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Vintage Review: The King and I (1956)– A Spirited Musical Classic

The King and I

The King and I Review

I remember being about 10 years old when I saw The King and I for the first time. My twin and I sat on the floor in front of the television in our grandmother’s room and we were spellbound. I recall wishing I could try on a dress with a large hoop skirt and that I too, just like the film’s leading lady, would dance so competently to the tune of “Shall We Dance”.

The film held me captivated, but more so, the music stuck with me into adulthood. To this day, musicals are still among my favourite experiences on the planet. My love of musicals began with The King and I.

I am no longer ten years old, however, and with a modern lens, there is much about The King and I to examine. I remind myself constantly that this film, with its charming score and colourful sets, was written in the 1950’s – a very different time. In 2017, with culture, race, and ethnicity an important part of the social discourse, The King and I must be viewed as a product of its time.

Getting To Know You

The King and IWith that in mind, The King and I is one of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. The film is based on the novel, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Langdon, which chronicles the real-life story of Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) in the 1800’s. Mrs. Leonowens was a widowed Englishwoman who after the death of her husband, accepts a teaching position in Siam (modern day Thailand). Her charges are the numerous children, subsequent wives, and concubines of King Mongkut of Siam (Yul Brynner).

Getting to know you. Getting to feel free and easy. When I am with you, getting to know what to say. Haven’t you noticed, suddenly I’m bright and breezy. Because of all the beautiful and new things I’m learning about you. Day by day

Siam is equal parts mesmerizing and infuriating but completely foreign to Anna’s English sensibilities. Despite an initial squabble about housing though, she decides to honour her teaching post when she falls in love with the royal children. Anna, however, has her work cut out for her. King Mongkut is a fascinating contradiction. While he desires a modern, progressive, scientific Siam, he is also a traditionalist at heart whose arrogance and force of will is mighty.

RELATED: Vintage Review: Anna and the King – A Sweeping Old Fashioned Epic

The King and IImmediately Anna and the King clash as their cultural differences and personalities create friction. Mongkut wishes for the world to see Siam as a modern civilization and Anna works alongside him to dispel the notion that he is nothing more than the barbarian the west would brand him as. However, when a young concubine, Tuptim is brought to the palace, her love for another man places her at odds with her duty towards the king. The consequences for Tuptim (Rita Moreno), Anna and the King are devastating. Unfortunately, while Mongkut wants to usher Siam into modernity, change in tradition cannot happen overnight.

Shall We Dance

The King and IThe obvious thing that works about The King and I is the music! Oh, how the music works. Of all the musicals in all the world, most everyone who adores the genre must know the iconic “Shall we dance” which is surely the film’s crowning glory. Anna and the King share a dance and it’s strange to describe. On one hand, she remains teacher and he a pupil. On the other, the scene is underscored by a tangible sexual chemistry as the two leads touch. It feels forbidden, despite the fact that there is nothing strictly inappropriate about it. The scene is also framed by the King’s frenetic personality, which should negate any hint at romance. However, it doesn’t.

Shall we dance? On a bright cloud of music? Shall we fly? Shall we then say goodnight and mean goodbye? Or per chance, when the last little star has left the sky. Shall we still be together with our arms about each other and shall you be my new romance? On the clear understanding that this kind of thing can happen, shall we dance?

“Shall we dance” is truly my favourite song from the film, beating the enchanting “Getting to know you”. As the title suggests, Anna is getting to know her pupils. Beware of this one getting stuck in your head. You’ll find yourself humming it for days, coupled with the constant urge to sway your imaginary hooped skirt.

While those are my top two favourites because they are bold, big songs, “Hello, young lovers” and “Something wonderful” are heartbreakingly tender too. Truthfully, from a musical perspective, The King and I is in my opinion, quite flawless.

Something Wonderful

The cast of The King and I, especially its leads Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, are electric. As a little girl, I had the biggest crush on Yul. Watching the film now, I realize I still do. The commanding voice, the on-screen presence and his tyrannical, yet effervescent charm is incredibly captivating. While there are elements of the ridiculous in the character, that is a flaw of the writing, not the actor. It’s no wonder Brynner won an Academy Award for his performance. King Mongkut is vigorous, brash and full of life. Yet Brynner imbues him with hints of great affection and kindness. These traits layer the character and make him more complex than one would initially assume.

