In 1982, just as Ted Turner was gearing up his aggressive push to colorize ‘old’ B&W movies in an effort to make them ‘appeal’ to a wider/younger audience, I recall so well the cinema’s one-time enfant terrible, Orson Welles’ astute and snap analysis. “Tell Mr. Turner to keep his goddamn Crayolas away from Citizen Kane!” I could feel the same way about Fox Home Video these days; a goodly number of their DeLuxe color movies from the 1950’s suffered from some untoward tinkering by someone at the controls who clearly doesn’t understand the concept of ‘color balancing’. This has led to Fox catalog titles like The Blue Max, Desk Set, and, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (to name but three) adopting a severe teal/orange palette that in no way accurately approximates vintage DeLuxe color. I suppose if I wanted to be petty about such things, I could also slam whoever is responsible for the colorization on this current Blu-ray’s cover art, giving Deborah Kerr a vibrant fuchsia frock where once there shimmered a muted, though thoroughly stunning, gold-lamé. But, I digress.
Together with Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965), Walter Lang’s The King and I (1956) remains the other top-tier Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to make the seemingly unscathed and effortless transition from stage to screen; perhaps, in no small way due to Darryl F. Zanuck’s personal supervision and seal of approval. The film version of R&H’s grand stage spectacular has everything going for it: chiefly, the duality of acting strengths in Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr’s central performances. For the first – and perhaps, only time – we get a perfect counterbalance in what is essentially a prolonged, unrequited love story built upon an enduring struggle of wills, a testament to friendship, and, a decidedly delicious/often comedic clash of cultures. While Kerr came to the production as something of a neophyte, Brynner’s finely crafted turn as King Mongkut was the result of his lengthy and seasoned run on the stage in a defining role that made him the Tony-winning toast of Broadway (and would later win him his equally as deserved Best Actor Oscar).
Let us pause a moment to acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room: the Siamese (nee Thai peoples) will likely never warm to The King and I. In point of fact, there’s probably no genuinely good reason why they should. This R&H show of shows is all glittery adventurism and romanticism; a thorough fabrication from an account of the ‘relationship’ shared between the former monarch and the widowed schoolmarm, who came to Siam at a time of great political upheaval to educate Mongkut’s many children. Of enduring offense is the film’s portrait of Mongkut as a generally unenlightened and simplistic individual, discovering his inner strength of character only through the expert tutelage of this foreigner in his midst. The other great upset involves Tuptim: a tragic story about one of the King’s concubines, executed for falling in love with another man.
This account, largely based on hushed palace gossip and intrigues, and never actually witnessed by Anna, was later published in 1873 by Leonowens as ‘Romance of the Harem’ and much later integrated into Margaret Landon’s fictionalized biography as an occurrence taking place during Anna’s stay inside the palace. Leonowens is recast as the catalyst in this ill-fated reunion between the lovelorn Tuptim and her paramour, Lun Tha. This chapter has long since been faithfully recreated in virtually every retelling of the story, despite the fact Mongkut’s great-granddaughter, Princess Vudhichalerm claims herself as the direct descendent of Tuptim, who not only lived to a ripe old age but actually married Mongkut’s son, Prince Chulalongkorn. Nevertheless, the real Anna Leonowens’ impressions of King Mongkut, as a rather imperious and occasionally cruel potentate, adhering to a policy of sexual slavery, fly in the face of the real Mongkut, who was, in fact, a Buddhist monk for almost twenty-seven years before ascending the throne.
Herein, it would perhaps be prudent to briefly reconsider a famous Winston Churchill quote. When asked how he believed history would judge him, Churchill unflinchingly replied, “History shall be kind…for I intend to write it.” Indeed, fact is often skewed by opinion – also, by the hand, heart and mindset of the person relaying the account; the printed word acquiring more ballast than oral histories – at least, for a time. Thus, the survivors of history are given to a level of scholarship, recreating their stories as definitive antiquity from their own experiences; also, perhaps, with a modicum of creative license attributed to the future forecast of what was more often an imperfect and non-linear past. Deborah Kerr (an appealing, if historically inaccurate Anna Leonowens), is the quintessence of this stoic British colonial perspective. Far too young, and equally afforded too much authority over the King’s domestic and foreign affairs; her Anna functions as both an oracle and as a woman of highborn culture, principles, intelligence and feministic spirit; her varying attributes married to a deliciously devious wit; just the sort of woman the real Anna Leonowens – a shameless self-promoter – might have aspired to, and certainly one her biographer, Margaret Landon would have preferred as her subject matter.
