I love The King and I. The music, the songs, the chemistry between Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, Oscar Hammerstein’s positive and uplifting view of humanity that is present in all his musicals. It is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best musicals. However, after watching the 1946 Anna and the King of Siam – with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison and directed by John Cromwell – I do have to admit that in comparison, The King and I is not an especially nuanced story.
Anna and the King of Siam is far richer, covering a greater period of time and with more characters given more depth and motivation, though the story is the same and there are actually a lot of scenes and dialogue that were later used in the musical. Fortunately, I only occasionally expected someone to break into song (Irene Dunne could have done it, too). Truly, the movie stands on its own and is especially well-made.
The movie begins, as in The King and I, with Anna Leonowns (Irene Dunne) arriving in Bangkok with her son, Louis (Richard Lyon), to teach the king of Siam’s children and some of his wives. Many of the events follow just as in the later film, too. They are met by the prime minister, called the Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb), Anna rather unceremoniously meets the king (Rex Harrison) and impresses him with her boldness and intelligence, and then she meets the children. There is the same story regarding her desire for a house rather than to live in the palace (specifically in the harem – Anna feels rather bad about bringing her son into a harem). The same clash of wills, the give-and take, the learning of respect and appreciation for each other. The same friendship between her and Lady Thiang (Gale Sondergaard), the king’s first wife and mother of the oldest prince, Chulalongkorn (Mickey Roth). The same incidents regarding the king’s desire to demonstrate to Britain that Siam is not a barbaric country and the same friendship between Anna and the King. One difference is that in the 1946 movie, there is less unspoken romantic tension. It is mostly a friendship, though a very warm one, which consists primarily in discussion.
Rex Harrison’s king of Siam is more of a philosopher. He was evidently persuaded years before by the Kralahome to give up being a monk and be king. He can be almost childlike in his curiosity and desire to do the right thing, but he is insatiably inquiring and always reading. There is actually a very touching friendship between him and the Kralahome (who has a very one-dimensional role in the King and I), who feels responsible for having put him in the difficult and dangerous position of being king. The king is trying to make Siam more Western in the face of growing European influence in Asia, and reveal a crueler side that very nearly drives Anna away for good.
Anna is also far more nuanced. She doesn’t just go charging in with her determined, no-nonsense British satisfaction that she is always right (as Anna does a little bit in The King and I). Anna is often right, but she also makes a number of misjudgments and has several cultural misunderstandings. There is a culture clash when she first arrives and she does not initially understand the king and the difficult position he is in as king. After an argument with him over her house, she is determined to leave and it is the Kralahome who asks her to stay and tries to get her to see things in a different light. Later, she gets so caught up in the king that she does not see that Prince Chulalongkorn is longing for more of her attention and teaching.
I really enjoyed the character of the Kralahome in this film, too. He and Anna interact almost as much as she does with the king and he acts as a kind of go-between for Anna and the king. Intelligent, dignified, diplomatic, he also has a good sense of humor. Gale Sondergaard won an Oscar for her performance as Lady Thiang, the first wife of the king who loves her husband but knows that she no longer has either his love or his ear. Instead, she must now look out for her son, crown prince Chulalongkorn. Linda Darnell is billed third, but she has a fairly small role as Lady Tuptim, who was a gift to the king and is also his current favorite, until she realizes that the king now listens to Anna rather than to her, and runs away to the man she loves.
Apart from the relationship between Anna and the king, there are two other significant themes in the film. One is the theme of home. When she arrives in Siam, Anna wants a house. When she is considering leaving, the Kralahome suggests that since she has no home or family in England, she should consider making Siam her home, her place to put down roots. Siam becomes not just a place where she works, but the place where she forms her relationships and ties.
The second theme is that of the crown prince, who represents the next generation. It takes a while for Anna to see clearly how much the prince wishes to learn; it takes an explanation from Lady Thiang, who cannot give her son what he needs and it is really only after Anna loses her own son that she sees that the prince has been lost in the shuffle of the palace, which revolves around the king.
Not especially historically accurate, the film is nevertheless excellent. I like Irene Dunne in pretty much everything she does. She could do comedy, drama and musicals, anything. Rex Harrison, Lee J. Cobb, Gale Sondergaard are also excellent. I found it a very touching film and especially enjoyed the relationships between the characters. It doesn’t have the joyous music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but what it does have it does just as well, and I think is a better story. Though I must warn potential viewers that the film conforms to contemporary practices of the time by casting all white actors to play the Siamese characters. The actors do, however, endeavor to give their characters dignity and make them more than just caricatures.