skip navigation
Anna and the King of Siam

Anna and the King of Siam(1946)

Contribute

FOR Anna and the King of Siam (1946) YOU CAN

UPLOAD AN IMAGE SUBMIT A VIDEO OR MOVIE CLIP ADD ADDITIONAL INFORMATION WRITE YOUR OWN REVIEW

TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here
ADD YOUR COMMENT>

share:
Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (0)

DVDs from TCM Shop

Anna and the King of Siam A young Englishwoman becomes... MORE > $19.98 Regularly $19.98 Buy Now

Articles

powered by AFI

SEE ALL ARTICLES
teaser Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

SYNOPSIS

Before there was the colorful musical classic The King and I (1956), there was Anna and the King of Siam (1946). A more thoughtful and dramatic depiction of the engaging story based on actual events, Anna and the King of Siam was the first film adaptation of the real-life adventures of Anna Leonowens, the British widow hired in 1862 to teach English to the numerous wives, concubines and children of Mongkut, the King of Siam (now known as Thailand).

In this gorgeous black and white production from Twentieth Century-Fox, Irene Dunne stars as Anna, who travels with her young son Louis (Richard Lyon) to the exotic land of Siam as a means to earn her own income in the wake of her husband's death. Almost immediately she finds herself at odds with the vainglorious King, played by Rex Harrison in his first Hollywood film role, and his Prime Minister Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb). Wanting desperately to be perceived as a forward thinking ruler, the King asks for Anna's help in learning the ways of western culture while she simultaneously struggles to adapt to her new surroundings and the King's imperious attitude. Gradually, the two work towards a mutual understanding and affection as she wins his respect and becomes a trusted advisor and friend.

CAST AND CREW

Director: John Cromwell
Writer: Talbot Jennings, Sally Benson
Based on the book Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
Producers: Darryl F. Zanuck, Louis Lighton
Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, William Darling
Editing: Harmon Jones
Costumes: Bonnie Cashin
Music Composer: Bernard Herrmann
Make Up: Ben Nye

Cast: Irene Dunne (Anna Owens), Rex Harrison (The King), Linda Darnell (Tuptim), Lee J. Cobb (Kralahome), Gale Sondergaard (Lady Thiang), Mikhail Rasumny (Alak), Dennis Hoey (Sir Edward Ramsay), Tito Renaldo (Prince, as a man), Richard Lyon (Louis Owens), William Edmunds (Moonshee)

B and W - 126 min.

Why ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM is Essential

Anna and the King of Siam was the first cinematic adaptation of the true account of Anna Leonowens' experiences in Siam, which she recounted in two popular books published in 1870 and 1872. People couldn't get enough of Anna's story, which gained renewed interest when author Margaret Landon published a romanticized version of her story in the 1944 book Anna and the King of Siam. This film was also a precursor to the classic stage and film musical The King and I. It is a story so beloved that it has never been forgotten, having been remade and reimagined time and again over the years in film and stage versions around the world.

This film is one of Twentieth Century-Fox's most handsome black-and-white productions. Featuring lavish and detailed eye-popping sets recreating imperial Siam, Anna and the King of Siam won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction.

Anna and the King of Siam marked the Hollywood film debut of legendary actor Rex Harrison. He had been building a distinguished career in British stage and film roles, but until Anna, he had never appeared in a U.S. film production. With a freshly signed contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, Harrison began his American film career with the colorful and unforgettable role of The King, which kick-started his long career in Hollywood and put him on the radar of American audiences.

This film was a huge hit with audiences and critics alike. It was nominated for a total of five Academy Awards, and took home two. Its level of excellence helped set the standard for all versions of the story that followed on stage and screen.

by Andrea Passafiume

back to top
teaser Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison reprised their roles in the film for the Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on January 20, 1947. Irene Dunne reprised her role again for Lux on May 30, 1949, this time opposite James Mason as The King.

Another radio version of Anna and the King of Siam was broadcast on The Hallmark Playhouse on September 15, 1949 starring Deborah Kerr, who would go on to portray Anna in the big screen musical version The King and I in 1956.

Anna and The King's story was turned into a smash hit Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 1951 called The King and I. It has since been performed regularly all over the world as one of the most beloved treasures of the musical theater.

