GETTING (NOT TO WANT) TO KNOW YOU
20th Century Fox could always be depended on to provide the glossiest floors in movies. In The King and I, the flooring is buffed to a mirror-like finish and you do have to wonder, one, how often the stars Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr came close to falling on their asses as they twirled and, two, how costly the insurance rates were. (During the filming of the “Shall We Dance” sequence, Kerr injured her legs from the heavy hoops under her dress and Brynner, a compulsive smoker, required oxygen between takes.) Worries over viewers’ health spring up too: When Kerr starts to lip-sync to Marni Nixon’s singing, there are dual piercing aches—Nixon’s synthetic perfection and those nail-scratching-against-the-blackboard tunes by Rogers and Hammerstein. On Broadway, it must have been the excitement of the highly talked about unpredictability of Gertrude Lawrence, for whom the musical was designed, that got everyone through this tripe. (A related aside, Lawrence was unknowingly in the early stages of terminal cancer when the play opened.) With Kerr, the optimum and expected words are “lady,” “immaculate” and “mannered” but this time they drive you right up the wall. If more suitable a challenge to her employer than chilly Jody Foster in Anna and the King, she hasn’t much of an actor’s connection with Brynner. Not quite her fault: Brynner’s a scowling one-man show, estranging himself from his co-stars with what Rogers called “a feeling of controlled ferocity.” (Kerr and Brynner had nothing going on in The Journey either; in Anastasia, he froze out Ingrid Bergman, and in The Ten Commandments, he’s a strutting peacock indifferent to Anne Baxter.) The movie’s opulence is ridiculously conspicuous; art directors John DeCuir and Lyle R. Wheeler and costumer Irene Sharaff spent more of Fox’s cash than Siam could collect via taxes in a year or two. Inadvertently these posh trappings and Leon Shamroy’s photography exude claustrophobia and stagnancy. Some of this oppression is locked into the book’s dictatorial ruler, and in Brynner’s glacial oratorical style, but perhaps more exacerbating is the weight of the music—there really isn’t much to whistle a happy tune over, every number is regimented to the max. And those insufferable kids! (In a remake, Lady Gaga would be thinning out the nursery with the flu she brings unawares to the palace.) Dorothy Dandridge turned down the part of Tuptim, played by Rita Moreno. Directed by Walter Lang; screenplay by Ernest Lehman. Though touted in ads, marquees and the credits as a CinemaScope 55 presentation, the movie was released in standard CinemaScope. Several cities roadshowed the musical, though not in Chicago. In 1961, a Grandeur 70mm print—an optical conversion from the 55mm negative reportedly producing rains of grain—was used for a return reserved seat engagement at N.Y.’s Rivoli and in L.A. and San Francisco. The b.o. results were considered ominous and Fox cancelled a national re-release.
Oscars to Brynner for best actor; color art direction/set decoration; color costumes; best scoring for a musical; sound. Oscar nominations for best picture, best actress, director, color cinematography.
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2003 RALPH BENNER (Revised 9/2018) All Rights Reserved.