Wednesday, August 5, 2009

REVIEW: Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

Much ado has been made through the years about The King and I (1956), Rodgers and Hammerstein's massively popular musical starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, and rightfully so. It's a classic in the genre and made a star of Brynner. It's appeal, however, has overshadowed what some consider (this blogger included) its superior dramatic precursor, Anna and the King of Siam.

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.


  1. I quite agree...though the musical is very good (one of my favorites), I prefer this one. And you're right about Linda Darnell...she hadn't much to do at all. I think this was around the time she was being "punished" by the studio for marrying someone much older than she was and supposedly tarnishing her public image.

    Thanks for sharing your views...great pick!

  2. Another post with an opinion I concur with totally.
    It's true that The King & I has a bigger recognition factor but it's obvious to me that this film had a major impact & influence on the Broadway musical & subsequent musical film. Without this classic I don't think the the musical would have been conceived. As such the musical's story structure owes a great deal to the original. Notice that the modern version of the story was a remake of THIS movie and not the musical.

  3. Rupert, let me add my agreement with the others who have already commented. You summed it up nicely in your last sentence that this "is a quality production that deserves to be remembered." One of the incomparable Irene Dunne's last major performances. Apparently a lot of actresses wanted this role, but I don't see how anyone could have been a better choice than Dunne. As you wrote, Harrison and Sondergaard were great, Darnell was mediocre (but then she wasn't really right for the part). I especially liked the banquet scene--hugely entertaining. The director, John Cromwell, directed so many memorable movies yet doesn't seem to get the credit he deserves, I guess because he subdued his directorial personality to the material--a huge faux pas to modern auteurist critcs. But does it really matter when the results are so enjoyable and of such high quality as this? Another great choice for a post, and I'm looking forward to more.

  4. I love Irene in this movie. I do like this version better also. Great review Rupert. Wow you have been busy with reviews. I am glad I checked your blog. I wouldn't want to miss out on these! Any of yours

  5. Great review and insights! I just adore this film...Dunn is wonderful, and Harrison is a delight as the despot.

    I prefer it so far over "The King and I" - which, though sumptuous and extravagant, is just interminable. I don't know why because both Kerr and Brynner do a terrific job - and the music is, well, okay. But, it just seems to last until day after tomorrow.

  6. Actually, I love both films equally. I enjoy Irene Dunne, and am a huge fan of Gale Sondergaard. THE KING AND I was first for me, though. I grew up listening to all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals on record. When I saw the film on our first colour TV, it knocked me flat. It was so gorgeous. Much, much later, I was privileged to see Yul Brynner in one of his last appearances as "THE KING". It was in San Diego, and probably about 6 weeks before his death. To this day I can't understand how he was able to do it. You can 'cheat', and cut on a film, but not on the stage. To say that Mr. Brynner was "Explosive" is putting it mildly. "Nuclear" is more like it. Both ANNA AND THE KING, and THE KING AND I are very dear to me.

  7. My favorite film version of this story - by far! I grew up watching "the King & I" musical version and about 25 years ago I saw "Anna and the King" for the first time. Totally blown away by how spectacular it was... and remains. Thank you for this lovely review and reminder of a truly great film.



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