The Broadway musical The King and I was turned into a film of the same name in 1956 starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brenner. It went on to win five Academy Awards and become a timeless classic.

A short-lived television series was made out of Anna's story for CBS called Anna and the King which ran for a few months in 1972. Yul Brenner from The King and I played The King, and Samantha Eggar played Anna.

In 1999 Warner Bros. released an animated feature version of The King and I featuring the voice of Miranda Richardson as Anna.

In 1999 Jodie Foster starred as Anna in the big screen production Anna and the King with Chow Yun-Fat as The King.

by Andrea Passafiume

back to top
teaser Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

There is a scene in which Anna quotes President Abraham Lincoln as having said the following: "True progress must bear some relation to man's character. It must have its roots in his heart." According to the American Film Institute Catalogue, the veracity of this quote cannot be verified since it does not appear in any of Lincoln's major speeches or writings. According to Twentieth Century-Fox records, studio head Darryl Zanuck sent a memo to producer Louis Lighton and director John Cromwell that said, "If we cannot find a great Lincoln quote we should write one."

In the film, The King writes a letter to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln offering him a gift of elephants for the purpose of multiplying in North America. The real King Mongkut did indeed write such a letter, though it was actually sent to then President James Buchanan. However, since Abraham Lincoln was elected the new president of the United States by the time the letter arrived, it was Lincoln who responded with his polite decline of the unique offer.

In the film, Anna's young son Louis dies in a horse riding accident while in Siam. In reality, no such accident ever happened to Anna's son. In fact, young Louis went on to return to Siam later in his life and become a cavalry officer. He ended up outliving his mother.

Anna Leonowens' stories have always been controversial with the Thai government. From the time her original writings came out in the 1800s when the country was still known as Siam, the government objected to her depiction of the King and culture as "barbaric." The film versions over the years have been generally unwelcome there.

When Rodgers and Hammerstein were ready to mount their musical stage version of Anna and the King of Siam called The King and I in the early 1950s, Rex Harrison was interested in playing The King. He even auditioned to play the role on Broadway for the famed musical team. "I sang some songs for them," said Harrison in his 1975 autobiography Rex, "but they didn't like me, and I didn't get it."

By the same token, the composer of the original score for Anna and the King of Siam, Bernard Herrmann, also found himself unwanted when Rodgers and Hammerstein were creating their musical The King and I. According to the 1991 book A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith, Herrmann offered all of the research he had already done on Siamese music to the musical team, but they didn't want it. They were "not interested in Siamese music" according to Herrmann.

According to the AFI Catalogue, the original cut of Anna and the King of Siam ran two hours and forty-one minutes. Darryl Zanuck promptly had the film re-edited and cut down.

An article in Time magazine dated March 24, 1947 points out that Anna and the King of Siam was allowed to be shown in its entirety in Thailand at the time of its release despite the fact that "leading Siamese critics and historians had taken pains to point out that it was more than 75 per cent inaccurate."

Famous Quotes from ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM

"Mem, if I tell King he breaks his promise, I will make anger in him. I think it is better if I make anger in him about larger matters."
- Prime Minister Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb), to Anna (Irene Dunne), after she reminds him that The King has not kept his promise to give her a private house.

"Do as you wish, Mem. But remember, you are not the only one with temper. The King has temper, too."
- Kralahome, to Anna

"You do not look like scientific person for teaching of school. How old shall you be?"
"I am 150 years old, your Majesty."
- The King and Anna

"You not afraid to tell King something is not his business?"
"It would not be a compliment to His Majesty if I were afraid of him."
- The King and Anna

"I have 67 children. Not many. I began marriage a little late."
- The King, to Anna

"How can King be wrong and woman be right? I ask you that. How?"
- The King, to Anna

"They think you wear dress like that because you're shaped like that down there."
- Lady Thiang (Gale Sondergaard), to Anna, noticing the large hoopskirt of her dress.

"Take a lesson from her, my friend, and you'll never give up on anything."
- The King, to Kralahome, talking about Anna.

