Sometimes—frequently, in fact, when you’re going to classic movies—you see something so great it alters your sense of how great movies can be. There was a little bit of resistance in going to see The King and I: The Boy wasn’t super-interested, but as I know so much of the music and had never seen this (despite having read the book and seen other versions of the story), I felt it was worth the risk. I merely had to tempt The Flower with tales of set and costume design (we had just seen the amazingly decorated and costumed Flash Gordon) and she was there, despite the two-and-a-half hour runtime. All the kids knew of this was the episode of “The Family Guy” (perhaps ironically) where Lois wants to put on this musical and Peter comes and ruins it with a sci-fi plotline, half-naked chicks and himself in the role of Anna.
At first, I wasn’t sure I’d made the right choice. The movie starts just a little awkwardly with “Whistle a Happy Tune” on the ship bringing Anna and her son to Siam. Deborah Kerr (singing by the wonderful Marni Nixon, who also dubbed Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady) is fine—great, even—as is little Rex Thompson as her son (though he’s not in it much), but when Yul Brynner steps on to the (gloriously appointed) soundstage, the movie takes off and just never slows down, even when the actual tempo of the music is slower.
The story is the one you probably know: In an effort to modernize his country, The King of Siam brings Anna Leonowens, an English widow, to Siam to tutor his many, many, many children. The main point of contention between them, initially, is he has promised her a place outside the Palace walls but has reneged on her arrival. He puts her off repeatedly, barely even acknowledging her concerns about raising her son in a harem. Another plot concerns his most recent wife, who arrives at the same time as Anna, but who loves another and who takes very strongly to the western teachings.
I think it goes without saying that this is not a movie that could be made today. Actually, a relative of mine was a producer on the ’90s version with Jodie Foster, which was underrated I’m sure in part because of the shadow of colonialism or whatever excuse was in vogue at the time to garner attention for the would-be-victimized and to suppress art. But it was oh-so-tame compared to this now 60-year-old film. The Russian-ish Yul Brynner plays the King while Rita Moreno (!) plays the broken-hearted Burmese wife who—and this is one of the great scenes in movie history—puts on a Siamese version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In a musical written by a couple of Jewish(ish) guys.
I will say, without hesitation, that no one who has ever raised the meagrest concern about the racial/ethnic/appropriative aspect of this has never contributed anything of merit to art, and quite possibly has never contributed anything of value to anything.
Hammerstein’s (and Brynner’s) King is an immensely likable character, admirable even (in the context of his culture), and truly the hero of the piece. He’s struggling to make his country competitive in a global economy, and he knows that this means giving up many of the conceits that are central to his monarchy. He has an understand of the rightness and wrongness abstract concepts (particularly vis-à-vis slavery) with a sort of willful blindness about how this enlightenment should affect him personally (particularly as regards to an unwilling wife). This virtually makes him the Thai Thomas Jefferson.
Too, the love story between Anna and the King is a beautiful thing: He gathers that there is something special about this spirited English woman, and he respects that he cannot have her. Even more dramatically, he realizes he respects her, cares about her opinion of him—just as she realizes she’s strongly attracted to him, despite her disgust at many of his barbarous ways.
The Boy had the same initial trepidation that I had. We weren’t worried it was going to be bad, but we weren’t sure how good it was going to be. He was terribly pleased by the show, as was The Flower who loved the costumes and set designs as much as I imagined she would. This two make a rather strong recommendation for a movie from the ’50s, especially for one that is a stage play produced in a grand manner without reducing much of its essential staginess. We would all recommend it highly.
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…