Anna and the King of Siam

Anna and the King of Siam

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.

“Prelude”
“Lady Thiang”

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.

  1. Since I’ve been sort of necessarily “out of the loop” recently, thought I’d go ahead and add comments to both your most recent posts, Jim. I have yet to catch up with this classic, but your observation about the initial cold/harsh feel of its score brings to mind a quality that Bernard Herrmann’s music so often features. Even at its most exhuberant or tender there’s an underlying sense of melancholy – often even morbidity – to my ear, anyway. And praise be for that – because few could have equaled his contributions to the many dark-themed movies he helped make so memorable. Did he ever score an out-and-out comedy?

    Sorry you’ve had to wrestle with your electronics lately. It can be so frustrating. I try to keep in mind the pleasures they can afford, experiencing and sharing great music among them.

    1. Considering Herrmann’s irascible temperament, at least from what I’ve read, I guess it’s no surprise that his music fits so well in darker films. What always surprises me is the tenderness of the love themes. That’s where “write what you know” leaves off and talent and genius take over. I can’t remember any comedies that he scores, though others could probably speak to that better. I will admit that some of his films are laughably bad though. Oh wait, that’s not what you meant. :)

      (Loving the new laptop.)

  2. I’ve been offline lately myself, but I’ll add to this conversation by confirming there’s comedy in Herrmann’s repertoire…and dark, as expected. It’s THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY for Hitchcock. It works well enough, and he even subtitled it “Portrait of Hitch”, which, while listening, is quite suitable indeed.

    1. Forgot about that one. Thanks for the reminder, Gary. And certainly a lot of Hitchcock and Herrmann’s collaboration is full of the dark humor that you pointed out.

  3. HARRY actually did come to mind when I was first commenting, Gary, and of course, it’s technically a comedy. I saw it once, a long time ago, and thought maybe it fit more aptly in the oddity category (no LOL that I remember). Herrmann scored moments of wry amusement very effectively, even in CITIZEN KANE; and I think THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER, special effects and all, was closer to a (satiric) romp – and scored to a “T.” But still interesting to wonder what, say, TOM JONES, would have been like with a B.H. score.

    1. TOM JONES with a B.H. score…now that’s an interesting proposition! One of the few comedies that I could actually see him scoring, as opposed to a Doris Day-Rock Hudson sex farce. :) But I would sorely miss John Addison’s excellent and deservedly Oscar-winning music.

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