"Please stop calling me 'Sir!'"
"I call you 'Sir' so you will not be lowly like a woman."
- Anna and The King

"Wherefore have you decorated yourself better than all rest? Shall it be for my observation?"
- The King, to Anna

"Herewith shall be list of subjects for you to bring up for talk. Because on such subjects I am very brilliant and will make fine impression."
- The King, to Anna

"You can't refuse her a trial. There must be a law in this."
"I am the law."
- Anna and The King

"Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera..."
- The King

Compiled by Andrea Passafiume

back to top
teaser Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

The origins of Anna and the King of Siam can be traced back to the real-life story of Anna Leonowens, the British widow who traveled to Siam in 1862 to teach English to King Mongkut's numerous wives, concubines and children. After her eventual return to England and following the King's death in 1868, Leonowens began publishing stories in Atlantic Monthly magazine about her vivid experiences within the royal Siamese court.

The stories that Leonowens wrote were so popular that she ultimately compiled them into a book called The English Governess at the Siamese Court published in 1870. The book was such a success that she wrote a follow-up in 1872 called The Romance of the Harem in which she recalled even more tales about life in Siam that captured the public's imagination.

Many years later a writer named Margaret Landon, who lived in Siam herself from 1927-37, re-discovered these two remarkable books by Leonowens and promptly fell in love with them. Landon wanted to re-introduce Anna's stories to the world so that new generations could appreciate them. Using the original two books as a starting point, Landon set out to write her own romanticized version of Anna's adventures in Siam.

The book that Landon wrote was called Anna and the King of Siam, which was published in 1944. In this somewhat fictionalized account of Anna's story, Landon included the following author's note for clarification: "The method of presentation was determined by the form of the incidents as recorded by Anna Leonowens herself...If I were asked to give to fabric content of the book I should say that it is 'seventy-five per cent fact, and twenty-five per cent fiction based on fact'."

There was such interest in Landon's new book before it even hit stores that Twentieth Century-Fox production chief Darryl Zanuck snapped up the movie rights when it was still in galleys. He saw great cinematic potential in Anna's story and believed it would translate into a terrific film. Zanuck's instincts proved to be excellent, as Landon's book turned out to be a big success among readers when it was finally published. Translated into numerous languages, Anna and the King of Siam helped renew interest in Anna's story with modern audiences.

Zanuck quickly had a treatment for a screenplay adaptation written as a first step towards turning the story into a major motion picture at Fox. He initially saw great comic potential in the narrative. In a memo he wrote to producer Louis Lighton dated March 8, 1945, Zanuck wrote: "...This is a great personal story which cannot help but be a wonderful film in every respect. Its simplicity is its greatest charm and by keeping the story intimate between four or five characters we achieve a much larger picture than we could achieve if we went into spectacle, which, in my opinion, would ruin the wonderful personal drama...The comedy possibilities are enormous. This picture, with all its tenderness and conflict, is basically one of the funniest stories I have ever read. It is genuine comedy because it comes out of the characters themselves and is a result of clashes of personalities."

In the meantime, screenwriters Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson completed their adaptation of Landon's book. In their version, tweaked for the screen, a few liberties were taken with factual events. The tone became more dramatic than comic, although it retained some amusing moments throughout.

Zanuck soon began to mull over which actors to cast in the lead roles. For Anna, Zanuck initially wanted actress Dorothy McGuire. However, according to a memo he wrote at the time, David O. Selznick, who controlled McGuire's contract, was making things difficult. "Just as I anticipated," wrote Zanuck, "David is now asking for certain conditions that are not covered in our original contract with him for McGuire. Among many other petty things, he wants to announce that he has put her in the story; that he has thus approved the project, etc. etc...Dorothy McGuire would be great in the role, but I want you to know we are not going to get down on our knees to get her."

According to Zanuck there was a great deal of interest from other actresses in playing Anna. Jean Arthur, he reported, desperately wanted the role and was willing to "drop anything" for it. Myrna Loy and Olivia de Havilland were also pursuing the part. "I personally feel that while Dorothy McGuire would be great in every respect," wrote Zanuck, "Jean Arthur would give as great or even a greater performance, and of course with her name the enormous cost of the production would be completely safeguarded...If David [O. Selznick] comes off his high horse we will use McGuire; if not, we will have practically the pick of the industry for this role. I forgot to mention Irene Dunne, although in my opinion she is too old for it. She also wants to play it, and you cannot entirely thrust this aside when you consider that she has been in three great successes, one after another."

