Monday, June 20, 2016

Culture Clash in the 19th Century

When I was a child, I had no idea there was a movie called "Anna and the King of Siam," which made its American premiere on this day in 1946.

I knew about "The King and I," the musical version of the story starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr that was made about a decade later. My grandmother was a fan of musicals, and I remember watching that one with her on television when I was about 5 or 6 years old.

Set in the 1860s, "Anna and the King of Siam" told the story of an Englishwoman (Irene Dunne) who accepted a position teaching English to the children of the king of Siam (Rex Harrison). It was essentially the same story — minus the music.

Dunne's character got off on the wrong foot when she was greeted by the prime minister (Lee J. Cobb), who proceeded to ask her several personal questions. Dunne's character did not realize that was customary in Siam and took offense — only to be advised afterward to make amends with him on the grounds that she didn't understand. She took that advice, but things still weren't smooth. Dunne and her son had been promised a house of their own in which to live, but upon their arrival she learned that she was to live in the palace where she would be accessible for the king and any of his children at any time. The king did not remember making the promise of a house and, apparently, felt under no obligation to honor a promise he didn't recall making.

It was, I quickly determined, the same story — except that, apart from the music, "The King and I" was a much more light–hearted telling of what was a culture clash. I guess the music made it seem breezy. No problem like that in "Anna and the King of Siam" although as I understand it the king was portrayed as being much tougher and more traditional in that movie than he was in real life.

Both movies were based on the true story of Anna Leonowens, a British writer, educator and social activist who became the governess/teacher of the Siamese king's 39 wives and 82 children. I don't remember if the movie ever mentioned the number of children she taught, but I am quite sure I did not see 82 children in the movie — and very few of the king's wives were seen, either. There was one, sort of the top wife (Gale Sondergaard, in an Oscar–nominated performance), who knew English and interpreted for Anna, but, as I say, few others were seen.

While much of "Anna and the King of Siam" was fictionalized, one of my favorite scenes in the movie apparently was based in fact. In the movie, the king dictated a letter to American President Abraham Lincoln in which he offered Lincoln gifts of elephants to breed for transportation purposes — although the offer was actually addressed to Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan, or, since the king was mindful of the presidential election taking place when he sent the gifts, Buchanan's successor.

(Buchanan was not a candidate for re–election. Lincoln was elected to succeed him.)

In real life, Lincoln graciously declined the offer, explaining that the United States' latitude made it unfeasible to raise elephants here.

As a history buff, I always liked that part of the story. I can't tell you how pleased I was to learn it was true — mostly.

Anna was a bit of a feminist, at least as far as her times were concerned — and certainly as far as the place where she was living and working was concerned. Women simply had no rights in Siam, and no one, male or female, challenged the king on anything and in any way. But Anna spoke her mind to the king, and she frequently made sense. It just took him a little while to mull things over in his head.

Then, when he came around — like as not in the wee hours of the morning — he would wake her up to go over the details with her. She became perhaps his most valued adviser by the end of the movie.

But there were still times when Anna's European sensibilities came into conflict with Siamese tradition.

It was a story about a culture clash that still has valuable points to make.

In addition to Sondergaard, "Anna and the King of Siam" received four other Academy Award nominations and won Oscars for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score and Best Black–and–White Art Direction.