Few partnerships in Hollywood will be as well remembered as that of lyricist and dramatist Oscar Hammerstein and composer Richard Rodgers. Almost everyone, even young people, recognizes some of the songs from The Sound Music. During their careers, Rodgers and Hammerstein created masterpieces such as Carousel, South Pacific, and Oklahoma! Part of what makes their movies so special is that they wrote incredible scripts and music that explored important social issues, like racial discrimination, in such a way that was accessible to the general public. Originally, The King and I was a Broadway play starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner. The film adaptation of The King and I, written by Ernest Lehman, came out in 1956 starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Like their other works, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I explores social issues. In this particular case, the film shows the effects of Westernization in Siam in the early 1860’s.
The movie is actually based on true events. In 1861, the King of Siam was Mongkut, a man who spent the first half of his life as a Buddhist Monk. He was highly educated, and he familiarized himself with Western culture. As King, Mongkut wanted his children to be exposed to Western ideas and culture and so he invited an Anglo-Indian widow named Anna Leonowens to be the royal children’s governess. At the time, it was not known that Leonowens was not entirely white. In fact, she kept it a secret, and the truth did not come out until after the film’s release. The movie deviates from history, but not so much that it loses its message. Deborah Kerr, who plays Leonowens, goes to Siam with her young son to teach the King’s children. Her relationship with the King is complex, in part because of their very different cultural backgrounds and also because there is chemistry between them. The King, performed by Yul Brynner, has great respect for Leonowens, but sometimes Siam’s traditions get in the way of their interactions. For example, one memorable part of the movie is when the King explains to Leonowens that no one’s head can be higher than the King’s. Leonowens complies, but during their conversations, she struggles to keep her head lower than the King’s as he moves about from sitting to standing and so forth. Leonowens is a challenge for the King. Though she is very respectful of Siam’s traditions and cultures, she is not afraid to speak her mind. This is a shock to the King. At one point, their relationship is tested when the King wants to punish Tuptim (Rita Moreno), a young slave woman, for trying to run off with her boyfriend. At times, it seems as though the cultural differences are too much for either one to handle.
British imperialism has cast a long shadow in modern history, and its effects are still felt today. Rogers and Hammerstein do an excellent job in broaching this subject in such a way that audiences both learn and enjoy the film. Many socio-economic conversations that we have today would not have been tolerated during the 1950’s. Yet, like with their other films, Rodgers and Hammerstein never shied away from such topics. In The King and I, viewers get to see how the spread of Western ideas and culture affected such countries as Siam. The role of the King becomes symbolic of the decline of Eastern culture and autonomy.
Yul Brynner originally got his major start playing the role of the King in the Broadway version. For this he won the prestigious Tony Award. He eventually went on to win the Academy Award for his performance in the film adaptation. He was so good playing King Mongkut, that to this day many of his fans remember him standing with his arms folded across his chest and his feet shoulder width apart, with that intense stare. Even my mother does it and says “Etc! Etc! Etc!” Deborah Kerr, who was also nominated for Best Actress for her performance, seems like the perfect match for this role. She did not sing in this movie. Marni Nixon dubbed her singing voice for all of Kerr’s songs. The music is both exquisite and memorable for its powerful and catchy lyrics and beautiful melodies. When Lady Thiang (Terry Saunders) sings Something Wonderful, she steals the scene with her emotion and beautiful voice. The song itself describes the King’s personality and vulnerability as a man and why Leonowens should not give up on him. Walter Lang directed and Charles Brackett produced the film. The movie was a major commercial and critical success. The King and I won five Academy Awards and was nominated for Best Picture.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein had a gift for creating musicals that resonated with audiences for many generations. Even today, people who are not classic movie buffs have seen at least one of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals or recognize a song from one of their films. As a child, my mother used to sing to me Getting to Know You, which is from The King and I. Rodgers and Hammerstein came from an era of big musicals with soulful stories, colorful costumes, and extravagant dance numbers. Musicals today, especially of this caliber, are very rare, which makes these classic films even more special.