He will not always say what you would have him say. But, now and then he’ll say something wonderful. The thoughtless things he’ll do will hurt and worry you. Then, all at once he’ll do something wonderful

Deborah Kerr, unfortunately, did not win an Oscar, though she did take home a Golden Globe for her efforts. As Anna Leonowans, she is warm and sympathetic. The character is also strong-willed and quite willing to challenge the King – perhaps more creative license than actual historical fact – but it’s fun to watch nonetheless. Kerr infamously did not sing her songs for The King and I – that honour belongs to ghost voice, Marni Nixon.

RELATED: Vintage Review: Reliving The Sound of Music

Nevertheless, Brynner and Kerr have sizzling chemistry. While the musical never goes full romance, their heat is quite undeniable. Even if it is the 1800’s, she’s laced up to her throat and he’s stalking around bare-chested. Oh, the swoons Brynner must have delivered.

Rita Moreno and Carlos Rivas have small, but pivotal roles in The King and I. As Tuptim and her forbidden lover, they bring an aching poignancy to their doomed romance and their musical set piece, “We kiss in a shadow” is the perfect lover’s song.

A Puzzlement

Like many a classic film that is appreciated and revered for its acting, cinematography or in this case its music, as I mentioned earlier, The King and I is a product of its time. For that reason, the characterization of the Asian culture as backward and the lack of diverse, appropriate region-specific casting is problematic and deserves a mention. King Mongkut, in particular, is characterized as inept, silly and narrow-minded. In contrast, Anna is uncharacteristically independent and verbose for an Englishwoman in the 1800’s. While from a story perspective this gives us great verbal battles between the King and Anna, in reality, it’s highly unlikely the real Anna Leonowans was as glib and free-spirited.

I Whistle a Happy Tune

The King and I is a musical classic. While the telling for a modern audience might require somewhat of a refresh, in its current form the film is a delightful treat. By comparison, in 1999, Andy Tennant directed Anna and the King, a modern retelling. While not a musical, the film parallels the original source material. If you loved The King and I, Anna and the King is worth a watch. I personally really enjoy Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat (who is incredibly handsome it must be said) in Tennant’s more overtly romantic version.

Where to Watch: The King and I is available for sale or streaming on Amazon and iTunes.

Content Note: The King and I is safe for family viewing.

Have you watched The King and I? What did you think? Comment below and let me know!

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox


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By on September 22nd, 2017

About Naazneen Samsodien

Naazneen hails from South Africa and has spent most of her life steeped quite happily in fandom. A corporate Human Resource professional by day, she completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology and is currently completing her MPhil at the University of Cape Town. She spends her nights in a parallel universe where her creative pursuits find meaningful outlets. When she is not doing research, writing fanfiction or reading the latest novel for her book club, she is voraciously consuming information on pop culture and global socio-political issues - or quite simply, travelling the world. She loves words, fangirling shamelessly, Mr. Darcy and rugged beards... a lot.

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3 thoughts on “Vintage Review: The King and I (1956)– A Spirited Musical Classic”

  1. I just love Yul Bruner in this. He is so dynamic and sexy. I had the chance to see this on the big screen last year and what an experience it was! Big , bold and lovely. I also really enjoy the newer version with Jodie Foster. Have you seen the older version with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison? It is yet another perspective of this well known story and interesting to compare with the others.

    • i actually haven’t seen the older version, no. But I’ll definitely check it out. ITA agree about Yul. He is sexy in his volatile, commanding way. I love his performance.

  2. I enjoy the movies, but none of the versions has much to do with the real story.

    I read the novel, and then tracked down the original books by Anna Leonowens. It’s been a while now, but the books seemed to focus on the evils of having a harem, and the tyranny of the king. There was certainly no romance (and Anna’s son did NOT die at a young age, as in the movie, either). And, of course, the books themselves are a subject of controversy, because the historical record seems to show that King Mongkut was actually a good king, not a tyrant at all. That Tuptim never existed. And did Leonowens ever actually teach in his harem? That’s also a subject of controversy, though I tend to think that she did.

    So, basically, I watch the movies as fiction and enjoy them that way, because that’s what they are. 🙂 Hubby and I occasionally say “etcetera etcetera” just like Yul Brynner. 🙂 I keep wishing with every view that they would just kiss already. 🙂


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