I'd like to spank the Academy

The King and I (1956)

king and iDirected by Walter Lang

This is the second movie I’ve watched this week that I’ve seen more times than I can count, but it’s the first movie this week that was based on a play which was based on a book which was based on a true story. I loved musicals when I was young(which I think is funny considering how little patience I have with them now), and this was one of my favorite musicals. I can still sing along with all of the songs, and I think it will always have a special place in my heart.

So what’s the story? Anna Leonowens, a widowed Englishwoman, comes to Siam (now Thailand) to be the governess to the children of the king.

The Good: I love the music in this movie. I don’t love all of the songs, because I think there are one or two that slow the movie down, but most of them are enjoyable. And the score is amazing. All I have to do is see the cover of this movie and I have “The March of the Siamese Children” in my head. Not only that, but I am happy to have that song in my head. That never happens.

I like the lead actors in this movie. Yul Brynner plays a man who is trying to hold on to tradition and effect change at the same time. His inner struggle is plain on his face as he tries to make hard decisions. Deborah Kerr makes an excellent Anna. She is smart and determined and compassionate and courageous.

The costumes are gorgeous. Because of this movie, I have had a lifelong dream of polkaing in a dress with a giant hoopskirt. But Anna’s dresses are not the only beautiful ones in The King and I. The women of the court also wear lovely things. Even the king’s clothes are very sumptuous. It’s all very fun.

As impatient as I am with musical numbers that don’t help advance the plot or at least help with characterization, I love the Uncle Tom’s Cabin ballet. It’s different and beautiful and mesmerizing. I’m glad it’s in the movie.

The Bad: It bothers me a little bit that many of the “Asian” people in The King and I were played by Latinos. I can see the reasoning behind hiring Rita Moreno, because she’s amazing, and who wouldn’t pick Rita Moreno if she were a choice? But were the producers really unable to find enough children to play the king’s children who were, if not Thai, at least Asian? There weren’t ten to fifteen Asian kids living in California in 1956?

The Ugly: I have seen this movie many times, and it never bothered me before, so maybe I’m being ultra picky, but the attitude of the movie toward Siam in general and the king in particular is very condescending. There is very much an air of “everything in European culture is good because the Europeans are so enlightened, but there is nothing good about Siamese culture.” The king is only admired because he is trying to westernize his country. He makes silly mistakes (like wanting to send only male elephants to America) that are then corrected by the superior Englishwoman. At one point, Anna tells her young son, Louis, that in many ways, the king was no older than Louis. Really? This is a grown man who had ruled a country and managed to keep it independent in a time of colonization. He is very different from an eight-year-old. I think this might not bother me so much if these characters weren’t based on real people, but since they are, I feel like the characterization of the king and the attitude toward Siam in general is very disrespectful. And yes, I understand that The King and I is from a different era, which is why I can still enjoy this movie. But I can also understand why it’s banned in Thailand. Not that I advocate banning, but I can sympathize with the feelings behind the banning in this particular case.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (Yul Brynner); best art direction-set direction, color; best costume design, color; best sound, recording; best music, scoring of a musical picture.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Deborah Kerr); best director; best cinematography, color.

Comments on: "The King and I (1956)" (1)

  1. There is some troubling racism/Western Exceptionalism in this film, but I always chose to interpret Anna’s “in many ways, the king is no older than you” as a commentary on the fact that the king, by virtue of being an absolutist king surrounded by yes-men, is sometimes tyrannical like a small child–expects to get his way, all the time, and throws tantrums when that doesn’t happen.

    I love the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” ballet, too. In fact, I was really disappointed later when I read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” because the ballet was so much cooler. (Also because Harriet Beecher Stowe was a total Mean Girl to Harriet Ann Jacobs, an escaped slave who wrote her memoir about the same time as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, so I was grumpy at “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”)

    Pretty sure there are two hoop skirts in the downstairs bedroom closet at Mom’s house if you’re ever in the mood for a be-hooped polka. ; )


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