Category Archives: Historical Drama

Anna and the King of Siam (1946) – Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison

220px-Anna_and_the_king_of_siam75I 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.


Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison

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.

king-of-siam-annaApart 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.


Posted by on May 11, 2015 in Drama, Historical Drama


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Gunga Din (1939)

gunga_dinI can definitely see why people like this movie, and why it has endured as one of the great classic adventure tales and I can also definitely see why some people find it annoying. It really depends on how much you like adventure and the chemistry of the leads and how much you can overlook the blatant romanticization of British Colonialism in India.

The movie was inspired by the poem by Rudyard Kipling, also called “Gunga Din,” which recounts a soldier’s memories of a water carrier, Gunga Din, who is abused by all the army, but who faithfully brings them water, no matter the danger to himself. In the end, he dies saving the life of the solider who utters the line “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”

However, the movie is really less about Gunga Din and more about what we now call a bromance between the three main characters: Sergeant MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Sergeant Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr,) and Sergeant Cutter (Cary Grant). They are like the Three Musketeers, only in India, with the same high-spirits, mischief and utter loyalty to each other. They bicker and fight and always have each other’s backs.

MacChesney is the senior soldier and loves his elephant, Annie, and nurses her like he would a baby; Cutter is the class clown who has a thing for treasure, maps, and gold and seems to be an Indiana Jones in the making (without wishing to put any of the treasure in a museum); and Ballantine is dashing and in love, which threatens the entire bromance. He is in love with Emaline Stebbins (Joan Fontaine) and as soon as his enlistment is up, he is going to get married and run a tea shop, much to the disgust of Cutter and MacChesney, who want him to enlist for another nine years.

Ballantine is helping Emmy to pick out curtains by wearing them while Cutter and MacChesney look on

Ballantine is helping Emmy to pick out curtains by wearing them while Cutter and MacChesney look on

Meanwhile, the Thuggee cult, which worships Kali and seems to believe rather generally in killing for killing’s sake, are on the move and are threatening to sweep through all of India. The three men are sent out, with Ballantine only having a few days left on his enlistment, to meet the Thuggee. Coming along with them is Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), who carries water and dreams of being a soldier. He also knows where there is a temple filled with gold, which very much interests Cutter. However, when he takes Cutter there, they find the Thuggee, and MacChesney, Ballantine and Gunga Din have to go rescue him.

The cast is almost all uniformly excellent. Eduardo Ciannelli makes a suitably creepy, if massively politically incorrect, guru who leads the Thugs and comes across as rather educated, despite his death cult. The British commanding officer is played by Montagu Love, who, whenever he opens his mouth, reminds me of his other role as the Bishop of the Black Cannon in The Adventures of Robin. Joan Fontaine also does well in a tiny role as the female obstacle to all that joshing brotherly love. After all, women and a tea shop! Soft!

GungaDinJaffeThe one bit of casting I do not agree with is Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din. I am not really sure how old Gunga Din is supposed to be in the poem, but in the movie he is middle aged and plays him as such a simple guy that he comes across as mentally challenged, especially in the way he reacts in gratitude to the other men’s condescending attitude towards him and it feels very awkward. Perhaps it would have worked better if he had actually been a child instead of a grown man.

As I said, this movie is really just an adventurous romp and there is zero character development. The movie seems like three-fifths action sequences. It actually brings irresistibly to mind the Indiana Jones movies, especially the second one. There are elephants, a rickety rope bridge, treasure, a gold temple, snakes, native peoples chasing the heroes. It also has the kind of light-hearted adventure characteristic of Indiana Jones.

The movie was filmed on location in the Sierra Mountains, which stand in for the Khyber Pass, and really looks good. It took much longer to shoot than was originally intended, however, and they went so far over budget that even though the movie was a hit, it still lost money.

MacChesney and Cutter

MacChesney and Cutter

The role of Cutter was originally going to be played by Fairbanks, Jr. and Grant was going to play Ballantine, but Grant wanted to play the comic and so they switched roles. Cary Grant also has what is supposed to be a Cockney accent, though most people comment that it sounds half-hearted. However, since Cary Grant (when he was still Archibald Leach) really did have a Cockney accent from working in music halls before he brushed his accent up along with his image as the most suave man ever living, I would think he would know how to speak with a genuine accent. Perhaps he lost the knack, or perhaps I’m just used to a broader movie accent than most people actually have.

The big issue that most people have with the movie is the celebration of colonialism and how Gunga Din, in saving the British army, is essentially a traitor to his own people. I can definitely see their point. The condescending attitude the British adopt is pretty hard to take and if the rather juvenile MacChesney, Ballantine and Cutter are anything to go by, it’s hard not to sympathize a little with the impulse of the Thuggee to kill them. Also, pretty much every Indian role is played by people in body paint, which was standard practice during those years. However, I feel that this movie is really not essentially about Colonialism; it is more an excuse for adventure, male bonding, courage, and lots of fighting.

Gunga Din 1939The movie was directed by George Stevens, who was known for his comedies before he joined the army and saw, first hand, the affects of the Holocaust. He made movies like Woman of the Year, with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Swing Time, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. However, after the war he was so affected by what he had seen that he never made another comedy or light-hearted film and instead made movies like Giant, Place in the Sun and Shane.

