Tuesday, October 20, 2009

1956 - The King and I

When searching the blogosphere for similar projects to Matt vs. the Academy, I came across StinkyLulu, who is pursuing a similar goal to mine. We are differentiated only by the awards category that bears our focus, StinkyLulu choosing to turn his attention to the Best Supporting Actress nominees. Each month is dedicated to the nominees of a different year, culminating in a Supporting Actress Smackdown, which involves guests rating each performance. The numbers are tallied and a winner is announced. The site is well worth a gander.

As you may have deduced by now, I will be one such Smackdown guest for the month of October, which will see the Supporting Actress nominees from 1956 under review. Hence, I have chosen that same year for my next review of Best Picture nominees. As it happens, though, only one film appears on both shortlists, so I will have a few extra movies to watch over the next few days. I will remind you, lovely readers, when the Smackdown is posted (scheduled for November 1) and, no doubt, I will take part in future Smackdowns too.

Today, the first of the Best Picture nominees from 1956 took a ride in my DVD player...

The King and I
Walter Lang
Ernest Lehman
(based on the stage musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein)
Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, Rita Moreno, Martin Benson, Terry Saunders
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
5 wins, including Best Actor

Based on the popular Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway musical, which was in turn based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which was in turn based on the memoirs of the real Anna Leonowens, The King and I has undoubtedly lost some of its historical accuracy through each fictionalised interpretation. But historical accuracy is probably not the main concern of a movie musical as charmingly saccharine as this one.

A schoolteacher from the United Kingdom of the mid-19th century travels with her son to a vastly different kingdom, that of Siam. She has been invited by the King to teach his many children the ways of the English, both language and customs. She quickly discovers, however, that the King is a stubborn and arrogant man who could do with a few lessons himself. In that cloying style that only musicals from the 1950s can get away with, Anna attempts to soften the King's heart and, in doing so, comes to a few realisations herself.

As with most musicals of this era, The King and I is clearly more about escapism than anything else. It's good old-fashioned family entertainment. Music, dancing, extravagant sets and costumes. Not that it doesn't attempt to offer some thought-provoking themes. It's just that those serious issues, like sexism and slavery, while not presented insincerely, tend to be somehow undermined by all the schmaltz.

We also encounter what can easily be perceived as an arrogant disrespect of another culture. The Siamese traditions are portrayed as inferior to those of Western culture. Buddhism is horribly misrepresented. Not to mention that the casting director seems to be unaware of the difference between Asians and Latinos. (In their defense, I guess Thai actors were hard to come by in 1950s Hollywood.) But all that seems to blissfully slip into the nether reaches of your mind as you marvel at all of the beautiful colours and movements. In fact, the sequence that most perverts the beliefs of Buddhists happens to also be the most stunning visual feast of the film - a cleverly entertaining ballet adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin, patronisingly yet adorably named Small House of Uncle Thomas.

Despite its sentimentality, The King and I remains an engaging story with some delightful music. Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner both received acting nominations, the latter taking home the prize for his portrayal of the King - a more cartoonish Oscar-winning performance you'll be hard pressed to find. If it were in anything other than a 1950s musical, it may not have been so charming. As it stands, however, Brynner's inclination towards melodrama not only fits right in but actually adds to the enjoyment of this awkwardly innocent yet extravagant musical.


  1. I think The King and I will be the last film I get to see from 1956, so I'll wait to comment. For now, I just want to say that my favorite song from the stage musical, "I have Dreamed" was not included in the film version.

    Here's Julie Andrews version:

  2. Finally got to see The King and I, and while "I Have Dreamed" wasn't sung, it did have a few bars show up a couple of times in the score. The score itself was one of Rogers and Hammerstein's very good efforts. I particularly liked "Something Wonderful" The film itself was just as Matt described - saccharine and cloying, yet lavishly beautiful and very entertaining.

    I don't know if any other actor had a more signature role than Yul Brynner. I suppose it was appropriate to give him the Oscar for what would be his life's work, but it was at the expense of perhaps Kirk Douglas's best performance in Lust for Life and arguably Olivier's greatest Shakespeare performance in Richard III. I think Brynner's other two film appearance in 1956 also helped in the balloting. I think if it wasn't for Ingrid Bergman's comeback, this might have been a good year to award the lovely Deborah Kerr. She would go 0 for 6 in her Best Actress quest. 1956 also saw her give an excellent performance in Tea and Sympathy.

    I think I have a tolerance for sugary stories in the Musical genre. This one will contend in an off year.