100 Movie Musicals #27: The King and I (1956)

Terrible songs, wall-to-wall racism, a shapeless nothing of a plot, and a romance that consists of one (1) dance. The costumes are nice, and you get to see Yul Brynner’s abs, I guess, but otherwise this biiiiiites.

two actors who should be ashamed

I mean, what can you even say about The King and I? It’s deeply racist, with all the major Asian characters played by white actors in yellowface (which is not helped by casting actual Asian actors for all the minor roles who stand behind them), and a plot that strips all the interest from two real historical people in pursuit of a paper-thin romance that doesn’t culminate in anything except one dance and a deathbed scene. The songs are a dreary slog, on top of that — I don’t like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work at all, apparently — and feel decades older than they were; the movie was made just five years after the Broadway show debuted, which would be the equivalent of a Hadestown musical coming out in 2021. It’s relentlessly Orientalist, wallowing in technicolor opulence and bare chests and pidgin English. Special recognition goes out to Yul Brynner, who wasn’t Asian but frequently claimed to be in order to mess with reporters: that sucks, and it sucks that he traded on that lie in order to justify taking roles like this. The historical King Mongkut was a Buddhist monk before becoming king, and spoke multiple European languages fluently, so seeing him reduced to an easily outraged simpleton that Deborah Kerr has to bring up to the modern era is so damn dirty. That’s not even getting into the whole religious aspect—the movie has a runner where Mongkut starts reading the Bible to understand Anna better, and again historically Anna was hired specifically because she wasn’t a missionary and because every other English-speaking teacher they’d hired had been a missionary intent on converting the king’s children. It’s tremendously disrespectful to have the man so completely ignorant of the religion attempting to colonize his kingdom.

Really, more than anything, The King and I is a way for US audiences, deep in the intense anti-feminist backlash of the 50s, to reassure themselves that they’re better than those heathen foreigners, who only see women as servants and who need to be enlightened by the West, which is a trick that still gets used by violent misogynists today. The song “Something Wonderful” really captures how tangled this all gets: a white actress in yellowface sings about how great it is to be subject to a dude, and the audience is expected to… what? displace their criticism of strict gender roles to an exoticized other? elevate western gender roles as enlightened? The song itself is a celebration of those gender roles, but Anna, the audience surrogate, is outraged by the advice in it, so presumably we’re meant to be outraged by it, but she ends up following the advice anyway, so is it the textual celebration of patriarchy it appears to be, a racist condemnation of fictitious Thai norms, or both? Is the advice terrible and the woman giving it trapped in a patriarchal society that should be challenged (by a white British savior), or is the advice sound and Anna’s protestations merely gestural?

look just don’t make a fuss, he’s so very stressed

This all culminates with a grand banquet between the Siamese court and a British delegation on the brink of invading and colonizing the country. The King insists on demonstrating the court’s Europeaness, so Anna makes all the women of the court the same kind of giant dresses she wears. Anna forgets to make underwear for the women, so when they all panic and flee the room at the sight of the British ambassador’s beard (“he has the head of a goat,” ffs) with their dresses pulled up to hide their faces, they expose their vaginas to the British party. “I don’t think the ambassador and I have had such an enticing welcome,” cracks one of the party, snickeringly.

Oh, and I haven’t even gotten to the utterly baffling production of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” that serves as The King and I‘s dream ballet sequence, an adaptation RodgersAndHammerstein.com rather euphemistically calls “a unique blend of ballet and Asian-inspired movement.” This play within a movie is written and narrated by Rita Moreno, a Puerto Rican actor, playing Tiptim, a Thai woman with a thick accent, reading out Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white Connecticut woman, writing in dialect for Black characters portrayed by Asian actors performing a mockery of Thai culture in a movie written and directed by white men. Tiptim is using the performance as a way to plead for her romantic freedom from her marriage to the king, so she can run off with her lover, another Thai character played by a white actor in yellowface. It’s a funhouse mirror maze of racism.

where to even begin

1 Response to “100 Movie Musicals #27: The King and I (1956)”

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