In the end, it was Irene Dunne who won the role, despite her age. As a four-time Academy Award nominee for Best Actress (her fifth nomination would come a few years later for I Remember Mama in 1948), Dunne was a superlative actress capable of tackling almost any role. At 47, it was true that Dunne was beyond playing ingnues. However, she looked far younger than her true age and made an attractive leading lady that would be very appropriate for the part.

For the role of The King, Zanuck originally thought of actor William Powell, whom he thought would be "sensational." Also mentioned along the way was Charles Boyer, who reportedly was also eager to sink his teeth into the role. Fearing that most actors might shy away at the thought of having to play second fiddle to the female lead, Zanuck made sure to keep the parts evenly distributed so that both roles would have the opportunity to shine.

Rex Harrison wasn't even mentioned to play The King in the beginning. He was a dynamically talented English actor who had been steadily building a name for himself in British theater and film productions. However, Harrison was virtually unknown to American audiences when he was offered a lucrative seven year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox to make movies in Hollywood. Basing their offer primarily on the success of his work in the British film Night Train (1940), Fox believed in his talent and set out to make him a leading man in America.

Ultimately, the first project chosen for Harrison was Anna and the King of Siam with him playing The King. In his 1991 memoir A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy, Harrison recalled the feeling of anticipation for the new career that awaited him in Hollywood. "It was all very exciting," he said, "and though I didn't have a clue how I could play an oriental potentate, I booked myself on the first transatlantic liner out of Southampton I could find."

Eventually, the rest of the excellent supporting cast was named. Lee J. Cobb would play Prime Minister Kralahome, while sultry Linda Darnell would portray The King's rebellious favorite concubine Tuptim, and Gale Sondergaard would play Lady Thiang, The King's loyal first wife and mother to the young prince who will succeed him.

Names such as Elia Kazan, John M. Stahl and Ernst Lubitsch were initially discussed to direct the film. However, it was ultimately John Cromwell (Of Human Bondage [1934], Abe Lincoln in Illinois [1940]) who was tapped for the job.

With all the players set, Darryl Zanuck couldn't help but be excited about Anna and the King of Siam. "...I would like to go on record as saying that this, in my opinion, will be the best picture of the year," he wrote to producer Louis Lighton. "It is something entirely original and has great quality."

by Andrea Passafiume

back to top
teaser Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

As Rex Harrison arrived in Hollywood, he was very excited about launching his acting career in America. At the same time, he was also a little nervous.

When he was finally able to meet John Cromwell, the director of the film that could make or break him in Tinseltown, Harrison found him pleasant enough, but rather aloof. "At least two months passed before the production began," recalled Harrison in his 1975 autobiography Rex, "during which time, if we did come across each other, [Cromwell] withdrew, either physically or mentally; I was never able to sit down with him and discuss my fears and worries about playing an Oriental, and he never told me what he thought about the character."

Harrison, unfortunately, fared no better trying to communicate with the film's producer, Louis Lighton. He called Lighton "a highly intelligent man who had difficulty in articulating his thoughts. He talked in riddles, so abstruse that I used to sit in his office and try in vain to make out their meaning."

The man in charge at Fox, Darryl Zanuck, was not much help to him, either. With his hands too full trying to run a studio, Zanuck had little time to talk with actors about how they should play their roles. Rex Harrison felt alarmed. "I'd done lots of homework about the Siamese background before leaving England," he said, "but I'd never played an Oriental before, and I simply didn't know how to tackle it."

Harrison was shocked and frustrated by the seeming lack of interest that his new studio had in Anna and the King of Siam. "This lackadaisical attitude was not at all what I'd expected," said Harrison, "and I began feeling pretty desperate. Everything was so slow; I wasn't geared to relaxing around pools and drinking all day. I'd been used all my life to working hard, and now suddenly I was in a hot bath, growing weaker and weaker. The sets were only just being constructed, so there was no hope of beginning for weeks, and in the meantime there was nobody I could talk to constructively about how I was to tackle this frightfully difficult role, for which I was far too young and two feet too tall."

In the meantime, Harrison did as much research as he could about the role on his own. He cared deeply about doing a good job playing The King and spent time working with a private coach to work out the speech patterns and physicality of this new character. "Our [house] was high up in the hills," said Harrison, "and it had a tiny garden where I used to pace, day after day, like a caged animal, with the script in my hands, trying to work out what the devil I was going to do."

