A Grand & Moving Thing: The King and I (1956)

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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.

“If you live long enough and you’re lucky you may get the chance to see two or three originals in your lifetime.”
- TV commercial advertising the 1982 stage production of The King and I at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre

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.

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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.’

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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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18 Responses A Grand & Moving Thing: The King and I (1956)
Posted By Steve Burrus : August 25, 2016 6:41 pm

As Yul Brynn er beikng the ONLY movie star for whom I had the pleasure to have met, here in Dallas TX at a tennis tournament back in the late 1970′s, I certainly echo your nice comments about him!

Posted By Emgee : August 25, 2016 8:00 pm

“The King and I is one of the earliest examples of interracial romance in the movies.” The story had already been filmed as Anna and the King of Siam in 1946. The Bitter Tea of General Yen of 1933 is the tragic love story between a Chinese general and an American missionary. In both movies the Asian roles had to be played by Caucasians, because censorship forbade mixed- race relations being depicted by actual Asian actors.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 25, 2016 8:05 pm

The King and I is definitely a big-screen experience as the bigger screen amplifies the film’s energy, color, and Brynner’s larger-than-life character. Can’t believe he has been gone so long.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 25, 2016 8:25 pm

Steve – That must have been a fun experience. Thanks for sharing.

Emgee – I’m aware of all that. Not sure what your point is.

Susan – It really is!

Posted By EricJ : August 25, 2016 10:00 pm

If you have to watch Broadway on film, TK&I is THE definitive Rodgers & Hammerstein.
South Pacific was too muddled trying to create the original stage lighting effects, Carousel is not an easily acquired taste, Oklahoma is….okay, State Fair is embarrassing, and Sound of Music has too much roadshow-epic scenery to concentrate on the show.
But everything about TK&I just symbolizes the -classiness- that we associate with 50′s Broadway, and even if it’s hampered by being “just” the stage show put on film (I confess I like the ’99 cartoon’s idea of having Anna take the kids for a field-trip montage instead), we don’t feel like we were losing out from what the NY folks got. It just never got any better.

Posted By Doug : August 26, 2016 1:33 am

Kimberly, there’s an interesting Yul Brynner performance that you might not have seen-”The Deaf man” in 1972′s “Fuzz”.
The basis for the movie is the long, long running series of ’87th Precinct’ crime novels by Ed McBain.
Brynner’s Deaf man is the villain of the piece, and he does it up fine.
Ed McBain is the pen name for Evan Hunter, screenwriter of “The Birds” and “Blackboard Jungle”.

Posted By Emgee : August 26, 2016 6:46 am

“Not sure what your point is.” My point is that The King and I is by no means one of the earliest examples of interracial romance in the movies. 1956? Really?

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 26, 2016 7:10 am

EricJ – I haven’t seen the animation you mentioned but now I’m curious.

Doug – I have seen Fuzz and enjoyed it but I didn’t realize it was based on the Ed McBain/Evan Hunter crime novels.

Emgee – I didn’t say it was THE earliest. I said it was ONE of them. Pre-1970 the pickings were incredibly slim. Hell, the pickings are STILL slim. Not sure why you’re so hostile but if you want to compile that long list of pre-1956 interracial romance movies to share on my post about The King and I, be my guest.

Posted By swac44 : August 26, 2016 11:47 am

Sadly missed out on my big-screen opportunity for TK&I when it was recently featured as a local cinema’s “Classic of the Month” (it had three separate screenings) and the day I had bookmarked to go wound up being the same day an old friend was making a surprise visit to town, consarn it all.

I’ve seen it on broadcast TV, VHS, laserdisc, DVD and blu-ray and was really looking forward to a big screen digital projection of it, especially considering the real-life Anna Leonowens is a revered name here in Halifax, where she founded an art college that’s still in operation (Nova Scotia College of Art & Design), which has a gallery named after her. (A friend of mine is a curator there, so I hear her name a lot.) She was a respected citizen for over 20 years, before moving to Montreal in 1897, where she died and is buried.

And here’s something I didn’t know before reading a few articles on Anna this morning: her great-nephew was British stage actor William Henry Pratt. Pratt is better known by the name he adopted while treading the boards in Canada….BORIS KARLOFF!

Posted By swac44 : August 26, 2016 11:49 am

Also, my uncle across the harbour in Dartmouth used to claim that Anna was either a temporary resident of his house (it was certainly old enough) or a neighbour, I forget which. I can find nothing online about where she lived while in Nova Scotia, so I guess a trip to the provincial archives is in order.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 26, 2016 7:20 pm

swac44 – I had no idea that Anna Leonowens was related to Boris Karloff. Wow!

Posted By Emgee : August 26, 2016 7:35 pm

No hostility intended; i just wanted to add some earlier examples and extra info to the blog. Seems it wasn’t appreciated in the spirit in which it was intended. I’m sure you knew, but some reasders may not have. That is all.

Posted By EricJ : August 26, 2016 8:28 pm

“I haven’t seen the animation you mentioned but now I’m curious.”
When the 90′s Disney Renaissance thought it was the “New Broadway”, Warner tried doing an animated kiddy version of TK&I in ’99–
Unfortunately, the ex-”Black Cauldron” director thought it needed more kiddy “business”, the Kralahome was turned into the obligatory nasty-wasty villain, and other violations of “cute sidekicks” are best left unmentioned here.
Of the scenes that DO actually adhere to Rodgers & Hammerstein, it’s actually a rather imaginative adaptation; unfortunately, the fatal problem was the scenes that -didn’t-.

Posted By robbushblog : August 27, 2016 2:04 am

Doggonit, Swac! You took my interesting fact! I like to tell people that piece of trivia. Rats! I was planning on seeing this, but a family function has arisen and hebce squashed my opportunity to see it on the big screen. :( The only R&H I’ve seen on the big screen is CAROUSEL (which I love), so it would have been nice seeing TK&I.

Posted By robbushblog : August 27, 2016 2:05 am

“hebce” should have been “hence”. Drat!

Posted By Juana Maria : August 27, 2016 5:10 pm

I just want to say how regal Yul Brynner looks in that first photo! I have seen “Anna and the King of Siam” with Rex Harrison. All I could think the whole time is: “That’s Professor Higgins in bad make-up(yellowface)!” Of course, I have seen “The King and I” which has brilliant actors in it. Lastly, I have seen “Anna and the King” with Jody Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. I have written this before on another post, but I will repeat myself: “Why no actual Siamese(or Thai) actors?”

Posted By robbushblog : August 27, 2016 6:03 pm

At least Chow Yun-Fat was Asian. That’s at least something to say for that movie, which was otherwise fairly forgettable. Well, technically, Yul Brynner was Asian too, but you know what I mean.

Posted By Emgee : August 27, 2016 7:07 pm

“Why no actual Siamese(or Thai) actors?” I’m guessing simple Hollywood economics: who knows who those actors are outside their home countries? Better stick with well-known names to draw people to the cinema.

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