Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956): How One Woman's Convictions Changed a Country

Fortunately…I had my Deborah Kerr. She was heaven. She was the perfect Mrs. Anna. She understood Mrs. Anna completely. She understood the relationship between the two. And this is really what made the picture work.”

Yul Brynner

20th Century Fox’s production of The King and I (1956) is a sparkling gem in the crown of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. The terrific cast, memorable tunes, and universal message holds an undying appeal that continues to touch generation after generation.

While at first glance one would think the movie belongs to Yul Brynner, after all he has been identified with the king ever since originating the role on Broadway in 1951, and even the title of the film implies this; however, it is the pairing of Brynner with his leading lady, Deborah Kerr, and the chemistry between them that makes the movie truly come alive and take wing.

For us today, it is hard to imagine that Deborah Kerr was not the first choice for the role of the prim and proper English schoolteacher. Vivien Leigh was considered, but because of health issues she was not able to take on the project.

A notorious perfectionist, Yul Brynner was quite pleased with the casting of Kerr after having met and seeing her perform on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy. The two became good friends with a pleasant working relationship. There were even rumors of a romance between the two. Deborah Kerr later remembered,

“It was Yul who was the solid inspiration behind the movie. He knew and loved every line of the story and every note of the music, and it came out so well due to his insistence that this and that had to be done the way he wanted. He could be difficult, but only because he knew he was right.”

Deborah Kerr, as Anna Leonowens, not only beautifully holds the central heart of the film, she holds her own against the larger than life portrayal of Yul Brynner’s King of Siam. Her character is strong, uncompromising, and just as stubborn as the king; but she is also a lady of principle, propriety, and tenderness. She is the catalyst for change, a breath of fresh air in a place that is stale and harsh. All of these nuances come through in her performance making her a force to be reckoned with.

Anna’s differences with the king set off fireworks, both politically and sexually, resulting in one of the greatest and most romantic scenes in cinematic history – the “Shall We Dance” number. The two draw close together and majestically whirl around the dance floor in an unforgettable scene of unspoken joy, love, and desire.

Beneath the spectacle and grandeur of the film is the underlying principle of freedom and equality. Anna encourages the freedom of the Siamese people and the equality of women in every way she can. She supports Tuptim (Rita Moreno) in her desire to be with Lun Tha, and gives her Uncle Tom’s Cabin to read, inspiring her to dream of and believe in her chance of freedom. Anna encourages the people to think for themselves and perhaps most importantly, she inspires Prince Chulalongkorn’s decree that there will no longer be any groveling on the floor before the king, no doubt leading to more modernization for the people in his upcoming reign.

There is much to enjoy in the The King and I. The screenplay is marvelous, the music is delightful, and the sets and costumes are beautiful, but each time I watch it I’m always struck by Deborah Kerr’s brilliant portrayal of a courageous woman who influenced the change of a nation.

Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr’s handprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

This post is my contribution to The Second Deborah Kerr Blogathon hosted by Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Thanks for letting me participate, Maddy! Check out her great blog and the rest of the entries by clicking here!

Thanks for reading and for visiting The Classic Movie Muse!

Niagara (1953) – Marilyn and the Falls

Image via: https://www.hojobythefalls.com/content/marilyn-monroe

The more powerful force of nature? I’ll let you watch and decide! Niagara is the film that put Marilyn Monroe on the map. Through the character of Rose Loomis, she established the persona and style that would follow for the rest of her career.

Niagara concerns two couples on holiday at one of the most romantic places on earth, Niagara Falls; however, the two couples couldn’t be more different. Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams) are there on a delayed honeymoon and are as happy as newlyweds. Rose (Marilyn Monroe) and George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) have a strained relationship and are there to regain marital bliss. The suspense builds as Polly becomes involved with the unhappy couple and notices that there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Niagara is one of the few film noirs that were shot in Technicolor, and boy, does it deliver. With the setting of the infamous falls, the addition of color is absolutely essential and heightens the drama in this suspense thriller.

