The story is the same in both. It is based on Margaret Landon's 1944 novel about a widowed Englishwoman (Irene Dunne) who, along with her young son, goes to Siam (now Thailand) in 1862 to teach the children of the country's king (Brit Rex Harrison). Initially, a clash of wills causes sparks between the independent minded teacher and the iron-fisted monarch, but as they begin to see the fine qualities in one another, they form a deep bond that lasts until the final credits.
Many fine performances are given in a cast that is headed by the incomparable Irene Dunne. As Anna, she is flawless. With her usual confidence and charisma, she creates a character, like several in her illustrious career, which was redone by another actress, not once but twice on film (and once on television in a short lived series). Her Anna is more than a match for the irascible king and turns his way of thinking around to hers in most cases. As King Mongkut, Harrison made his American film debut. He is more convincing as the Asian ruler compared to Brynner, who comes off as some Mongolian warrior. Third billed is Linda Darnell as Tuptim, new arrival to the king's sorority, aka his harem. She is exotically beautiful but doesn't have much else to do, until being burned at the stake for being unfaithful to his majesty. Ironically, Darnell was actually killed in a fire in 1965 at the age of 41.
Providing a more substantial and touching performance is veteran Gale Sondergaard as Lady Thiang, first wife of the Mongkut and mother to his heir. She has been replaced regularly for younger wives and has been relegated to tasting her husband's food in case of poisoning. Sondergaard is always a treat and her gentle portrayal of a loving mother who wants Anna to guide her son to success as a ruler is a highlight in the film. Also giving a memorable turn is Lee J. Cobb, bare-chested and bronzed skin, as the Prime Minister of Siam. Like the king, he has reservations about the strong willed English lady at first but shows great respect for her strength and intellect as he grows to know and understand her.
Cinematographer Arthur Miller worked his magic and the visually stunning black and white film received two Oscars for Cinematography and Art Direction. Anna's splendid European hoop skirts are a great contrast to the spare and exotic, though opulent, attire of everyone at the Siamese court. Bernard Herrmann offers an outstanding score which elicits a perfect musical backdrop with Oriental flair. On every level Anna and the King of Siam is a quality production that deserves to be remembered at least equally with its musical counterpart.