Saturday, February 24, 2007

Recasting...THE KING AND I (1956)

As long as we’re in Rodgers and Hammerstein territory, might as well deal with “The King and I” – a much better film adaptation of its source material.

Yul Brynner is, of course, perfection – and thank God the producers insisted on his repeating his stage role. He owed his whole career to that part – and stayed respectful of and commited to it all his life. Brynner continued to play the king on stages all over the world. It wasn’t his only good work – but it remained his signature performance. Deborah Kerr’s position in films in the late 50’s was one of eminent distinction. Critics adored her. But she’d managed to make a strong connection with the public too. Her beauty wasn’t glamour girl style – but rather a mixture of naturalness, restraint and innate intelligence A class act if ever there was one. Gertrude Lawrence had played Anna in the original cast – but died shortly after. Valerie Hobson enjoyed a triumph in the London production. But despite her immense talent had never established herself as a major film name in America. It was clear a new Anna was needed. And Deborah Kerr’s was the name ultimately announced. She met all the criteria but one. She didn’t sing. Solution? In perhaps the most famous version of movie dubbing, Marni Nixon supplied the vocals while Kerr mimed. The practice certainly wasn’t new. Jeanne Crain and Rita Hayworth were regularly dubbed, though it wasn’t publicized. For “The King and I”, the public was pretty much made aware of Nixon’s participation. And it proved to be no problem. Nixon’s singing was lovely. While Kerr’s pedigree, her popularity, her skill at lip-synching and her genuine acting ability all contributed to making the performance an audience pleaser.

There was another serious contender though. One who sang – beautifully. Who wanted the role. Campaigned vigorously for it. And, according to some sources, came intriguingly close to landing it. Ireland’s red-haired wonder, Maureen O’ Hara, the “Queen of Technicolor”, had already been a star for a decade and a half when “The King and I” went into production. And for all those years., Hollywood had seldom utilized her glorious emerald soprano. A 1949 desert epic , “Bagdad” offered audiences a tantalizing taste of O’Hara’s vocal gifts. But, for the most part, the public hadn’t heard her warble. As a friend of mine once said of the similarly gifted Rhonda Fleming, another noted Technicolor queen, considering her other attributes, she hardly needed to sing. That she was so good at it seemed downright superfluous. Too many Saturday matinee potboilers had dimmed O’Hara’s star status somewhat. But every once in a while a John Ford assignment would put her firmly back in the spotlight. And remind audiences what a unique and appealing talent she was. Key to this was O’Hara’s onscreen persona as a self-assured spitfire who could match wills and wits with any male. Somehow O’Hara could cross swords with a man (literally and figuratively) and still never lose her femininity. If she had to fight, fight she did, taking no prisoners. And if she was wrong, she never lost her dignity or the audience’s respect when she surrendered. Her capitulations were victories, her victories triumphs. The widowed Mrs. Anna comes to a strange land with her young son (and wasn’t Rex Thompson a perfect screen son for O’Hara?) to take on a Maureen O’Hara scale challenge. She stands up to a man and a culture, respecting both but never flinching and not sacrificing her principles. She fights the good fight, emerges values intact and makes a difference. O’Hara’s lovely voice was meant for “Getting to Know You” “Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Hello Young Lovers”. According to her autobiography, Darryl Zanuck was enthusiastic – and sent a test recording of O’Hara’s singing to Rodgers and Hammerstein. But they refused to listen to it. Having pigeonholed the actress based on one aspect of her screen persona, they vowed never to let their Mrs. Anna be played by a “pirate queen”. The loss was theirs and ours. O’Hara later made a couple of LP’s for major labels. And in 1960 starred in a “King and I’ styled Broadway musical called “Christine”. The project didn’t click. But a cast recording supplies glorious evidence of O’Hara’s vocal prowess. Yul Brynner’s king was a force of nature. O’Hara might well have been his equal. Standing up to every tantrum and tirade, giving as good as she got. With time and energy left over to tidy up the rest of Siam as well.

Ladylike Kerr played extremely well with Yul Brynner. But O’Hara and Brynner may well have sent sparks shooting all over the screen. That would have been a crackerjack “King and I” to see! If you want an idea of what an exciting Anna O’Hara might have made, just imagine her - green eyes flashing, red hair blazing, decked out in that beautiful golden ballgown, sharing a galloping waltz with Brynner and singing “Shall We Dance”. An image so vivid, it’s almost impossible to believe it didn’t happen!


Junebug101 said...

oGreat comments on Maureen O'Hara as relates to "The King and I." I design and publish Ms. O'Hara's official website at
Back in the early 90's I wrote a letter to the editor of the American Movie Classics Magazine (no longer published) - in answer to their query to readers about Hollywood "Might Have Beens." Since I knew Maureen had actually originally been cast in the lead by Darryl Zanuck, I could hardly wait to send my story. It was published in their magazine, along with a just-for-fun picture with Maureen's face superinposed on a scene picture. The article is on a page I designed

CanadianKen said...

Thanks for the kind words. For years I've imagined what a great Anna Ms O would have made. But it wasn't till I read her book that I found out how close this actually came to happening. Checked out your lovely site. And it's nice to see the lady's online presence so lovingly maintained. Kudos on a job well done.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Most place Kerr's Anna near or at the top of her filmography, and she was perfectly cast in terms of the character's temperment, but if ever there was a role Kerr could've done in her sleep, Anna's it, as King has her playing in her "Proper English Lady" mode for approximately the 235th time in her career. She's wonderful with Brynner (especially in the very sexy moment wherein Kerr hesistantly whispers "yes" to Brynner's query they should be physically closer just before they romp around the room, hoops flying, in "Shall We Dance"), but I don't sense the film is offering her many challenges, as opposed to her truly great work in films such as Black Narcissus, The Sundowners, and The Innocents.

O'Hara, normally fairly tempestuous on screen, would've been interesting to watch as her Anna alternated between ladylike decorum in the classroom and fiery comportment during her clashes with the King. And I'd have loved to see her sing, too!

Lynne said...

Ken, I just found your blog.

I had no idea she was up for Anna. Deborah Kerr was lovely in it, but Maureen would have been much sparkier in the scenes with the king and they wouldn't have had to pay a singer. Brickbats to Rodgers and Hammerstein for overlooking her. Wouldn't it have been funny if she'd recorded an album of songs from R & H musicals and included songs like "Getting to Know You" and "Hello, Young Lovers."

She also sings in "The Quiet Man," one of my favorite movies ever and a St. Paddy's Day staple at our house.

CanadianKen said...

Lynne, thanks for taking the time to comment. As I indicated in the post,once you picture Maureen O'Hara as Mrs.Anna the image seems so vivid it's hard to dispel. If you like her singing, I believe the CD LOVE LETTERS FROM MAUREEN O'HARA is still available at Amazon. It's full of old standards. She also did a collection of Irish folksongs, although i think that one's out of print now. There are two O'Hara performances I'm especially fond of She's memorable in her Hollywood debut (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) - luminous and sensitive. And I love the late career bull's-eye she scored (playing John Candy's hyper-opinionated mother) in ONLY THE LONELY. I'm still puzzled at the Academy's failure to nominate her for a supporting actress Oscar for this particular performance. As far as I'm concerned, that trophy definitely belongs on her mantel.