“The King and I”
Beautiful on Blu Ray
One of the best examples of stage-to-screen adaptation, “The King and I” is quite a show. However I must note that the 50th Anniversary release on Blu Ray has a major fault— the score! Has been trimmed. 20th Century-Fox spent lots of effort and money to bring this Rodgers and Hammerstein hit to the very wide CinemaScope 55 screen, and the various artists who worked on the project certainly put a stunning vision of the show up on that wide screen. Production and costume design are gorgeous, the orchestrations are beautiful and in magnetic stereo (re-engineered for Dolby 5.1) and the cast is simply perfect. At the last minute, the studio scrapped their original idea to road show the picture in 55mm, and some filmed numbers were dropped to shorten the overall length. This always hurt and it does not matter what the excuses for cutting are because it means that the show becomes incomplete. “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Western People Funny”, and maybe “My Lord and Master”, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” and “I Have Dreamed’ have been cut in places.
Widowed English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) travels to Siam after she is offered a position to tutor the children of the King (Yul Brynner). Once in Siam, Anna and the King clash on matters of politics, ethics and the heart…two very different individuals who manage to still find the very best in each other. This magical movie has never looked or sounded better.
Extra features include the pilot episode of the “Anna and the King” TV series starring Samantha Eggar and Brynner (with optional commentary by Eggar); vintage performances from the “General Foods” Rodgers & Hammerstein TV tribute (Patricia Morison and Brynner). Several new featurettes and rare MovieTone news segments.
The show premiered on stage in 1951 (and has been performed tens of thousands of times since) and it tells a timeless story about tradition vs. modernity, Eastern vs. Western culture and men vs. women. This story was first written as the first-hand account of Anna Leonowens’ experiences in Siam in the mid-19th Century, where she had been hired by King Mongkut to teach his many children, in his hopes to push Siam into the modern age. Deborah Kerr totally embodies the strong-willed but emotionally fragile young widow Anna Leonowens; she makes Anna into a character with whom we identify and sympathize. We are on her side with her in all disputes, from demanding that she be given her own house in which to stay as part of the original deal, to calling King Mongkut to task for enforcing double-standard sexual laws that were outdated and demeaning to women even at that time.
Yul Brynner commands the screen in every scene he’s in. You simply cannot look away. His King Mongkut is someone who wants to change Siam for the better, yet struggles to cling to many of the same traditions that he slowly begins to realize is partly responsible for holding Siam back. His heartbreak by film’s end is emotionally gut wrenching. Brynner’s performance is brilliant and won him a very well deserved Oscar for Best Actor. Deborah Kerr gives a wide-ranged performance that spans all emotions throughout the course of this film. She was deservedly nominated for Best Actress.
This film would have given us enough t to chew on just in the complex relationship between our two principals alone and there are two spellbinding subplots, one of the forbidden love between Tuptim (Rita Moreno) one of King Mongkut’s many wives, and Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas), and the visit by the British Ambassador Sir John Hay (Alan Mowbray) whom King Mongkut wants to impress with how civilized he, and the Kingdom of Siam, is. Then there is the “play within the play”—the hypnotic Siamese theater performance of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s epic American tale of oppression and cruelty, ”Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Anna’s young son Louis (Rex Thompson) provides us with an effective sounding-board onto whom Anna reveals the kind of feelings about the situation that she cannot express to the King, a deeply conflicted man who agonizes at the prospect of losing centuries-old Siamese traditions, even as he expresses himself as one who wants to help his country modernize.
The film has great period costumes in both Eastern and Western traditions, a huge, ornate set used for the Palace and great music. Add a wonderful cast and we see how it has endured for as long as it has and will continue to do so.