King and I, The (1956): Musical Starring Yul Brynner in Iconic, Oscar Winning Performance

Walter Lang’s big-screen adaptation of the popular Broadway hit, which will forever be associated with Yul Brynner in his most iconic role, is too theatrical to qualify as an exciting musical movie, but the score by Rogers and Hammerstein is glorious and the film is enjoyable in an old-fashioned way.


Deborah Kerr plays Anna Leononwens, an English schoolteacher and young widow who goes to Siam with her young son Louis (Rex Thompson) to teach the King and his many children about the modern, civilized (namely Western) ways of the world.


Based on Margaret Landon’s book and the 1946 straight dramatic film “Anna and the King of Siam,” the screenplay is penned by Ernest Lehman, a versatile scribe who write Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” in 1959 as well as another Rogers and Hammerstein hit, “The Sound of Music,” which won the 1965 Best Picture Oscar.


At first, the macho King is reluctant, hostile, and chauvinistic, giving the kind woman hard time in doing her job.  The King is surprised by Anna’s unwillingness to bend to his rigid rules and eccentric whims, but Anna is just as strong and stubborn.  In one scene, she sets out to persuade the King to let one of his wives (played by Rita Moreno in her pre-West Side Story days) leave the palace for the man she really desires. 


Predictably, after the expected battle of wits, the two learn to appreciate and respect each other, and eventually fall in love.  In due time, Anna instructs the kids how to behave, how to dress, how to dance and so on.


Unfortunately, Kerr’s singing is dubbed by Marnie Nixon, Hollywood’s expert in this area, and the voices don’t match.  Nixon (who was married to composer Ernest Gold) also damaged with her colorless voice the effective performances of Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” and Audrey Hepburn (who could and did sing) in “My Fair Lady.”


The young and gifted Jerome Robbins staged the choreography, including the ballet “Small House of Uncle Thomas.”  As noted, Rogers and Hammerstein’s socre is terrifically melody, with outstanding musical numbers, such as “Getting to Know You,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “Something Wonderful.” 


As the supreme ruler who hates to be challenged, Brynner gives a definitive interpretation of a role that he continued to play until his death, in 1985.  His son claims that Brynner had played the part in over 4000 performances, more times than Anthony Quinn played his iconic role in Zorba (first in the movie “Zorba the Greek, and then the stage musical “Zorba”).


As the Victorian governess, Deborah Kerr was also good, but in 1956, she appeared in another high-profile film, Minnelli’s melodrama “Tea and Sympathy,” for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination.


End Note


In 1946, Fox made the drama “Anna and the King of Siam,” starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne.  It was nominated for five Oscars, winning two: Cinematography and Interior Decoration (b/w). 


Oscar nominations: 9


Picture, produced by Charles Brackett

Director: Walter Lang

Actor: Yul Brynner

Actress: Deborah Kerr

Cinematography (color): Leon Shamroy

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Lyle R. Wheeler and John DeCuir; Walter M. Scott and Paul S. Fox

Scoring of a Musical Picture: Alfred Newman

Costume (Color): Irene Sharaff

Sound Recording: Carl Faulkner, Fox Sound Department


Oscar Awards: 5 



Art Direction-Set Decoration





Oscar Context


In 1956, the big Oscar winner was the globetrotting adventure “Around the World in 80 Days,” which also won Cinematography for Lionel Lindon.  Ingrid Bergman won the Best Actress for “Anastasia,” which also starred Yul Brynner.  Brynner had a banner year in 1956, making an appearance in Cecil B. DeMille’s spectacle epic, “The Ten Commandments.”




Anna Leononwens (Deborah Kerr)

The King (Yul Brynner)

Tuptim (Rita Moreno)

Kralahome (Martin Benson)

Lady Thiang (Terry Saunders)

Louis Leononwens (Rex Thompson)

Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas)

Prince Chulalongkorn (Patrick Adiarte)

British Ambassador (Alan Mowbray)

Ramsay (Geoffrey Toone)


Running time: 133 Minutes