Gunga Din ultimately is a very well-done movie, despite my complaints. It’s just not quite my cup of tea.


Posted by on October 1, 2014 in Comedy, Historical Drama


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The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

thAC9RWMRG1939 – Starring Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland – Directed by Michael Curtiz

Apparently, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn loathed working with each other. Nanette Fabray – who had a small part as a lady in waiting to Davis’ Elizabeth I – said that Flynn and Davis would play their parts and as soon as the director yelled cut, stalk off in opposite directions. When Davis’ character was called on to slap Flynn, she gave it everything she had; and when he was called on to slap her on the rear, he similarly gave it everything.

Davis and Flynn were both top stars at Warner Bros. The previous year Flynn made The Adventures of Robin Hood, the highest grossing film for Warner Bros. Bette Davis won an Oscar for her role in Jezebel and they both starred together in The Sisters (in case you were wondering, Flynn was not one of the sisters).

Davis considered herself a serious actress, not just a star, and she was quite outspoken regarding what she wanted or thought and she was not quiet about her contempt for Flynn, who she thought was a pretty face and not a real actor. Errol Flynn, on the other hand, had no particular pretensions to greatness and preferred a more easy going approach to making films.

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX[1]But it all works, somehow, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. I don’t know why, exactly, but I enjoyed it a lot. The important thing is to be willing to go with it, no matter how slightly over-the-top it is, and let yourself get caught up in the central conflict and romance. Partially because of the presence of Errol Flynn, somehow it never entirely goes over the top. If Davis had had her way and they’d cast Laurence Olivier, I think the film could have potentially been too lugubrious.

The movie is about the romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. He’s had some military victories and is more popular than the queen. All the women in the court seem to adore him and all the men mistrust him. But the queen is besotted and he genuinely returns her love, though with less intensity.

All they do when they meet is quarrel, but they love each other, despite her fear that she is much older than he is. The only real trouble is that he is ambitious. He wants to rule and she knows it.

And the scheming that goes on in that court regarding Essex is something else. Even Elizabeth schemes – to keep him out of trouble, to get him to come back to court after a quarrel. Everybody schemes except Essex. He’s too straightforward for his own good. But no one schemes better than Donald Crisp as Francis Bacon.

Annex%20-%20Flynn,%20Errol%20(Private%20Lives%20of%20Elizabeth%20and%20Essex,%20The)_04[1]The movie is quite a spectacle. It’s in glorious Technicolor, with extraordinary costumes, a dazzling collection of character actors…and the supreme Olivia de Havilland in an undeservingly small part, which she played so well that I wished I could have seen her more. De Havilland usually plays the good girl, but here she demonstrates, however briefly, that she can play a coquette and a schemer. I wish I could have seen her in more roles like that.

The film also offered Vincent Price an early, breakout role as Sir Walter Raleigh…who is no friend of Essex. Alan Hale is, for once, an enemy of Flynn’s, and Donald Crisp is magnificent as Essex’s friend who acts often as a go between for Essex and the queen and generally has his finger to the wind. Henry Daniel is also present, adding his snaky schemes to the mix for good measure.

The historical accuracy is, at best, atmospheric rather than accurate, more an excuse for a romance in heightened dramatic situations. Most of the characters are historical and there are many historical events wafting about in the background to lend the appropriate feel. There are references to Henry VIII and his many wives, the constant, nearly futile, struggle in Ireland and the deep fear of Spain.

It’s a curious combination: part Errol Flynn historical adventure (though the film is largely static in the manner of a play) and part Bette Davis melodrama: intensity and fun meet, in extraordinary, Technicolor costumes.

968full-the-private-lives-of-elizabeth-and-essex-screenshot[1]Notes: The movie was adapted from a play, “Elizabeth the Queen” by Maxwell Anderson. Because they were going to have Flynn in the film, the studio was going to call it “The Knight and the Lady” but Davis thought that was ridiculous since the movie was about Elizabeth, so they finally managed to get both actors in the title of the film with The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

Bette Davis loved realism. She was one of those actresses who, if she lived today, would shave off all her hair and go on a crash diet to look deathly ill. As Elizabeth, she was playing a woman thirty to forty years older than Davis was (she was around 30) and she shaved off several inches of her hair above her forehead so that it would look like she had no hair under her wig.

There is a lovely score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who also composed the score for The Adventures of Robin Hood and there are several Robin Hood deja vu musical moments. Even some of the sets look rather familiar.

Olivia de Havilland made eight movies with Errol Flynn and in two of them she didn’t get Flynn (for an enjoyable look at all eight movies they made together, check out the article “Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland” on Reel Classic). The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was the first movie she made after her triumph as Melanie in Gone With the Wind (she was nominated for best supporting actress, but lost to Hattie McDaniel). Jack Warner of Warner Bros, however, had the idea that actors should be kept in their place, which is why de Havilland wound up with such a small role. To all accounts, she responded graciously. She did, however, have her revenge by winning a groundbreaking lawsuit against Warner Bros in 1943 regarding her contract, that was significant in reducing the power of the studios.

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Posted by on May 13, 2014 in Historical Drama


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