When it was nearing time for the cameras to actually roll on Anna and the King of Siam, Harrison was finally beginning to feel like he had some grasp on playing his character. The elaborate makeup created by the studio also helped make him feel more like The King. He had to endure having a plaster cast made of his head for the makeup as well as small rubber attachments for his eyes, but the final effect was worth it.

When production started on the film in November 1945, Harrison ended up going in front of the camera and directing his own performance, more or less. "Still without help I went to work," he said, "and having worked on the part for so long on my own, with no real contact with John Cromwell, I had to take my own course. This only widened the gap between us, because Cromwell saw that I wasn't waiting for him. I'd play each scene as I'd prepared it, to the best of my ability, always suspecting that I could never really get inside the mind of the King of Siam, and John Cromwell, from the beginning, just left it, never trying to make suggestions or improvements."

One particular problem that seemed to generate animosity on the set had to do with the speech pattern that Harrison had chosen to use for his characterization. "When we started shooting...John Cromwell was horrified to hear the authentic high-pitched laughs and strange guttural noises I made," said Harrison later, "and asked me to please speak in my normal, Rex Harrison, voice. After all, that was what they were paying for." The conflict over the matter was such that Harrison had to get studio head Darryl Zanuck to intervene on his behalf and back him up. To his surprise and delight, Zanuck supported him. However, it ended up causing a rift with Cromwell. "From then on," said Harrison, "I did my part as I wanted to, but John Cromwell never spoke another word to me."Regardless of his difficulties working with Cromwell, Harrison thoroughly enjoyed co-starring with Irene Dunne. He thought her "an excellent actress" and was pleased that she had the confidence to follow her own instincts. "She too went her own way," said Harrison, "and tactfully used the director, as I later learned to do myself, to her own advantage; she listened to what he had to give, and discarded it or used it, as she wished."

Filming went on over the course of five months. Producer Louis Lighton ended up being the biggest help to Harrison along the way since he was willing to show him the dailies and give useful suggestions along the way about Harrison's performance, for which the actor was grateful.

Despite the challenges Harrison faced during shooting, he was still happy with the experience of making Anna and the King of Siam. "I have to admit that [the problems] did not stop me from enjoying the part enormously," he said. "It was quite a challenge, and I had a marvelous death scene at the end. There was also the great good fortune to be acting with Irene Dunne and Lee J. Cobb. Irene Dunne was a delight to work with, a dear woman and tremendously accomplished actress, and Lee J. Cobb one of the strongest American actors of his generation, and one I have always admired."

The sets for Anna and the King of Siam were some of the most elaborate ever built at Twentieth Century-Fox. Exquisitely detailed and painstakingly constructed, the expensive sets ended up covering several acres of the studio's backlot. According to a Time magazine article dated June 24, 1946, the film was "one of the first postwar productions to splurge on lavish, prewar-style props," which was shot "over five acres of lot covered with $300,000 worth...of Oriental rococo background. Notable eye-filling items: the King's four gold-and-diamond crowns ($84,000) and 23 silk-and-brocade costumes ($23,000);" along with "a coronation scene costing $80,000."

To write the film's musical score, Twentieth Century-Fox Music Department Head Alfred Newman approached famed composer Bernard Herrmann. Best known for his scores to classic films like Citizen Kane (1941) and numerous Alfred Hitchcock films including Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), Herrmann researched the history of Siamese music to add veracity to the film's original score. "The music was based on authentic Siamese scales and melodic fragments," said Herrmann according to Steven C. Smith's 1991 book A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. "I tried to get the sounds of Oriental music with our instruments. The music made no attempt to be a commentary on, or an emotional counterpart of, the drama, but was intended to serve as musical scenery."

When Anna and the King of Siam opened in June 1946, it was a smash success, winning the favor of audiences and critics alike. It received five Academy Award nominations including Best Art Direction, Cinematography, Supporting Actress (Gale Sondergaard), Screenplay and Original Score. It went on to take home two of the golden statuettes for Best Art Direction and Cinematography (Black and White). The film also helped establish Rex Harrison's presence in Hollywood, which kick-started a long and distinguished acting career in the U.S.

