The King and I: Review
The King and I is one of the most iconic musicals ever to appear on the silver screen. And exotic leading man Yul Brynner is unequaled in the role he was born to play, even though the man couldn’t sing a note. And neither could his leading lady, Deborah Kerr. But that hasn’t stopped the film from becoming a beloved favorite to fans of all ages.
During the height of the American Theatre’s grandest era, the prolific songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein could practically do no wrong (their one notable flop, Allegro is long forgotten). Directly on the heals of the screen adaptations of Oklahoma, Carousel, State Fair and South Pacific their fifth massive hit, The King and I was brought to the screen in 1956 after more than three years on the great white way. Naturally, with the show’s great success among both audiences and critics it was only a matter of time before Hollywood created its own spin on the multiple Tony Award winning musical. But what was it about this film adaptation that struck such a chord with moviegoers that led to nine Academy Award nominations and five wins? The answer is in the stars.
Now, the songs in The King and I are absolutely memorable toe tappers and I don’t wish to imply anything less. But lets just call a spade a spade and acknowledge the fact that the real success of the production belongs squarely on the shoulders of the two lead performers who couldn’t sing. That’s right, the two main leads in a massively popular musical couldn’t sing. The great stage actress, Gertrude Lawrence actually won a Tony Award for playing Anna through the sheer power of her famed acting abilities. She was so persuasive with her tone-deaf talents that no one cared whether she could sing or not. Without question, Lawrence would have likely re-created her performance on film had she not died from cancer before the production left the stage. This already successfully established approached cleared the way for the non-singing, yet wildly popular Deborah Kerr to nab the role when it came time to film. Once again, the charm and personality of the actor outweighed all other factors. But this time, the help of Marni Nixon’s dubbed-in voice helped seal the deal.
When it came to the all important role of the king, the previously unknown Brynner not only won the Tony for best featured actor, but his unparalleled characterization of the King of Siam propelled him into super stardom as the only serious consideration for the filmed version. His thoroughly entertaining take on the domineering, yet charming royal earned him an Oscar, and placed him among the most sought after leading men in Hollywood. His off the charts magnetism and exotic good looks (let alone his signature bald head) would go on to make him a natural stand out in such films as Anastasia, The Magnificent Seven, Solomon and Sheba, and Westworld.
No offense to Ms. Kerr, but I don’t think it’s too much to say, that when Brynner is in the frame it is impossible to look at anyone else. The man just oozes sex appeal, without so much as the simplest demonstrative overture, not even a kiss. Brynner just has to look in the direction of a leading lady, and you can feel the chemistry leap from the screen. That is the mark of true screen presence, and the definition of star power. This power is particularly palpable in the most exuberant moment of the film; when the King places his hand upon Anna’s waist in order to properly demonstrate a western style of dance. This simple act of familiarity is so explosive in its sheer eroticism it overshadows any overt sexual act represented in the movies in the past sixty years.
Yeah, this movie is hot, but in the most puritanical of ways. Which is exactly how American audiences wanted their love stories in the 1950s, particularly stories of forbidden or unrequited love. - SPOILER - And as much as we the audience want Anna and the King to realize their feelings for each other there are insurmountable circumstances that even the fantasy world of a musical can’t simply gloss over. Which actually works to make the film particularly poignant and especially memorable in its bitter sweet resolution. And it is truly a wonderfully satisfying kind of bitter sweet. You know, the kind of bitter sweet that gets better with age and upon repeat viewing.