Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 25, 2016
Yul Brynner in The King and I. TCM & Fathom Events are screening this classic musical on August 28 and 31 in select theaters across the U.S.
In December of 1982 I was given a ticket to see Yul Brynner perform The King and I at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. It was a birthday gift from my mother who knew how much I loved the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and Yul Brynner. I was a hard-to-please adolescent and I’d never had the opportunity to see a big Broadway production before but at the time I was studying dance and trying to figure out if I wanted to pursue a career in theatre, music or writing. You all know what I eventually decided to do but seeing Brynner on stage in the role he made famous was one of the most electrifying and downright amazing experiences of my life.
At age 62, the bronze and barrel-chested actor was still a charismatic and commanding performer. A true ‘original’ as the commercial for The King and I advertised who had created the character of King Mongkut on stage in 1951 before bringing him to the screen in 1956. A year after I watched Brynner belt out “Shall We Dance?” he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and died in 1985 following a hugely successful return to live theatre. His death devastated me but Brynner remains immortal in my mind thanks to his unforgettable appearances in a number of great films.
I haven’t written all that much about my life-long love affair with musicals but I’m a sucker for a lot of song and dance films. If I come across Madam Satan (1930), 42nd Street (1933), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), An American in Paris (1951), West Side Story (1961) or Bye Bye Birdie (1963) (just to name a few off-the-cuff favorites) playing on TCM you’ll be hard-pressed to pull me away from my TV set. The King and I (1956) is another favorite thanks to some great performances as well as an abundance of catchy songs and you can soon see director Walter Lang’s magnificent CinemaScope marvel on the big screen. TCM in association with Fathom Events is reviving this 20th Century Fox classic for their latest theatrical screening taking place August 28 and 31 in select theaters across the U.S. More information and tickets are available here.
For the uninitiated, the plot of the Tony Award-winning musical was based on a book written by Margaret Landon (originally filmed as a straightforward drama in 1946) and it tells the semi-fictionalized story of Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr). Leonowens was a British governess who went to Siam (now known as Thailand) in 1862 at the request of King Mongkut (Yul Brynner) to teach his 39 children and 82 wives the English language and customs of her country. When she arrives at the lavish Grand Palace in Bangkok, the resolute and erudite governess immediately begins to clash with the quizzical king who is a traditionalist and used to getting his way. Overtime this unlikely pair grows to understand, appreciate and finally love one another.
The culture clash and battle of the sexes that plays out in The King and I might seem somewhat archaic to modern eyes and it’s easy to find fault with its use of ‘yellowface’ but this Rodgers and Hammerstein production has some interesting things to say about race, authority and human relations that are still relevant. In its own questionable way, The King and I is one of the earliest examples of interracial romance in the movies and one of the few that presents a relationship between a white woman and a virile Asian man.
Walter Lang (The Little Princess; 1939, Tin Pan Alley; 1940, State Fair; 1945, Cheaper by the Dozen; 1950, There’s No Business Like Show Business; 1954, etc.) directed from a script written by Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest; 1959, West Side Story; 1961, The Sound of Music; 1965, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; 1966, Hello Dolly!; 1969, etc.). The simple plot is framed by some incredibly lavish sets provided by John DeCuir (Three Coins in the Fountain; 1954, Daddy Long Legs; 1955, South Pacific; 1958, etc.) and Lyle R. Wheeler (Gone with the Wind; 1939, Rebecca; 1940, Leave Her to Heaven; 1945, The Robe; 1953, etc.) as well as stunning costumes designed by Irene Sharaff (Meet Me in St. Louis; 1944, The Picture of Dorian Gray; 1945, An American in Paris; 1951, Guys and Dolls; 1955, Porgy and Bess; 1959, Cleopatra; 1963, etc.). The impressive creative team behind The King and I was nominated for multiple Academy Awards and took home five, including a Best Actor Oscar for the film’s star, Yul Brynner.
For my money, The King and I is the best Rodgers and Hammerstein musical put on screen. Some may prefer the island paradise conjured up in South Pacific (1958), the small town life set among carnival barkers as imagined in State Fair (1945) and Carousel (1956), the western inspired Oklahoma! (1955) or the crowd-pleasing The Sound of Music (1965), which borrowed some of its best ideas and melodies from The King and I, but I prefer the ‘original.’
The Thailand setting of The King and I with its glittering Grand Palace occupied by vast rooms and striking decor is enthralling to this westerner. Yul Brynner’s fearless career defining performance as King Mongkut, along with the undeniable onscreen chemistry he shares with the lovely Deborah Kerr (seamlessly dubbed by the voice of Marni Nixon) seal the deal. I believe every word Brynner and Kerr say and every song they sing alone and together. And those songs! Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a lot of toe-tapping tunes but “Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello, Young Lovers”, “A Puzzlement,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance?” are all showstoppers.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the film’s costars, which include the hard-working character actor Martin Benson who makes an intimidating Prime Minister and the little-known Terry Saunders who plays the King’s head wife and delivers a sensitive and sensual rendition of “Something Wonderful.” Also look for a young Rita Moreno as the tragic Tuptim who narrates the stunning “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet sequence.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to enjoy The King and I on the big screen please consider making the effort. To borrow a line from Bosley Crowther who reviewed the film in 1956 for The New York Times, “If you don’t go to see it, believe us, you’ll be missing a grand and moving thing.”
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