Background: The story of Anna Leonowens – a 19th century Anglo-Indian governess who taught the many children of King Monkgut of modern-day Thailand – has been the subject of four feature films, including both live-action and animated version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The King and I. The very first adaptation, however, was this dramatic film, based on the Margaret Landon novel of the same name which was in turn based on Leonowens’ memoir. Legendary Fox mogul Daryl F. Zanuck invested a tremendous amount of time and money into the project, an effort that paid off at the 19th Academy Awards: Anna and the King of Siam won Oscars for its art direction and cinematography as well as three other nominations.
Plot Introduction: In 1862, Anna Owens (Irene Dunne; the name was changed for the film) arrives in the Kingdom of Siam and is shocked by what she finds there: King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) has fathered almost seventy children with harem women and demands that his subjects grovel at his feet. Anna is initially refused an audience with the king by the royal minister Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb) due to her ignorance of Siamese etiquette. The two finally meet and begin a somewhat contentious working relationship as the governess educates the king, his wives, and his many children about the western world. Anna gains King Mongkut’s trust and becomes an important personal adviser, helping him impress foreign dignitaries and establish western consulates. After the king dies, his successor continues Anna’s legacy by implementing many of the social reforms that she had campaigned for.
My Thoughts: I know that 1946 was a different time. I know that it’s unfair to judge the past by the moral standards of today. I know that political correctness can often be a dangerous thing. This is 2014, however, and there is something I can’t overlook: watching white actors darken their skin, squint their eyes, and speak in broken English to play Asians is weird and uncomfortable.
As an art history student, I’m familiar with the genre of 19th century painting known as Orientalism, which – long story short – illustrates romantic western notions of the “mysterious east.” This concept was certainly present in Hollywood: just think of Doug Fairbanks swashbuckling his way through an Arabian Nights-style Middle East in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), or that film’s 1940 remake, or the “exotic” India of Black Narcissus (1947), or the fanciful architecture of Grauman’s Egyptian and Chinese theaters. One can certainly see why this concept (and this film) would be appealing in postwar America, as the country was in the process of occupying and westernizing another Asian empire. From the prologue, which describes Thailand/Siam as “that strange and still half-barbaric country,” it’s clear that Anna and the King of Siam is a second-hand view of Asia.
A perfect example of this exoticism is that the three main Thai characters are played in different but equally stereotypical ways. This was Rex Harrison’s first American film and he barely attempts to hide his native accent; he plays the King like a Monty Python version of a fey, upper class British man, giving campy readings of lines like “How can king be wrong and woman be right?” Veteran actor Lee J. Cobb darkens his face and plays Kralahome with the stoic delivery and broken sentences of a Hollywood Native American. Finally, Gale Sondergaard’s Oscar-nominated (!) turn as courtesan Lady Thiang comes closest to modern stereotypes of Asian speaking patterns. (I was pleasantly surprised that no one pronounces their l’s as r’s or vice versa.)
Dated racial attitudes aside, Anna and the King of Siam is a well-furnished if slow and stagey period piece. (I can’t see what AMPAS saw in Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson’s screenplay.) I’m not familiar with the work of director John Cromwell (who, incidentally, is the father of character actor James Cromwell), but he doesn’t do much to help the film’s stilted atmosphere. Because the vast majority of actors and actresses in this film are badly miscast, suspension of belief never happens: the viewer is totally aware that they are watching made-up actors in costumes.
In some ways, that’s the point. Just like today’s CGI spectacles, the Hollywood costume drama is all about production values. Anna and the King of Siam succeeds on that particular front, as the Oscar-winning art direction (by Lyle Wheeler, Thomas Little, William S. Darling and Frank E. Hughes, who have fifty-eight nominations between them) is lavish, 19th century Thailand by way of King Kong’s Skull Island; the film’s sets took up ten acres of the Fox lot. Had they given out awards for costuming in 1946, this film would have won an additional Oscar. Arthur C. Miller received an Oscar for filming all of this, but I can’t say I was greatly impressed with his cinematography. Miller’s work on How Green was My Valley (1941) is a much better indication of his talent. Finally, Bernard Herrman – arguably Hollywood’s greatest composer – contributes a suitably brassy and “exotic” score that doesn’t rank among his best.
At the center of all this property and manpower is, of course, Irene Dunne as Anna Owens. If you’re like me (or like most viewers, I would imagine), you probably know Dunne as Cary Grant’s leading lady in a couple of excellent romantic comedies. Unfortunately, this Oscar bait-ish role isn’t her best performance, as much of her charm is lost under a British accent and a big Victorian-style dress. Part of the problem is that the character itself just isn’t very interesting: Anna Owens (I can’t comment on how faithful this is to the book or to actual history) is mostly one-note, a dutiful exporter of western though to the east. There are a few comedic sparks, however, including a wonderfully awkward scene where Dunne’s child asks her what a harem is.
Anna and the King of Siam just isn’t for me: it’s a slow-moving costume drama with mostly uninteresting (and, to many people, offensive) characters. I can’t imagine that modern viewers would find it interesting in a non-sociological way, although you might find it helpful if you ever find yourself writing a paper about portrayals of Asians in American media.