ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM (1946)
cast: Irene Dunne, Rex Harrison, Gale Sondergaard, Linda Darnell, Lee J. Cobb; dir: John Cromwell
In the first version of this story preceding the more popular Yul Brynner/Deborah Kerr collaboration as well as the Jodie Foster/Chow Yun-Fat version from a couple years ago, Anna and the King of Siam follows the story of an English school teacher sent to Siam to teach English and culture to the King's children. Predictably, she ends up educating the king himself the most. In a series of mishaps, hijinks, and cheap linguistic faux-pas, the king fumbles his way through contemporary American history ("Lincoln doesn't use elephants?!"), table manners (he forgets to give his guests napkins at a fancy dinner or to use his spoon for the soup) and social graces (he calls a particularly ugly woman an "anecdote").
In the ridiculous cinematic tradition of the time of employing white actors as Asians a la Katherine Hepburn in Dragon Seed, Rex Harrison and his black eyeliner-created slanty eyes plays the king and, even more out-of-place, Lee J. Cobb plays his deputy. Irene Dunne saves her character with one of her usual graceful, dependable performance and Gale Sondergaard manages to rise above the inherent stereotyping provided by her makeup and dress to turn in a quietly exceptional, Academy Award-nominated performance as the king's first wife, Lady Thiang. The scene in which she explains the murals is a touching moment in a film largely made up of Dunne's reaction shots to Harrison's buffonery.
Interestingly, Sondergaard, whose visage was apparently the inspiration for the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, famously rejected the role of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz upon learning that the witch would be "ugly".
Linda Darnell as one of the king's wives, who is burned at the stake as a cautionary tale to others, is seductively serviceable.
** out of five
Edited By flipp525 on 1168269015
"The mantle of spinsterhood was definitely in her shoulders. She was twenty five and looked it."
-Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell