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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM (1946)

Though now best known as the source for its musicalized offspring THE KING AND I/’56, this ‘straight’ version holds considerable interest even without the middlebrow genius of Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes, condensing & restructuring. There’s certainly more room to tell its fascinating, if highly fictionalized story of a British widow who comes to Siam to teach the King’s children, then stays as a sort of unofficial court advisor. On the one hand, it’s a fable about holding off Western Colonialism; on the other, Anna’s espousal of European superiority make her a one-woman stealth hegemonizer. Paradoxically, the story grows more politically confounding the more it oversimplifies. No wonder it's regularly restaged as a musical as well as refilmed for the screen (five versions & counting). The big surprise of this first iteration is just how good Rex Harrison (in a Hollywood debut he found inexplicable) is in what became Yul Brynner’s signature role. YellowFaced (like all the film’s ‘oriental’ principals), he’s slightly absurd, fiercely watchable & totally winning, bringing the nuance & range of a great actor. A smaller surprise is how evenly this film’s Irene Dunne matches up to Deborah Kerr’s Anna in the Brynner film which, to mixed effect, sticks closely to a stage proscenium style that sometimes goes flat on screen. A problem director John Cromwell avoids here with help from Arthur Miller's Oscar'd lensing.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: YellowFace outlasted BlackFace by decades, well into the late ‘60s. Check out Ricardo Montalban on HAWAII FIVE-O/’68. But it was also different in kind since, post silent film days, BlackFace rarely tried to realistically have an audience believe the performer was an actual Negro performer. Not so for YellowFace, where the likes of Alec Guinness & Flora Robson, to name but two from the early ‘60s, were meant to convince as Asians; BlackFace offered a highly stylized caricature, not quite a real person. Which begs the question, which of the two traditions was worse?

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