Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The 100 Best Movies: #46

46. The King and I (1956)

In 1944, Margaret Landon wrote a semi-fictionalized novel based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, an Englishwoman who traveled to Siam in 1860 to tutor the children of King Mongkut. Landon's novel, Anna and the King of Siam, was a modest success that 20th Century Fox turned into a movie starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. In the late 1940's, British stage star Gertrude Lawrence was looking for a vehicle to return to Broadway. She was fascinated by the story of Anna Leonowens and tried to convince Cole Porter to write a score for her. When he wasn't interested, she tried to enlist her best friend, Noel Coward, who pointed her in the direction of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The legendary composing team had just had a massive success with South Pacific and Coward told her the Leonowens story was right up their alley. While Rodgers initially wanted to turn it down because of Lawrence's limited vocal range, Hammerstein convinced him the story had great potential and they decided to write for the star. Now all they needed was the King.

One of the first people to audition for the role of the King (after both Coward and Alfred Drake turned it down) was an unknown named Yul Brynner. The composers (who also served as producers) were intrigued by the presence that Brynner had brought to the stage and felt he could best serve the star power that Lawrence brought. The show, titled The King and I (to reference Leonowens' memoirs), opened on Broadway in 1951 and was immediately a smash hit. Critics claimed that Rodgers and Hammerstein had written some of their best songs including "Getting to Know You," "Shall We Dance?" and "Hello, Young Lovers." It won several Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Actress for Miss Lawrence and Best Featured Actor for Brynner (because he was billed below the title). While the musical was enjoying a great success, Lawrence became seriously ill (liver cancer) and died in the fall of 1952. She had loved being in The King and I so much that her husband Richard Aldrich insisted she be buried in the Irene Sharaff-designed ballgown she wore during the "Shall We Dance?" number.

In 1956, 20th Century Fox (who had a huge success prodcing #98: Oklahoma!) again produced the latest Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway hit. They insisted on retaining star Yul Brynner in his titular role and started hunting through a long list of actresses to play the part of Anna. Brynner had asked the studio to cast Deborah Kerr, who he had been impressed with in From Here to Eternity. Kerr, with her patrician style, was a perfect choice to set against Brynner's bold bravado. The movie, with its sumptuous sets and its gorgeous costumes (by Irene Sharaff who had designed the Broadway costumes), is a touching story retaining several of Rodgers and Hammerstein's great songs from the stage production. One of the best scenes in the movie (and in the stage musical) is the play the character of Tuptim (beautifully played by Rita Moreno in the film) writes for the banquet, the balletic adaptation the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel: "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" (with some of the best choreography by the great Jerome Robbins). It is a great movie-musical with some great performances especially from Yul Brynner (who won an Oscar for Best Actor to go with his Tony). It also became the role the actor was most associated with throughout his lifetime. SIDE NOTE: Deborah Kerr, while a great actress, had no delusions when it came to her singing. Her voice for the songs was that of the Hollywood dubber Marni Nixon (and this will not be the only time we will hear her voice on this list!).

Next Post: #45

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