History, of course, paints a decidedly different portrait for this English governess; thirty-two at the time she came to Siam in service to its King (and would remain in his service for the next six years). Although Mongkut regarded Leonowens as something of a friend, her influence over his political affairs was minimal. He also charged her as being a “very difficult woman…and more difficult than generality.” In 1868, the real Leonowens left the court of Siam for health reasons. After Mongkut died later that same year, Leonowens was not invited back to Siam by his successor; heir apparent, Prince Chulalongkorn, who was a mere fifteen at the time of his ascendancy to the throne. Taking work as a school teacher in New York, Anna began to pen her experiences for a popular publication. She was, perhaps, mildly prejudiced, also looking at her not-so-distant past through the inevitable rose-colored glasses and making her own personal observations and critiques along the way. Two years later, Leonowens collected these stories with embellishment in a pair of memoirs. These were almost immediately well received by the critics and taken at face value.
Interestingly, when Rodgers and Hammerstein undertook to musicalize Anna’s story for the Broadway stage they drew virtually none of their inspiration from her ‘historical’ record, basing their narrative structure almost entirely on John Cromwell’s 1946 movie, Anna and the King of Siam; atypical 2oth Century-Fox gloss with stellar production values and iconic performances by Rex Harrison, as the King, and Irene Dunne, as Anna. The King and I is actually quite unique in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, in that they did not chose the property for themselves, but were goaded into accepting the project as a sort of commission from Broadway’s luminescent star, Gertrude Lawrence.
Lawrence had been an intercontinental sensation whose recent stage success in Lady in the Dark remained the height of chic sophistication. Purchasing the rights to Anna and the King of Siam, Lawrence approached Rodgers and Hammerstein to produce a stage version with her as its’ star. As the legend goes; Rodgers and Hammerstein began The King and I in earnest, only to discover, much to their chagrin, they knew of no actor able to play the male protagonist. It was during this impasse that longtime friend and occasional collaborator, Mary Martin arranged for the duo to audition several actors, including Yul Brynner, who was then appearing in the play, Lute Song. Emerging from behind the curtain, Brynner sat cross-legged before Rodgers and Hammerstein with his guitar in hand. He then gave the instrument a mighty thwack and let out a primal yelp.
Brynner – who seemed to intuitively radiate savage sexuality – agreed at the behest of the play’s costume designer, Irene Shariff to shave his head for the part. The results were startling, sensual and instantly iconic. To say R&H were inspired by Brynner is an understatement. While the first half of their play undeniably belongs to Gertrude Lawrence – and her sparring with the king - the last act is a tour de force for Brynner; also bringing two secondary characters and their flawed romance to light; the slave girl, Tuptim (played in the movie by Rita Moreno) and Lun Tha (newcomer, Carlos Rivas). On stage, as reincarnated in the film, The King and I is capped off by a startling ballet; a Siamese interpretation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On Broadway and in the movie, the pivotal part of Eliza in this story within a story, rechristened ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’, would be played by Yuriko; an Asian dancer, later to choreograph and direct the entire production for its Broadway revival. In the movie, however, as in the original Broadway show, the ballet was the work of noted choreographer, Jerome Robbins.
After tryouts in New Haven and Boston, The King and I premiered on Broadway on March 29th, 1951. It was an immediate and overwhelming success – winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Actress (Lawrence), Featured Actor (Brynner), Costume and Scenic Design. However, after playing for nearly a year and 1,246 performances, Gertrude Lawrence suddenly fell ill. She finished the Wednesday matinee in September, 1952 and checked into hospital for what she believed would be a brief respite from jaundice. Instead, doctors informed the actress she was fatally stricken with liver cancer. That Saturday, Lawrence died at the age of 54, leaving Brynner to inherit the mantle of quality as the undisputed monarch of Fox’s movie version in 1956.
