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!