This film, Ann and the King of Siam, I am actually watching through my grandmother’s eyes, imagining what she may have felt watching it. (I am also watching it under the influence of a Christmas flu.) For all I know, we may have watched it once together in her living room, though it’s more likely we would have watched the musical The King and I. There are movies that one grows up hearing are classics, or they play often enough on television and have an air of authority to them that one’s young mind accepts them as classics, and this numbers among one of those. If I ever watched it with my grandmother, I imagine she would have communicated “classic” in her manner, without saying a word, which is to mean she would have watched. Like she watched Mannix. Classic. A romance novel on the table beside her, next her High Ball. Classic. All America seemed to once reverence the authority of the giant hoop skirt, rather than be only amused that it was a bunch of hula hoop rings sewn together. A hoop skirt and some lace and a few rhinestones, toss in a chandelier in the background, and there you had it, a classic.
Classics had the authority of school teachers standing before their maps, thwacking Europe here and Asia there in the desultory manner bred of the morning salute to the flag honoring America as the universe and whatever was outside its borders as good as lint under the couch. What was it doing there, not annexed yet? Like Thailand, that little country way over yonder we never discussed because all we needed to know about it we had learned from The King and I, or Anna and the King of Siam. And that was they wanted to be just like us but couldn’t be because they would never *own* great-great-great grandmother’s hoop skirt.
Anna and the King of Siam is a peculiar movie. Rex Harrison masquerading as Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthramaha Mongkut Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua, otherwise known as Rava IV, and not a Thai face in sight in all his court and kingdom immediately sets the stage for the peculiar authority of “so not like us they can’t even be in the same film representing themselves, we shall have to do it for them”. And despite this, Anna and the King of Siam, oddly enough, if you really watch and listen carefully, slams the imperialistic West pretty severely, and Anna, too, for condescendingly treating a king and his court as no more than a bunch of two-year-olds who hadn’t learned proper English yet. The psychology of the story is such that, Anna, who had insisted on having her own house rather than living in the palace, emphatic on making clear her situation as a teacher rather than a wifely candidate for the king, becomes in the Hollywood and theatrical renditions not only an intellectual companion of the king but one bound to him by an unrealized romantic interest, representing the East meeting the West and facing together a new era for which neither is quite prepared as each ultimately belongs wholly to their native world. So, enter the children, the next generation. An odd twist in the 1946 Hollywood film is that Anna’s biological child is sacrificed to the cause. At the point of Anna’s prematurely leaving Thailand, one of the king’s wives has reprimanded her for not treating the young prince with the appropriate maternal affection that might have shifted his cultural base from the East to the West, or a blend thereof–and Anna has been at least condescending in the extreme with him to this point. Immediately, Anna’s biological son is thrown from his horse and killed. Because of her need to be around children, she remains in Thailand and lavishes upon her pupils the affection she is no longer able to give her own son. In effect, she becomes a wife to the king, if not physically, and from that union thus rises to the throne a blend of East and West upon the death of the king. Neither Anna nor the king could fulfill this endeavor, but the Prince becomes the child of them both who can.
The whole affair, none of it, is really about Thailand, after all, or the somewhat fictionalized book wrote about her time in Siam, or the 1944 fiction Margaret Landon wrote based on Leonowens somewhat fictionalized and certainly prejudiced account, Landon herself having taught several years at a Christian mission school in Thailand.
Japan had surrendered in September of 1945. I don’t know when filming began but the movie was released in June of 1946. The musical followed not long thereafter, plastering an even friendlier, fairy tale face on the fledgling romantic union of east and west and so subordinating the king to a position of wasted impotence that when he dies it is hardly noticed, the focus instead on the prince taking his place, whereas Rex Harris’ death in Anna and the King of Siam was a momentous occasion. Anna and the King of Siam humbled Anna, once addressing her attention to her appearance as revealing her desire to be attractive to the king, following this with their dining together from the same dish in relaxed circumstances, but didn’t endeavor to absolutely alienate the king from his wives. The King and I goes so far as to insist the king recognize in Anna a woman who should serve as his sole mate, all his needs fulfilled and satisfied by her alone.
The emancipation components, both anti-slavery and feminist, had an audience in Victorian times, and make an appearance in both films, but they are of secondary importance to east meeting west and birthing a new eastern world that the west will be comfortable accepting at its table. In Anna and the King of Siam the young prince wants to know how it is the world is round rather than flat and riding on the back of a turtle, but in The King and I a modern map of the world, a type familiar to school children of the 1950s, backs Deborah Kerr as she lip syncs Julie Andrews singing “Getting to Know You”.
Wait, where was I? Let’s climb back over the bodies of Rogers and Hammerstein, Kerr and Yul to Irene Dunn and Rex Harrison. Never mind what the movie might have been about, was it any good?
My grandmother, with nary a bat of an eyelash, without caveat, would have likely said yes. The lighting was good. The hoopskirts were big. The sets were fancy. There were jewels. There were chandeliers. There was Rex Harrison with Irene Dunn. What wasn’t to like? The particulars all yelled classic good film, entertainment, and the studios probably announced it, like all the other films, was the best feature of the decade, if not the century. She wasn’t at all a stupid woman, but it wouldn’t have mattered to her one bit what it meant that the king of Siam was played by an Englishman. Indeed, she would probably have been one of those people less interested in seeing the film had Rex Harrison not been the lead, because he was star power, a name, a draw.
All the particulars didn’t make it a good film, just like all the particulars that yell big entertainment today don’t make for a good film. Like the latest incarnation in the reinvention of Anna and the King starring Jodie Foster. It’s a romance, and it’s pure, unadulterated fiction, having nothing whatsoever to do with the truth. However, my grandmother would have probably loved it.
Did I learn something? Yes, but that’s because I finally became curious enough about Anna Leonowens to look her up and read some about her life and the controversy concerning her memoir. Historical movies can be great motivators for looking up what really happened, as versus the Hollywood treatment.