February 8, 2018

Anna and the King of Siam (1946)
Grade: 63/100

Director: John Cromwell
Stars: Irene Dunne, Rex Harrison, Lee J. Cobb

What it's about. Set in Siam (present-day Thailand) during the 1860s. Widowed English schoolteacher Irene Dunne shows up with equally well-dressed pre-teenaged son Richard Lyon to serve as governess for the many children of the mercurial and demanding King of Siam, Rex Harrison. Soon, Harrison and Dunne are bickering as if they were unhappily married, with Dunne always in the right since she is not only a woman, but English as well.

Dunne also has to set straight two other powerful members of court, Harrison's taciturn but loyal right-hand man Lee J. Cobb, and Harrison's disobedient new wife Tuptim (Linda Darnell). The latter gets in trouble when she flees the court for another man. Gale Sondergaard has a plum supporting role as the wise and well-regarded mother of boy crown prince Tito Renaldo.

How others will see it. Anna and the King of Siam was well received by critics. It won two Oscars and was nominated for three others. At Cannes, it was nominated for Grand Prize.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a meager 1,835 user votes, about 5% of its 1999 Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat remake. The user rating has a reasonably high 7.1 user rating, but an age and gender spread is palpable. Men under 45 grade it 6.6 out of 10, while women over 45 give it 7.7. Women viewers identify with the plucky, poised, and morally impervious Irene Dunne, while men admire the performances and the production values of classic Hollywood.

How I felt about it. Anna Leonowens, Royal governess in Siam and Boris Karloff's great aunt, was lifted from historical obscurity via a 1944 bestseller novel by Margaret Landon, a former Presbyterian missionary in Thailand. The book, a version of "The Taming of the Shrew" with the gender roles reversed, is best known as a source for the 1956 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King And I, but big-screen dramas were also made in 1946 and 1999.

The most obvious comment to make about the present film is that the key Thai roles are played by white American and English actors, the Asian equivalent of a minstrel show. It is embarrassing to watch Rex Harrison, who was approaching 40, play the King as a mincing and impetuous man-child. Dallas-born Linda Darnell is Harrison's female counterpart, proud and spoiled. At least the roles are less awkward for Lee J. Cobb and Gale Sondergaard. Especially the latter, since she is given a magnificent speech about shade trees that garnered the film's only acting Oscar nomination.

The premise of the story seems to be that a British schoolteacher is the equal of the King of Siam. True, the latter rules a nation, but the former is English. Without her, the King is lost, and certain to become the puppet of foreign powers. Better open up that British consulate A.S.A.P.

Dunne poses as an English schoolteacher, yet she dons a dozen elaborate and costly dresses during the course of the film. Her late husband was said to be a soldier, but it seems more likely that he had been a dressmaker, and gave his wife first pick of the stock.

Rex Harrison tries so hard to be British that he might as well sail there, and leave Lee J. Cobb behind to either run the place as Prime Minister, or merely impersonate Lurch from "The Addams Family", a neat trick since that series wouldn't air for another 20 years.

But it has to be said that 47-year-old Irene Dunne looks terrific, and she was seemingly made for the role, much as Yul Brynner was the ideal Siamese king, at least from a Western theatrical perspective. While Claude Rains was shocked, shocked to learn there was gambling in Rick's cafe, Dunne's everlasting amazement at Siamese shenanigans appears more genuine, because it is unthinkable that things be settled differently than in England, where common criminals were hung instead of burned at the stake. True, sailors were whipped on English ships, but certainly not the king's comely wives, who were beheaded instead three centuries before.