During these heady times leading up to the filming of The King and I Rodgers and Hammerstein were involved in two commercial flops on the stage; Me and Juliet (1953) and Pipe Dream (1955). As a result, it was mutually agreed Rodgers and Hammerstein would take a brief respite from working together. While Rodgers continued to be intimately involved in the handling of The King and I for the big screen, Hammerstein worked independently, adapting 1943’s stage show, Carmen Jones (also produced at Fox). On film, The King and I became the beneficiary of Darryl F. Zanuck’s meticulous supervision; screenwriter, Ernest Lehman assigned the task of restructuring the play’s content, deleting several songs along the way. Zanuck spared no expense on the construction of two lavish outdoor sets; an authentic recreation of Siam leading from the boat docks to the palace to chart Anna’s arrival, and later, palatial gardens, complete with a mind-boggling array of fountains, for the romantic and moonlit pas deux between Rita Moreno and Carols Rivas – ‘We Kissed in a Shadow’.
These alterations to the play met with both Rodgers and Hammerstein’s approval; not so much with Yul Brynner, who took a rather instant dislike to both Jerome Robbins and Walter Lang, becoming an integral – if occasionally caustic - part of the production, both on and off camera; his experiences as the star of the stage version, and, as a director of TV drama, giving Brynner more personal insight into the material and how to make it cinematically engaging. Zanuck respected Brynner’s input, as did Lehman, who became something of a lifelong friend. But it was Brynner’s central performance as the King that truly captivated audiences, earning him the Best Actor Academy Award; a banner year for the actor – nominated thrice in a single annum for this, The Ten Commandments, and Anastasia.
Immediately following the lush orchestral strains of the main title, conducted by Fox’s resident movie composer, Alfred Newman, The King and I opens on a British merchant ship docking in the port city. An empathetic Captain Orton (Charles Irwin) questions Anna’s decision to embark on her new life with her young son, Louis (Rex Thompson) in tow. But Anna is determined to make a go of things in this strange, exotic world. The crew is mesmerized by the appearance of the royal barge; the Kralahome (Martin Benson), the King’s emissary, come to collect Anna and take her to the palace. Orton warns “That man has power…and he can use either for or against you.” We get a long, and thoroughly fascinating tracking shot through Zanuck’s lavish recreation of Siam, complete with muscled kiao bearers, elephants, washerwomen, market sellers, and live monkeys and parrots adding nearly $200,000 to the film’s budget; all of it for less than thirty seconds of screen time. Anna interrupts Mongkut while he is holding court. The arrival of Tuptim and Lon Tha, from Burma, is met with ambiguous pleasure; Lon Tha presenting Mongkut with a scroll from the King of Burma, essentially bestowing Tuptim as a gift. Anna is shocked by this exchanged, but more perturbed the King seems unwilling to grant her an immediate audience. Taking matters into her own hands, Anna confronts Mongkut with the promise he made about supplying her with a brick residence adjacent the palace walls where she can bring up Louie as her late husband would have wanted.
The King insists he remembers nothing of this promise and instead takes Anna to a lavish room where some of his many wives are in attendance. He presents Anna with a myriad of princes and princesses, including heir apparent, Prince Chulalongkorn (Patrick Adiarte). The King also introduces Anna to ‘head wife’, Lady Thiang (Terry Saunders), who recites proverbs from her missionary teaching. Unable to resist the sway of their collected grateful smiles and angelic faces, Anna decides to stay. However, she is not about to give up her quest for a house of her own, instructing her pupils to daily serenade the King with platitudes to ‘home, sweet home’. The King, in the meantime, has become embroiled in a series of political rumors suggesting Britain has plans to annex Siam and make it a protectorate state. In ‘A Puzzlement’, the King expresses his concerns over forming political alliances; “Shall I join with other nations in alliance? If allies are weak, am I not best alone? If allies are strong with power to protect me, might they not protect me out of all I own?” In tandem, the King is also heavily invested in modernizing his country, dedicated to learning and understanding the Christian principles of the Bible.
