Anna Leonowens wrote two books about her life in Siam1. The English Governess at the Court of Siam was written in 1870 and The Romance of the Harem in 1872. Many years later Margot Landon found the out-of-print books and combined what she perceived as the autobiographical parts of the two into a book titled Anna and the King of Siam. It was on this book that the film of the same name made in 1946 and starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison was based.
The Story - and Inaccuracies
The very simplistic story tells of the arrival in Siam of a young widow and her son. Anna has been hired to serve as governess and tutor to King Mongkut's many children. Although she initially finds him cruel, overbearing and ridiculously pompous she gradually calms him, teaches him to dance, falls in love with him and, allegedly, persuades him to change to a more democratic mode of leadership.
The genuine King Mongkut was over 60 when the original Anna arrived in Siam. He was a deeply religious man who had spent most of his life in monkhood. He was already fluent in English and conversant with Western science. There is no record that Anna was ever employed as a governess to his children and she warrants only a brief mention in his extensive diaries of the time.
The Musical and Film
A musical version of the story was commissioned by Gertrude Lawrence. After failing to convince Cole Porter to take on the project she turned to Rodgers and Hammerstein who happily obliged and The King and I opened at the St James Theatre on March 29, 1951. Although the main focus of the book was Anna herself, a virtually unknown actor, Yul Brynner, by sheer force of presence, shifted the emphasis to King Mongkut. The show proved to be a great success and Brynner was chosen to star in the film scheduled for release in 1956.
Because of historical inaccuracies portrayed in both the book and play, permission to film in Thailand was denied to the Fox studio. Instead they had to construct lavish sets and hire elephants. Despite the fact that she could not sing, Deborah Kerr took the female lead. All her songs were dubbed by 21-year-old Marni Nixon who used a modifier to deepen her voice and make her sound more mature. Three new songs were written by Rodgers and Hammerstein but all were deemed unsuitable and deleted from the final version although they are still accessible on the soundtrack.
The film was an instant success and made a household name out of Yul Brynner and his most famous line 'Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!'. He won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role but Deborah Kerr failed to win Best Actress in a Leading Role. The film collected five Oscars in total, two Golden Globes and netted director Walter Lang the Directors Guild of America Award. Ironically it was also nominated (but failed to win!) Best Film Promoting International Understanding - perhaps just as well seeing as it (and the book) are still banned in Thailand!