Every year, around this time, the casts of Lincoln Center Theater shows conduct Oscar-betting pools backstage, and so it is with The King and I and The Royale. Also in February, the Turner Classic Movies network (TCM) airs Anna and the King of Siam. This is, of course, the 1946 movie based, as is The King and I, on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam. TCM airs the movie in February because it was nominated for five Academy Awards: for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Score, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress.
In some ways, the movie, which can also be seen in its entirety on YouTube, feels quite contemporary. From the first scene, in which Mrs. Anna, played by Irene Dunne, arrives in Bangkok, the novel’s feminist leanings are in place, even more so than in The King and I. Meeting the Kralahome, Anna makes it abundantly clear that she does not consider herself inferior to men.
In his 1946 review of the movie, Bosley Crowther, of The New York Times, says that Dunne plays the governess “winsomely.” From the hindsight of 2016, one could say that Rex Harrison, a fine actor, portrays the King “wincingly,” by the fact of his being a Caucasian performer playing a Thai monarch. Crowther isn’t bothered; in fact, he insists that “it is really in the performance of [Harrison] as the king and in the cunning conception of his character that the charm of the picture lies.”
All the main Thai and Burmese characters are played by Caucasian performers. Linda Darnell is Tuptim, Lee J. Cobb is the Kralahome, whose role is larger than it is in the musical, and Gale Sondergaard, the Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress, is Lady Thiang.
Sondergaard grew up in Minnesota, and was the first recipient, in 1937, of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. A veteran of costume dramas, she received the statuette for doing Faith Paleologus, in Anthony Adverse. Anna and the King of Siam wasn’t the only time Sondergaard appeared in an Asian setting onscreen; she was Mrs. Hammond, a “dragon lady” role, in 1940’s The Letter.
Bernard Hermann was nominated but did not win an Oscar for Anna’s score. He had already captured one in 1941, not for his superb score for that year’s masterpiece Citizen Kane but for The Devil and Daniel Webster. Oddly, none of Hermann’s best-known scores – from the screech-screech of Psycho to the Wagnerian ecstasies of Vertigo – were Oscar-nominated. This would seem even stranger had those pictures’ director, Alfred Hitchcock, been loved by the Academy. Not only did Hitchcock never win a competitive Oscar, but Vertigo, which in a 2012 BFI Sight & Sound critics’ poll was named the best film ever made, was Oscar-nominated only for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Sound.
I shouldn’t slight art direction. After all, that was one of the two Oscars won by Anna and the King of Siam, thanks to the work of Lyle R. Wheeler, William S. Darling, Thomas Little, and Frank E. Hughes. The other award, for Best Cinematography, went to Arthur C. Miller. (The screenplay nomination went to Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson.)
The King and I, in its big-screen form, had a much splashier Oscar reception (it won five awards, including Best Actor, for Yul Brynner): so splashy, in fact, that it would require a separate Backstage Blog entry. As I began this entry with a plug for TCM, let me close by mentioning that the network will, at its Classic Film Festival: Hollywood 2016, feature a 60th-anniversary presentation of The King and I.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.