“The King and I” is a prime example of a musical story that is better suited for the stage. There’s only two or three main locations, and only two or three plot points or story lines worth pursuing. That’s perfect for a theater setting, where the limited landscape forces directors and actors to combine their creativity so that audiences may witness something breathtakingly beautiful. Shooting that in a studio with expanded creative potential ironically shrinks the dramatic effect of its story.
This is still a decent movie. Its set designs are elaborate and its costumes hearken the detail and dedication of “Gone with the Wind.” But the musical fails to entice, its characters clearly blocked. Our feet feel for Yul Brynner’s King Mongkut and Deborah Kerr’s Anna Leonowens, as the lack of furniture in this royal palace forces the two to constantly stand throughout the film. As a colleague said, there’s little that actually drives the plot, Anna is just kind of there, and the king is just kind of ruling. A plot truly fit for a lame duck king.
The song and dances are spectacular, particularly the climax performance of “Shall We Dance,” finally giving us a reason for these large empty rooms. But the visuals lack canvas, the brilliant costumes tailored to fit mannequins more than the southeast arms of “The King and I’s” Asian characters. Leonowens is decent as Anna, and Brynner a tad better as Mongkut, but they achieve nothing exemplary, their songs might as well have been muted.
Watching “The King and I” is like snagging a table at the most talked about restaurant in town but then your fish was overcooked and your steak over-salted. You can’t complain, otherwise your perception as a fine diner, or a musical lover, would be tarnished for disagreeing with the status quo. People will go into “The King and I” wanting to love it because Rodgers and Hammerstein are attached. Disagreeing would be like turning your nose up at a proud American artistic legacy.
What few realize, though, is that Broadway musicals and Hollywood musicals are rarely transferable. For every “West Side Story,” there’s 10 more “Mamma Mia’s,” spectacles of song and dance that just aren’t in step with the paces of the silver screen. For every “Singin’ in the Rain” that proved Southern California was as much a bastion of the lyrical arts as New York City, there was a “An American in Paris” that proved some Hollywood musical hits should stay domestic. Nowhere is that more true than with the 1956 film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “The King and I.”