The film takes full advantage of its magnificent setting by masterfully showcasing the natural beauty and danger of the falls. Niagara perfectly captures the feeling of being at the site, and the thundering of the rushing water is never far away.

The cinematography in this film is stunning. Yes, black and white noir films are beautiful and iconic; but when done artfully, color can have its own luminous quality. We can thank Joe MacDonald, the cinematographer, for that.

Joe MacDonald
image via: IMDB

MacDonald was born in Mexico and came to Hollywood in the 1920’s working as an assistant camera man. By the 1940’s he was a full fledged cinematographer at 20th Century Fox. Among the movies he filmed were My Darling Clementine (1946), Call Northside 777 (1948), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Though he didn’t win (a three time nominee) any accolades during his lifetime, MacDonald holds the honor of being the first Mexican born cinematographer, and left behind a legacy of seventy-five films.

Marilyn absolutely glows throughout this movie. Not only visually, but in her role as well. She portrays a woman with a lust for life, ready to do anything to be with the man she loves. A very broad character indeed; and yet, she plays the part with such subtlety. Her performance is found in a look, a roll of the shoulder, a smirk. It is a shame that she didn’t go on to make another film noir as she is quite enjoyable to watch in this one.

Henry Hathaway and Marilyn Monroe
Image via: IMDB

Henry Hathaway, the director of Niagara, said that Marilyn was “marvelous to work with, very easy to direct and terrifically ambitious to do better. And bright, really bright…” Hathaway commented to a columnist in 1952, “She’s the best natural actress I’ve directed, and I go back. I’ve worked with Barbara LaMar, Jean Harlow, Rene Adoree-right up to today…”

Henry Hathaway learned his craft from the best. In the 1920’s he was an assistant director to such notables as de Mille and Victor Fleming. Hathaway made his own directorial debut in 1932 and became known for his work in westerns, including How the West was Won (1962), and noirs, such as Fourteen Hours (1951). He was at his best in action sequences, location shooting, and excelled at driving the narrative tension. Niagara stands as a fine example of the talented director’s work.

Let’s get to the rest of the cast! Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters work very well together on screen, creating a rapport between their characters and with us, the audience. This was a lovely piece of casting; however, Casey Adams is another story. He might have been brought in to provide some relief and lightness to the dark plot, but his style could have been better used elsewhere. The dialogue he was given does not help matters either. For me, the film does lose its steam about three-quarters of the way in (for repeat viewings only; the first time I saw it I was riveted.)

Jean Peters and Joseph Cotten

Niagara never gets old. It contains wonderful performances, standout moments, stunning visuals, and a gripping story line. All these reasons and more make it a film that’s not to be missed!

Legacy

According to film historian Sylvia Stoddard, there was a new system invented to make filming at the falls possible for the equipment. “In order to keep the camera lens free of water drops and mist during filming, a lens that could be kept dry and clear in any kind of weather was developed at a cost of $10,000…Cinematographer Joe MacDonald predicted it would be in wide use shortly and was worthy of a technical achievement Oscar.”

Marilyn’s iconic pink dress, designed by Dorothy Jeakins, was in demand the moment audience members saw it on the big screen. Since then it has been copied, sold, and served as inspiration for designers.

Side note: (This shade of pink reminds me of Esther William’s bathing suit in Bathing Beauty (1944), our first look at the swimming star in Technicolor. Was this Hollywood’s “look at me” color?)

image via: books.google.com

Niagara contains the “longest walk in cinema history” – a view of Marilyn walking away from the camera, which used 116 feet of film.

A great companion to this movie would be the book, Falling for Marilyn: The Lost Niagara Collection by Jock Carroll. Mr. Carroll spent a few weeks with Marilyn in Niagara Falls on the set and behind the scenes. He shares many photographs he took along with his reflections on the time he spent with the young starlet.

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