Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

Director: John Cromwell


Before the famed Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I” there was Anna and the King of Siam. An adaptation of the popular novel of the same name, the film received praise during in the 1940s, but manifested many flaws in its old Hollywood style with the passage of time. Before mass media made the world a smaller place, a film such as this gave many their first glimpse into far off lands that appeared exotic and different, which Hollywood was not known for handling with great respect in that day. For its time it was a well-received picture of exotic beauty and wonder that reminded diligence can bring build positive relationships towards change.

Anna and the King of Siam is drama about a British governess hired as the royal tutor of Siam and her friendship with the king. Set in the 1860s, widowed British educator, Anna Owens (Irene Dunne), is tasked with teaching English the royal family of Siam consisting of the king’s harem of wives and his 67 children to help gain respect of European nations. Anna struggles with the vast societal differences between western cultures and somewhat barbaric cultures upheld by the King of Siam, Mongkut (Rex Harrison).

The two build a unique friendship both Anna and Mongkut’s pride gain each other’s respect, as well as upset each other. Many times Anna is frustrated by Mongkut’s rule by brutality, but she remains steadfast and earns his admiration despite his hold on tradition. Their reverence for each other last to Mongkut’s death, when his son, whom Anna educated, ascends to the throne, bringing with him changes within the monarchy that gives new respect towards the people, opening a new age for Siam.

This is one of those motion pictures that struggles with the passage of time and must be observed through the lenses of 1940s perspective to understand and venerate fully. The film is slow and very off with its depiction of Siamese culture, but the picture combats that with the appeal of one of Hollywood more respectful leading ladies in Irene Dunne and expensive, detailed art direction that attempt to recreate an entire culture from half way across the world. The result was a feature that was lavish for its time, but struggles at many points to keep audiences invested in the plot.

The movie centers on the turbulent relationship between Anna and Mongkut as they attempt to find common ground while not backing down from their own beliefs. The growing pains of each one’s stubborn pride prove to cause friction while also laying the foundation of the success of their relationship and laying the seeds that will eventually allow the nation to evolve. Stars Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison share an interesting chemistry on camera that portrays a more constructed presence than a natural relationship between their characters. They feel forced and out of place in their roles, but this is looking through the eyes several decades removed, as the two were well praised for their performances in 1946.

47 year-old Irene Dunne provides a solid performance as a matriarchal style educator. I however struggle to find her very interesting as Anna. Perhaps she is too “old Hollywood” in a post war motion picture, or perhaps her Anna is just too perfect for an actor that needs to ride the ups and downs this character needs. I’ve never found myself to be a fan of her work during this cinematic journey, finding her performances leaving me wanting more dimensionality than what she usually delivered.  Not to say I hate her as an actress, but rather I find her form of performance bland and unappealing as her characters always seem too well prepared for every situation, rarely able to sustain dramatic down points for a significant time. Here in Anna and the King of Siam, the low point for Anna is the death of her son, Louis (Richard Lyon), but she appears to bounce back emotionally rather quickly when the King honors her son with a royal funeral. However, we also never get to attached to Louis or his relationship to Anna fleshed out to the point where he feel the strain of his death. The dramatic heaviness is not palpable as I wish Dunne could have made it much more so.

Rex Harrison is simply a miscast for Mongkut in his day. Harrison successful a British actor making his American screen debt is a strong performer, but just not as a Siamese monarch. Even he had to admit he was two feet too tall for the part, figuratively pointing out how his presence was not right as the king. Despite his vigorous study of culture and dialect his appearance as Mongkut is nothing more than a squinty eyed, skin-tinted British actor delivering a Siamese accent that that is high pitched and whinny that I could not take seriously.

Attempting my best to put in perspective that Hollywood just did things like this back then, I continued to struggle with Rex Harrison’s depiction. Physically he simple did not fit the role as his full head of hair colored black and slicked back reminded me that this was a British man doing a funny voice. Later depictions of the role would put forth better physically representations of what a Siamese ruler may have looked like. I found Harrison’s performance here as Mongkut far less successful than Paul Muni’s performance in The Good Earth (1937) where Muni plays a Japanese peasant. This performance by Rex Harrison would not hinder him, as the film was successful and he would continue into a long, fruitful Hollywood career.

Lee J. Cobb appearance as Kralahome, the prime minister, sadly is little more than a tough guy persona in painted skin. His character serves to represent Siam as a people of old traditions welcoming change after Mongkut’s passing. It is the moment where Cobb, as Kralahome, stands up around the newly crowned king, that signifies the crescendo of the picture, as previously no person could stand at or above the level of the king, a law abolished with appointment of the new king.

Linda Darnell curiously is listed high enough in the cast to be placed on large letters on the film’s poster. At 22 years-old this Texas born actress had already ridden the rollercoaster of Hollywood stardom, from a breakout teenage beauty, to falling out of favor with the studio, and remaining notable for her pin-up girl status. Here she uses her somewhat exotic look to fulfill the role of Lady Tuptim, Mongkut’s favorite wife. Her role is created to simply display Mongkut’s cruelty as she attempts to run away from the royal palace, but is quickly caught, tied, and put to death by Mongkut, following tradition. It is obvious Darnell’s appearance serves for only two purposes, to deliver her youthful beauty and be the sad victim of the king’s brutality.

Beyond the acting, it is clear to see that Fox spent a vast amount on this lavish production. Despite rumors of Fox producers having little interest in Anna and the King of Siam the picture was presented as if a prestige picture. Vast, large sets were created on studio lots, retained for future movie productions until the lots were sold off years later. The film was said to be one of the most expensive pictures of its day, and it paid off in the form of two Academy Awards, for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography (Black and White). It is curious how the film in all its exotic art direction glory was not shot in color. It was common that lavish pictures such as this would be placed in full color for the oh’s and ah’s of movie audiences, but somehow this is not the case here. Perhaps Fox was still feeling the effects of WWII, or the film’s budget was all spent on the sets to the point that they could not invest in color film and cameras. However, director John Cromwell was a fine filmmaker in the realm of black and white in and period pictures, so the film would not suffer under his guidance.
 Anna and the King of Siam was the adaptation of the novel release just two years prior in 1944, inspired by the real life Anglo-Indian Anna Leonowens, whose memoirs shared her working for the King of Siam. This fictional telling of her story would further inspire the famed Rodgers and Hammerstein musical play “The King and I” which would become a Broadway smash classic and far outweigh the notoriety of the novel or this picture. The musical would be adapted into far more memorable film adaptation on multiple occasions, proving their telling of the tale to be far more effective. I am not sad that Anna and the King of Siam is not the most notable version of the story as it carries with it many flaws and can be dull at times, but for 1946 it was one of the greatest pictures of the year to audiences. Tastes, luckily, would change.

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