tune and the words are memorable and both Kerr and Brynner both actually move.

The most memorable dance performance here is something quite bizarre and hardly orthodox in any situation: it's a Thai version of Uncle Tom's Cabin created by Tuptim as a surprise for her king and husband as the entertainment during a dinner given for a visiting English ambassador. It's inspired lunacy with delightful choreography with minimalist props. In comparison, the sets in the film proper are vast and amazing but they generally look like really amazing sets. The Thai Uncle Tom's Cabin trumps them on every front.

So there are delights here. This is chief among them but there are others: they're just not in the places I thought they'd be. They're in the often polite bickering between Anna and the king, and the transparent jealousy. They're in the constant use of 'et cetera, et cetera, et cetera' at the end of so many of the king's pronouncements. They're in the blatant gameplaying tied to the rule that has her forced to keep her head below his at all times. Mostly they're in Yul Brynner's reactions, which are priceless. Perhaps those priceless reactions really are enough to warrant his Oscar.

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