If you get a sense of déjà vu watching ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, then you may be more familiar with the story’s more popular incarnation, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, THE KING AND I. The 1946 film, based on Margaret Landon’s memoir, stars Irene Dunne as Anna, an English widow who comes to Siam to teach the royal children of the King (Rex Harrison in his first American film role) to support herself and her young son. In the process, Anna overcomes the culture’s narrow-minded view of women as the King grows to rely on her more and more.
It’s interesting to compare the dramatic and musical versions and note the differences, which are many, and yet see how surprisingly faithful the musical stays to the source. If you know the musical version, I bet you’ll watch this film mentally adding the songs in their proper spots. Once you get used to Harrison’s unusual clipped delivery of his lines (and forget the image of Yul Brynner in the role), there’s real chemistry between Irene and Rex, and an interesting relationship develops between the two characters.
Bernard Herrmann‘s score is based on authentic Siamese scales and melodic fragments. “I tried to get the sound of Oriental music with our instruments,” said Herrmann. “The music made no attempt to be a commentary on, or an emotional counterpart of, the drama, but was intended to serve as musical scenery.” The score certainly captures the musical “scenery,” giving the film a feeling of another world with every musical cue. But the music is much more than the locale.
You know you’re being transported to someplace unique in the main title sequence with its brash orchestrations and exotic melody. The central thematic device is a five-note theme for brass and winds symbolizing the “ritualistic majesty and mystery of Siam.” There’s a tender theme for the increasingly usurped first-wife Lady Thiang (Gale Sondergaard), while a flute melody flutters to accompany the exotic nature of the character of Tuptim (Linda Darnell). The brightest music occurs during the scenes with the children.
The score starts out cold and almost harsh but becomes more “Western” as the relationship between the King and Anna grows deeper. Her first appreciation of the King’s kindness is scored with violins soli, a device that expands throughout the score as their relationship grows. The score’s emotional development is completed in the king’s death scene, with the five-note theme from the beginning of the film only gently suggested in a quiet setting for alto flute, oboe, English horn, strings, and two harps.
While he claimed that the music was not part of the emotion of the film, Herrmann, that old softie, thankfully couldn’t resist because of the demands of the story. If the music sounds harsh at the beginning, stick with it. It becomes more affecting as it goes along.
On his sixth film, Herrmann earned his third Oscar nomination. But embarrassingly (at least from the Academy’s standpoint), the nomination would be his last for 30 years, until his posthumous nods for 1976’s OBSESSION and TAXI DRIVER.