The story of Anna and the King of Siam was later famously adapted into a musical stage version by the legendary team of Rodgers and Hammerstein called The King and I. Opening on Broadway in 1951, the musical became an instant sensation starring Yul Brenner as The King and Gertrude Lawrence as Anna. It took home five Tony Awards that year, including Best Musical. Twentieth Century-Fox went on to turn the musical stage version into the classic film The King and I in 1956 starring Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr.

Over the years the story of Anna and her extraordinary experiences in Siam has continued to remain in the public's consciousness with contemporary film adaptations such as 1999's Anna and the King starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat as well as countless revivals of the stage musical all over the world. With its vivid unique characters and exotic period locale, this beautiful and fascinating story continues to be discovered over and over again by new generations who are all able to find something new and relevant to take away. As the very first screen adaptation of the story, the excellence of 1946's Anna and the King of Siam set the standard for all versions that followed.

by Andrea Passafiume

back to top
teaser Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

"The noble and triumphant female, an ever-popular figure on the screen...is exalted in the usual plushy manner but under circumstances which make for much appeal in the new picture at the nation's showplace...this film should be vastly attractive to those who respectably delight in the idealized picture of a female whose splendid qualities accomplish worthy ends. For Irene Dunne plays the fabled governess briskly and winsomely, and the whole pattern of her characterization is designed to shower her strength of mind and will...But it is really the performance of Rex Harrison as the king and in the cunning conception of his character that the charm of the picture lies. For this king is a most exceptional person, as was well indicated in the book; he is strangely desirous for enlightenment and for progress, while preserving feudal rules. And his quaintly eccentric nature, his difficult comprehensions of new thought, his pride and his poignant humility supply the humor and appeal in this film. The fact that Mr. Harrison is able to play the role with rare personality and authority while wearing some of the silliest costumes--droopy bloomers, spiked headgears and silken jerkins--manifests the exceptional talent that he has. Casting this excellent British actor for this highly demanding role was most wise of Producer Louis D. Lighton. A more familiar star might well have botched it--good." -- The New York Times

"Socko adult drama. Anna and the King of Siam is a rather faithful screen adaptation of Margaret Landon's biography, intelligently handled to spellbind despite its long footage...Irene Dunne does a superb enactment of Anna...Rex Harrison shines particularly in his American film debut. It's a sustained characterization of the King of Siam that makes the role real. Linda Darnell, third star, has little more than a bit as one of the king's wives, who incurs his displeasure and is burned at the stake. She does well." -- Variety

"Anna and the King of Siam flies in the face of established Hollywood precedent by ignoring Young Love, and proves that a movie can be lively entertainment even if boy doesn't get--or even meet--girl." -- Time magazine

"Sumptuous production...Dunne and Harrison (in his Hollywood debut) are superb." -- Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide

AWARDS AND HONORS

Anna and the King of Siam was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress (Gale Sondergaard), Best Musical Score (Bernard Herrmann) and Best Writing, Screenplay (Sally Benson, Talbot Jennings). It won for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.

Compiled by Andrea Passafiume

back to top
teaser Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

The story of English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, who was hired by King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand) to educate his dozens of wives and children in the 1860s, has fascinated the world since she wrote two memoirs about the experience in the 1870s. Leonowens's books, as well as a popular 1944 novel based on them, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, probably exaggerated Leonowens's importance and influence on the king. The real Mongkut was an educated and remarkably progressive ruler, and it was his own inspiration to open up his country to modernization and Western ideas and customs.

20th Century Fox bought the rights to Landon's novel, and studio head Darryl F. Zanuck originally wanted Elia Kazan to direct Anna and the King of Siam (1946), William Powell to play the king, and Dorothy McGuire as Anna. In a memo to producer Louis D. Lighton, Zanuck mentioned that Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy, Olivia de Havilland, and Irene Dunne all wanted to play Anna Owens (as the character is called in the film), but he felt that Dunne, then in her mid-40s, was "too old" to play the thirtyish widow with a young son. But negotiations with David O. Selznick, who had McGuire under contract broke down, and Dunne, who by then was making only one film a year, ended up with the part. It became one of her biggest successes.