Lady Thiang explains to Anna how Tuptim is unhappy in the palace and Tuptim then confides she is desperately in love with Lon Tha, the man who brought her to Siam. Anna becomes instrumental in reuniting these lovers. At Lady Thiang’s behest, Anna also begins to make ‘suggestions’ that aid Mongkut in his deliberations over what is to be done to stave off the inevitable British annexation of Siam. With Anna’s guidance, the King decides to give a grand party in honor of the arriving British dignitaries; Sir John Hay (Alan Mowbray) and Sir Edward Ramsey (Geoffrey Toone). The implication Sir Edward was once very much in love with Anna, and continues to harbor an infatuation now, momentarily causes Mongkut to become mildly jealous. After all, by now he too has begun to see Anna’s value as more than a schoolmarm.
The pair hosts a lavish dinner party, Anna guiding the conversation toward the King’s strengths and Mongkut taking her lead to express his intelligence and wit. Ramsey and Hay are impressed with the King and his regard for the British Empire, also with the play Tuptim has arranged for the night’s entertainment: ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’. Alas, Mongkut is not convinced of its motives, particularly when ‘the king’ in its narrative, Simon ‘of’ Legree, is drowned in its climax, allowing Eva and George to become lovers; a parallel to Tuptim and Lon Tha’s passion for each other.
At the play’s end, Tuptim has vanished from the stage and the King, more contented than anything else that he and Anna have pulled off a major coup in gaining Britain as an ally, devotes his time and energy to an intellectual discussion on the relationship between man and woman. This, however, backfires, when Anna explains the concept of monogamy with ‘Shall We Dance’; the King, unable to set aside his own feelings for Anna any longer, engaging her in a spirited whirl around the dance floor. Their mutually felt elation revealed, is nevertheless interrupted by news from the Kralahome: Tuptim has been recaptured but Lon Thau, in his escape, has drowned. Tuptim is brought before Mongkut, who attempts to make an example of her treason by whipping her in Anna’s presence. Anna pleads with Mongkut to reconsider, declaring “You are a barbarian!” Infuriated, Mongkut prepares to exact his revenge. Alas, love has changed his heart. At the last possible moment, the King hurls his whip across the room, retreating to his library for consolation. Believing Anna’s influences have weakened the King’s resolve, the Kralahome demands Anna return to England at once.
Remaining separated for some time, while Anna waits the next boat to arrive from England, Anna is approached by Lady Thiang on the eve of her departure. Lady Thiang informs Anna the King has fallen gravely ill and is dying. Unable to comprehend this, Anna decides to see for herself what has become of this man whom she so obviously admires, and secretly has come to love. She discovers the King on his death bed in the library, wishing to surround himself with these books of knowledge. The King pleads for Anna to remain in Siam and continue her tutelage of his children, particularly Prince Chulalongkorn who, at the tender age of fifteen, is ill-equipped to assume the responsibilities as Siam’s next ruler and will undoubtedly need Anna’s guidance. Reluctantly, Anna complies. Mongkut bestows his royal ring to the Prince, declaring him the new monarch. As Prince Chulalongkorn begins to make proclamations for the future progress of Siam, Mongkut expires; his passing witnessed only by the Kralahome and Anna, who grieve silently as the future of the country remains in limbo.
Despite factual inaccuracies, The King and I remains a perfect entertainment; peerless execution by master craftsmen toiling under Zanuck’s personalized supervision. Zanuck, a storyteller at heart, perhaps more than any other mogul from his own time, intuitively understood how to tell a good story. In Rodgers and Hammerstein, Zanuck is cribbing from the absolute best, and, with Ernest Lehman as his scribe in charge of the adaptation, he has one of the greatest screenwriters of the century as his collaborator. Zanuck would also ensure the integrity of The King and I’s visuals by photographing it in Cinemascope 55 – an 8perf anamorphic squeezed image nearly four times the size of traditional Cinemascope and something of a precursor to Todd A-O 70mm.
