Anna and the King of Siam

ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM was the first filmed version of a story that’s pleased a lot of people since it was put to pen by Anna Leonowens in 1870, telling of her five years at the court of Mongkut, the King Of Siam, teaching his 39 wives and concubines and 82 children. The adventurous Owens was—let’s be kind—given to exaggeration, and among those displeased with her claims and the subsequent tellings, were/are the rulers and people of Siam/Thailand, taking decided umbrage at any perceived slight to the throne and their customs. Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel sold a million copies, adding the author’s ideas (she had much experience in Thailand) to the already factitious account. The ensuing stage productions spawned the 1956 musical version which had color and charm and is the one seen by the most people. The 1999 attempt didn’t fare well, but at least boasted location shooting in neighboring Malaysia. The 1946 version bests both for drama, humor, texture, and emotional effect. Directed by John Cromwell, written by Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson, it ranked 24th at the box office that year and won two of its five Academy Award nominations.

Widowed teacher ‘Anna Owens’ (Irene Dunne) arrives in Bangkok in 1862, accompanied by her young son. Mongkut, the Siamese king (Rex Harrison), has sent for her to instruct his brood in a Western-styled education to better deal with the steady encroachment of colonial powers. The mercurial, headstrong ruler and patient but forthright foreigner clash, then gradually adjust to one another’s manners, priorities and temperament, finally forging a bond of trust and friendship.

Bernard Herrmann’s dramatic and evocative score sets an exotic mood from the start, and throughout the plush art direction and costuming are accented by Arthur C. Miller’s expert black & white cinematography. As ever, Dunne is a warm and strong presence and Harrison excels in his first Hollywood outing: it’s one of his richest performances. Linda Darnell is fine as the rebellious ‘Lady Tuptim’ and Gale Sondergaard is graceful and winning as ‘Lady Thiang’. Another welcome presence is Lee J. Cobb (this was before his shouting period commenced), quietly powerful as trusted advisor ‘Kralahome’.

The only weak link are child actors Richard Lyons (Anna’s son Louis) and Mickey Roth (Mongkut’s son Prince Chulalongkorn): they clang in their unskilled deliveries. Of course, in today’s woke-crazed knee-jerking over “appropriation” and actors playing characters of different races under makeup, this marvelous old movie would never get past the outrage brigade. Hazard a guess how King Mongkut would deal with these arrogant fools.

The cinematography won an Oscar, as did the art direction. Sondergaard was nominated as Supporting Actress, Hermann for his scoring, Jennings & Benson for their script.

Fun anecdote about the King’s “Lincoln letter” (he actually wrote it to President Buchanan, but Abe had more resonance for the audience) comes via 20th Century Fox ruler Darryl F. Zanuck’s memo to the producer and director: “If we cannot find a great Lincoln quote we should write one. The best Wilson quote in the picture Wilson was written by Lamar Trotti and no one ever questioned it.”

With Mikhail Rasumny, John Abbott, Addison Richards and Leonard Strong. 128 minutes.

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