Kazan's involvement also did not work out, and John Cromwell was assigned to direct. According to an article in the Hollywood Reporter, Charles Boyer was originally cast as the King, but dropped out "because of other commitments." Fox had distributed the British thriller, Night Train to Munich (1940) in the U.S., and it had been a success, so the studio offered its star Rex Harrison a contract, with the promise of the lead in Anna and the King of Siam to sweeten the offer. Harrison accepted, and in the fall of 1945, he and his wife, German actress Lilli Palmer, crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth, among the few civilians aboard the ship carrying thousands of U.S. soldiers home from World War II.

Harrison, a master of drawing room comedy, was nervous about making his American film debut in a role that was so alien to his experience. He was even more dismayed to get little guidance from director John Cromwell. "In fact, nobody told me how to do anything, and the only thing they seemed to be interested in at the studios was the problem with my eyes," Harrison recalled in his memoir, A Damned Serious Business (1991), referring to the prosthetics used to make his eyes look Asian. So Harrison researched, consulted a drama coach, and worked with her privately to create the character of an Asian potentate, and how he would speak and move. "I felt it was important to get the movements exactly right, especially the hand movements, which are rather controlled in Orientals, so my whole performance had to be rather still and precise." When they began shooting, Cromwell "was horrified to hear the authentic high-pitched laughs and strange, guttural noises I made, and asked me to speak in my normal, Rex Harrison voice." Harrison, incensed, appealed to Zanuck, who took his side. Harrison claimed that Cromwell never spoke another word to him during the filming. In his biography of Harrison, film critic Alexander Walker describes the performance as "very physical, unpredictable from moment to moment, filled with tiny pauses suggesting a primitive but cunning mind being made up...he uses his head, arms, hands, eyes and accusing forefinger with kinetic impact. He is quite unlike any other star then appearing on the American screen."

Critics at the time were equally impressed with Harrison. After faint praise for Dunne ("Her lady is on a level with some that Greer Garson has played"), Bosley Crowther of the New York Times added, "But it is really in the performance of Rex Harrison as the king and in his cunning conception of his character that the charm of the picture lies...Casting this excellent British actor for this highly demanding role was most wise...A more familiar star might have botched it." Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune called Harrison's portrayal "nothing short of perfect." Harrison's American film career was successfully launched, and he thrived in Hollywood for a couple of years, before a scandal--the suicide of his mistress, actress Carole Landis--sent him back to the stage and to England.

Variety called Anna and the King of Siam "Socko adult drama," and added kudos for Dunne, calling her work "superb." Life magazine praised the film as a "beautifully acted movie...examines with wit and delicacy the conflicting aims and ideas of a proper Victorian lady and the gorgeous autocrat she serves." Dunne's career got a boost, and she followed Anna and the King of Siam with two more plum roles in Life with Father (1947) and I Remember Mama (1948). The latter earned her another Oscar nomination.

Anna and the King of Siam won two Academy Awards for cinematography and art direction, and nominations for supporting actress Gale Sondergaard, for Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson's screenplay, and Bernard Herrmann's musical score. In 1951, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway musical version of the Leonowens story, The King and I, became a huge hit. It starred Gertrude Lawrence as Anna and made a star out of Yul Brynner, whose staccato vocal rhythms and swagger seemed to echo Harrison's performance, with an added dose of sex appeal. Brynner repeated his success in the 1956 film version of the musical, opposite Deborah Kerr, and in a failed 1972 television series based on the story with Samantha Eggar. A 1999 film, Anna and the King, based on Leonowens's books, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat, did not have the success or the charm of the 1946 film, or of the stage and film musicals.

Director: John Cromwell
Producer: Louis D. Lighton
Screenplay: Talbot Jennings, Sally Benson, based on the novel by Margaret Landon
Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Editor: Harmon Jones
Costume Design: Bonnie Cashin
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, William Darling
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Irene Dunne (Anna Owens), Rex Harrison (The King), Linda Darnell (Tuptim), Lee J. Cobb (Kralahome), Gale Sondergaard (Lady Thiang), Mikhail Rasumny (Alak), Dennis Hoey (Sir Edward Ramsay), Tito Renaldo (Prince Chulalongkhorn as an adult), Richard Lyon (Louis Owens).
BW-128m.

by Margarita Landazuri

back to top