Even as Zanuck had rushed to debut Cinemascope in 1954, he was acutely aware that in magnification the process’ original 35mm squeezed image produced objectionable amounts of grain, a dimmer, and often more softly focused image, thanks to crude lenses. Cinemascope 55 was therefore a considerable upgrade in presentation quality. Alas, the ‘55’ system proved problematic in projection (basically, because most theaters were unwilling to retool again and again to keep up with the ever-evolving widescreen revolutions), necessitating reduction printing the ‘55’ 8perf down to traditional 4 perf Cinemascope for The King and I’s general release.
In the late 1990’s Fox began the meticulous process to restore both The King and I and Carousel (the only two movies photographed in Cinemascope 55); building special equipment from scratch to scan and reprint its vastly superior image to more traditional 70mm film stock. So, what we are seeing on Fox’s new Blu-ray is the direct result of this higher resolution scan, and I have to admit, The King and I in hi-def exports an impressive amount of clarity and fine detail; on occasion, with mind-boggling razor-sharpness. Detail in skin, fabric, hair, pop in close-up.
Alas, we have the specter of an old and tiresome problem resurfacing on this disc that seems inherent only in Fox’s hi-def mastering efforts of late. I am speaking of the ‘teal’ issue; a queer oversaturation of this particular tint of blue, bathing the entire image. I really don’t know what to make of it, having already contacted Schawn Belston at Fox with a lengthy email regarding my concern. So far, I have received no reply.
There is little to deny The King and I does not look anything like it should on Blu-ray in terms of its color palette. Anna’s grayish/silver stripped dress during the ‘Getting to Know You’ number is now robin egg blue; ditto for the whites of her eyes and teeth during ‘Shall We Dance’. There seems to be a desaturation of other colors as well. I call attention to the scene where Anna is summoned by Mongkut in the dead of night to await his pleasure, only to discover him sprawled on the floor of his library, reading the Bible and interested in engaging Anna in a philosophical/religious debate. What was once a vibrant shade of blood red in Yul Brynner’s regal silken robes has been turned a ruddy orange, while Anna’s gorgeous white gown glows an ominous and unhealthy shade of teal.
It’s no use trying to debate the issue. I’ve read numerous ‘discussion’ boards arguing no one can be certain what the original filmic image looked like. Fair enough, time has passed and memories do fade. Photographs of the actors in their original costumes, shot in screen tests, and in color stills, however, do not lie. And some of the original costumes still exist too. Anna’s frock when she sings ‘Getting to Know You’ is monochromatic B&W – not teal! I have to say, viewing The King and I three times on Blu-ray, desperately trying to convince myself this is how it should look, has only served to sour me on the experience of ever viewing it again in its present condition.
Colors – except for the aforementioned teal – are muted, dull and lack the oomph of Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-winning cinematography. What was once a resplendent, eye-popping cinematic experience – astutely summarized by Fox’s PR department as “more than your eyes have ever seen…more than your heart has ever known”, now has been reduced to a very ugly looking 1080p presentation indeed. ‘Shall We Dance’ – the penultimate expression of Mongkut and Anna’s reciprocated ‘love’ – looks muddy, flat and frankly, unattractive; her gold-lamé shimmering with teal and muted aubergine highlights. Ugh! No, thanks! Not now – not ever!
The DTS 5.1 audio is stunning and handsome in all the right spots, delivering the necessary kick to Alfred Newman’s rich orchestrations as well as the songs – although Brynner’s brief vocal interruption during ‘Shall We Dance’ still contains a distracting amount of distortion. Extras are all ported over from Fox’s 2005 DVD – also, from the old laserdisc from 1996. The laserdisc included an ‘interactive’ feature hosted by Nick Redman with interviews from surviving cast members as well as the children of Rodgers and Hammerstein. These snippets have been clumsily divided into several featurettes; on occasion, with Redman’s audio cut off at the beginning. It’s a sloppy job. The whole thing ought to have been pieced back together as one comprehensive ‘making of’ documentary. This easily could have been done. We also get an audio commentary and Fox’s insistence on a music box and sing-a-long feature. Honestly, folks – your target audience for The King and I is not pre-school kids. Let’s all grow up together, shall we?…and fix the teal issue before it ruins any more iconic films from your back catalog. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)