Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.
REEL 13 CLASSIC | THE KING AND I
This week’s classic is The King and I, the 1956 movie adaptation of the blockbuster Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway musical, directed by Walter Lang.
A fictionalized version of the 1870 memoirs of British writer, educator and feminist Anna Leonowens’ account of her six years as governess at the royal court of Siam (now modern-day Thailand), Rodgers & Hammerstein had based their Broadway musical on the 1944 novelization of Leonowens’ story by Presbyterian missionary Margaret Landon. Landon’s best-selling book had already been adapted for the movies as Anna and the King of Siam in 1946, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison.
Reflecting a postwar ethos of an expanding and changing world while framed in an exotic period setting, The King and I stars Deborah Kerr as Leonowens—more usually referred to as just “Mrs. Anna”—a widowed school teacher arriving in 1862 Bangkok with her young son Louis to take up her post as governess to the many children—from the many wives—of King Mongkut of Siam. Simply referred to as “the King,” Mongkut is played by Yul Brynner, a career-defining role for which he had already been awarded a Tony for the Broadway production. A conflicted monarch tied to ancient customs yet also seeking to move his country forward in a modernizing world, the King finds himself simultaneously fascinated and challenged by Anna’s Western ideas and independence—so unlike any other woman he has ever known, even the wise and patient “head wife” Lady Thiang, played by Terry Saunders. The limits of the King’s willingness to adopt the “scientific” ways of the West are put to the ultimate test by the arrival of Tuptim, a beautiful Burmese slave played by Rita Moreno who is presented at court as a gift to the King. Trouble is, Tuptim is already in love with Lun Tha, her Burmese escort played by Carlos Rivas; furthermore, Tuptim’s fascination with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” begins to create too many uncomfortable implications for the King to tolerate.
Despite the omission of three songs from the Broadway production, the score is brimming with Rodgers & Hammerstein classics, including “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “Something Wonderful,” and “Shall We Dance?” Also recreating their work from the Broadway production were costume designer par excellence Irene Sharaff, as well as choreographer Jerome Robbins for the cross-cultural mash-up “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet. This year, 2019, is in fact the Jerome Robbins Centenary.
As it had been on Broadway, The King and I was a huge success at the movie box office, and was honored with nine Academy Award nominations including Best Picture; not surprisingly, Yul Brynner took home the Oscar for Best Actor. But one place where The King and I was definitely not a hit was in Thailand, where the Broadway show had been banned right after its premiere. In Thailand, anything considered disrespectful of the monarchy was illegal; moreover, Leonowens’ claims of her influence on King Mongkut—a refined and older man with frankly little resemblance to Yul Brynner—had always been regarded as greatly exaggerated.
Although Rodgers & Hammerstein had originally conceived The King and I as a Broadway comeback for the great British star Gertrude Lawrence, Yul Brynner had created such a sensation as the King that by the time of the movie version was being planned it had become impossible to imagine anyone else in the role; surprisingly, Brynner was reportedly reluctant to do the movie, initially claiming that he would prefer to direct the film, with Marlon Brando starring as the King. But 20th Century Fox wouldn’t hear of it, and apparently made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, including a hefty fee, along with script and casting approval.
Gertrude Lawrence had also intended to reprise her role on the big screen, but her untimely death from liver cancer set off a wild competition among Hollywood’s biggest female stars for the plum role of Mrs. Anna. Dinah Shore and Maureen O’Hara were among the leading contenders, but it was Brynner who actually suggested Deborah Kerr for the part. Training with a vocal coach, Kerr worked closely with Hollywood’s go-to ghost singer Marni Nixon to collaboratively record the music, achieving one of the most seamless ghost-sung performances in movie musical history.
Notwithstanding their fine performances in the film, mid-century Hollywood’s insensitivity with racial depictions is sadly in evidence with the casting of Latino actors Rita Moreno and Carlos Rivas as Tuptim and Lun Tha; Moreno very much wanted the role, and managed to win out over French Vietnamese actress France Nuyen. Later characterizing her early movie career as being Hollywood’s “equal opportunity all around ethnic person,” Moreno’s experience working on the film with Jerome Robbins would in fact ultimately pave the way for her Oscar-winning performance as Anita in West Side Story.
Brynner reprised his iconic role in a short-lived 1972 television series, and toured extensively in several revivals with various Mrs. Annas up until his death from lung cancer in 1985. In 2015, director Bartlett Sher’s acclaimed new production for Lincoln Center Theatre won the year’s Tony Award for outstanding revival.
REEL 13 INDIE | DARLING COMPANION
This week’s indie is Darling Companion, a 2012 comedy-drama directed by Lawrence Kasdan.
With echoes of Kasdan’s seminal 1983 hit The Big Chill, Darling Companion features another ensemble cast story, hinging on the sudden disappearance of a dear friend—except this time around, with paws. Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline star as Beth and Joseph Winter, a longtime married couple in Denver, Colorado, who find themselves confronting the empty nest of late middle age. A successful surgeon, Joseph’s competitive nature still keeps him immersed in his career—but so much so that Beth has come to feel more than a little neglected. However, this emotional void in Beth’s life is unexpectedly filled by her discovery of a stray dog by the side of the highway. Quickly realizing that if she doesn’t adopt the animal herself he will be euthanized, the dog Beth names “Freeway” soon becomes a beloved new family member. But when Freeway goes missing as a result of Joseph’s inattention, his disappearance creates a heightened stress on the vulnerable fault lines already visible in the couple’s relationship.
Also featured are Elisabeth Moss as Beth and Joseph’s daughter, Dianne Wiest as Joseph’s sister, Richard Jenkins as Penny’s new husband, Mark Duplass as Penny’s son, Ayelet Zurer as a psychic housekeeper, and Sam Shepard as the exasperated town sheriff.
Darling Companion has a kind of “funny/sad” quality that Kasdan seems especially talented at conjuring up. We can laugh at Beth’s growing obsession with her new found pet, but when you see her reaction to the dog’s disappearance, her connection to Freeway just points out an aching emptiness she had come to accept as the “new normal” in her life.
The film offered director Lawrence Kasdan the chance to reunite with Kevin Kline, who had starred in Kasdan’s influential hit The Bill Chill in 1983, as well as Grand Canyon in 1991. The film also allowed Kasdan to reteam with his wife Meg on writing the screenplay, after the couple’s prior collaboration on the script for GRAND CANYON. After an early career as co-screenwriter of such blockbuster hits as Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kasdan made a high profile directing debut with Body Heat in 1981. Kasdan’s Star Wars connection has continued up to 2018 with the prequel Solo, about the adventures of the young Han Solo, which he co-wrote with his son Jonathan. He obviously likes keeping it in the family.