Anna and the King of Siam
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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).
by Margarita Landazuri
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