powered by AFI
Despite her lack of singing experience, Deborah Kerr created one of her most memorable performances in the lavish 1956 musical, The King and I, adapted from the Broadway hit. Given her status as Hollywood's top British import of the '50s and a personal endorsement from her co-star, she was the perfect choice for the role, even if part of her performance was supplied by the screen's mistress of dubbing, Marni Nixon.
The King and I had been a Broadway phenomenon, defying conventional notions of what made a musical a hit to present the story of two people in love, a widowed British governess and a polygamous Siamese king, who barely touched and never kissed. And just to make the proposition even riskier, Hammerstein's script ended with the King's death (of a broken heart), a rarity for the musical theatre.
The play had been written as a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, a stage legend who had never quite caught on in the movies. Nonetheless, as part of her contract, she had first refusal on the lead in any film version. Sadly, that was not to be, as she was diagnosed with cancer during the run and passed away in 1952.
There was no question that 20th Century-Fox would produce the film version. The studio already owned the screen rights to Anna and the King of Siam, the historical book on which the musical had been based. Their 1946 film version had starred Irene Dunne, now retired from acting (though she certainly could have sung the role) and Rex Harrison. When Rodgers and Hammerstein were casting the stage version, they actually approached Harrison about playing the lead, whose songs were as much spoken as sung (years before Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe developed a similar style to fit Harrison's vocal range in My Fair Lady, 1964), but he had other commitments. Alfred Drake, the leading male singing star on Broadway at the time, had the same problem, so the songwriters started a series of open calls.
Harrison, Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich and Mary Martin have all taken credit for what happened next, though the Martin connection seems the most feasible. She felt that her co-star from the musical Lute Song was perfect for the role. Yul Brynner was an accomplished singer and actor, but with few prospects for a man with his exotic looks, he was focusing on directing. Martin started working on Rodgers and Hammerstein, while she and Brynner's wife, former actress Virginia Gilmore, started nagging him about auditioning. Finally, he agreed to try out. He showed up scowling, sat on the floor and accompanied himself on the guitar as he sang a nonsense song he'd invented that sounded vaguely Oriental. And a star was born. Brynner had so little faith in his abilities, he didn't quit his day job. He took an eight-month leave of absence from CBS, where he was working as a director. Even after he scored a hit in the show, winning every award for musical performers on Broadway, and played a major role in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), he returned to CBS.
At this point, however, he was so heavily identified with the role of the King that there was no other choice for the film version. Nonetheless, when Fox came calling, he turned them down at first, even suggesting that he would rather direct the film with Marlon Brando playing his role. When they persisted, he held out for script and cast approval on top of the $300,000 fee and percentage of the profits they were already offering. And he got it.
Meanwhile, the studio was trying to decide who should be cast as the "I" in The King and I. At first, they considered mostly singers, including television star Dinah Shore. Maureen O'Hara was all but signed when she made the mistake of sending them a recording of her singing Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. Rodgers listened, agreed she had a fine voice, and then said, "No pirate queen is going to play my Anna!" Finally, Brynner, who had met Kerr during the Broadway run of Tea and Sympathy, suggested her for the role. Although they would have to dub her singing, she had the British bearing, the talent and the marquee value to make the film work.
Kerr was touring in Tea and Sympathy when she won the role. At each city on the tour, she hired a vocal coach to polish her singing technique. Although she never expected to record the score herself, she wanted to be able to do the lead-ins herself. She did so well, in fact, that the studio kept her versions of "Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You," although the latter was cut for fear it would make the character sound too whiny. The rest of her singing was supplied by Marni Nixon, a classical soprano in her early twenties who would later dub for Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961) and, most notoriously, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Nixon's first challenge was matching Kerr's voice, which meant singing lower in her range than was comfortable. To help, the sound department used a special filter to enhance her lower tones. She also rehearsed the staging of each number with Kerr, matching her every move and facial expression to bolster the illusion that the character was really singing. The result was one of the best dubbing jobs in film history.
Brynner and Kerr got along beautifully during filming, which was good for her, as she was saddled with period gowns that often weighed over 40 pounds, causing her to lose 15 pounds during filming (she referred to herself as "The Melting Miss Kerr"). He was much harder on the rest of the production team, clashing openly with producer Charles Brackett and director Walter Lang. He used his script approval rights to keep studio executives from changing the ending so that the King would be gored by a white elephant. In addition, he added little touches that deepened the relationship between the king and Anna, often telling Lang what to shoot and print so that little looks and touches created a stronger sense of romance than had existed on stage. Little wonder when both he and the director won Oscar® nominations, Kerr sent Brynner a joking telegram: "A WELL DESERVED DOUBLE VICTORY. NOT ONLY ARE YOU A MARVELOUS ACTOR BUT A MARVELOUS DIRECTOR" (Quoted in Robbins, Jhan, Yul Brynner: The Inscrutable King).
The King and I was a huge hit for all concerned. Filmed for $6.5 million (ten times the cost of the original Broadway production), it grossed $21.3 million in the U.S. alone. It won Oscars® for Brynner, Best Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes and Best Sound, along with nominations for Best Picture, Actress (Kerr), Director and Cinematography. It would be re-made as an animated musical in 1999, with Miranda Richardson and Martin Vidnovic voicing the leads, and the non-musical Anna and the King (1999), starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat), and inspire a short-lived television series starring Brynner and Samantha Eggar and the offbeat comedy The Beautician and the Beast (1997), starring Fran Drescher and Timothy Dalton. In addition, Brynner would return to the musical on stage for years, eventually turning in 4,000 performances as the King. With its success on stage and screen, it has become one of the most profitable musicals of all time, earning its backers in excess of $6.5 billion.
Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Walter Lang
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman
Based on the musical by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers and Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: Lyle R. Wheeler, John De Cuir
Music: Richard Rodgers, Alfred Newman, Ken Darby
Cast: Deborah Kerr, (Anna Leonowens), Yul Brynner (The King), Rita Moreno (Tuptim), Martin Benson (Kralahome), Terry Saunders (Lady Thiang), Rex Thompson (Louis Leonowens), Carlos Rivas (Lun Tha), Alan Mowbray (British Ambassador).
by Frank Miller