Thursday, June 04, 2009

"Getting to Know You"

It's a very ancient saying,

But a true and honest thought,

That if you become a teacher,

By your pupils you'll be taught.

I love this thought, from the Rogers & Hammerstein song, "Getting to Know you." But I skirted the bounds of impropriety yesterday by playing it for my students. The musical from which it is taken, very loosely based on historical events, has long been banned in Thailand. On Broadway and in the first Hollywood film, Yul Brynner played the role of King Mongut, ruler of Siam from 1851 to 1868. But despite winning an Academy Award, Brynner's portrayal of the strutting, bare-chested monarch has been considered offensive by Thai authorities. The latest non-musical version of the story, with Chow Yun Fat playing the king with Jodie Foster as Anna, was also banned. "From the beginning to the end," Thailand's chief censor announced, "the film is viewed as humiliating to the Thai monarchy. It also distorts history. It is against the good morale and culture of the nation." One Bangkok critic said the film makes King Rama IV (King Mongkut) appear "like a cowboy," and also "distorted the authenticity of Thai culture, especially the accent of the language and Thai traditional music."

Earlier this week I watched a illegal bootlegged copy of the 1956 film with Deborah Kerr appearing opposite Brynner as Anna Leonowens, the British widow who came to Bangkok in 1862 to teach King Mongut's 39 wives and concubines and their 82 children. It's a silly story, typical of Hollywood musicals, and it makes little pretense at realism. The king is a caricature of a polygamous, despotic monarch, the classic Asian barbarian, and Anna is a stereotypical feminist and abolitionist come to set things right. She encourages empowerment within the palace harem and gains lasting influence through her tutoring of the young Prince Chulalongkorn, the future Rama V. Watching it with me, my friend was surprised that there were so few Thais in the cast (mostly the children). The songs are quaint and sweet and the story line hints at a respect between the king and the teacher that is never quite consummated. Hardly a blow across the bow of monarchy in Thailand.

"The King and I" has a long history. Anna Edwards was the daughter of a British soldier in India who married her childhood sweetheart, Thomas Leon Owens, and lived with him in Australia and Singapore before becoming a widow with two young children at the age of 28. In later life she would manipulate the facts of her biography, hiding her Anglo-Indian roots. Anna was teaching the children of British officers when she received the offer to go to Siam, replacing a missionary tutor. She served for six years as palace teacher and legal secretary to the king, but was in London when the ruler of Siam died. Anna spent the rest of her life in America and Canada as a teacher and popular writer on feminist themes, including the subjugation of women in Siam. She met King Chulalongkorn when he came to London in 1897 and he reportedly thanked her for influencing some of his modernist decisions (prostrations before royalty were banned, but have apparently resurfaced). She published two volumes of memoirs, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and Romance of the Harem (1873); both were considered full of exaggerations and unflattering by Thai observers. Anna's son Thomas returned to Bangkok where he married the daughter of a British diplomat and took a Thai second wife. He founded a company to log teak that still bears his name.

It was a novel, Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon, a former missionary to Thailand, that popularized the story. This best-selling book was published in 1944 after Landon moved to Washington, D.C., where her husband was an expert on southeast Asia with the State Department. In turn, it inspired the 1946 film of the same name starring Irene Dunne as Anna and the very British Rex Harrison as the king. Trying to set the record straight, Thai intellectuals Seni Pramoj and Kukrit Pramoj published The King of Siam Speaks in 1948 which criticized Landon's fabrications based on Leonowens's sensational memoirs. But the train had started and would not stop. An agent for Landon sent the book to Broadway star Gertrude Lawrence whose manager suggested a musical version for the stage. It was offered to Cole Porter who turned it down, while the successful team of lyricist Richard Rodgers and composer Oscar Hammerstein II accepted the challenge, although having some reservations about Lawrence's limited vocal range and tendency to sing flat. Harrison, Noel Coward and Alfred Drake were offered the role of the king but none accepted. Brynner, who hosted a weekly variety show on CBS, took the part. It opened in New York in 1951 to rave reviews and one critic called it "an original and beautiful excursion into the rich splendors of the Far East."

Singer Mary Martin, who had starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific," was one of the show's investors. When Lawrence wanted to include a song with Anna's students, Martin suggested that Rodgers write new lyrics for "Suddenly Lovely" which had been cut out from "South Pacific." With some changes, it became "Getting to Know You."

Every week, I choose a song for my students and give them a sheet of lyrics with many of the words blanked out. I play the song for them and they fill in the blanks with the missing words. Usually my choices are English songs popular in Thailand (many suggested by my students), by artists like Westlife, Richard Marx, Avril Lavigne and Mariah Carey (I occasionally slip in some of my favorites by the Eagles, Bee Gees, Donovan and even Louis Armstrong). The theme from the text for my class yesterday was "Getting to Know You," and even though I thought they might find the music strange, I decided to play the song from "The King and I," in a version by Julie Andrews. I also sketched out the history of the musical and explained that it was banned in Thailand. No one seemed disturbed by the risk I might be taking.


Sylvia Deck said...

I love it when you write about movies, Willie, and this is one of my favorites. When I was an aspiring actress in college, a friend and I did a two-person abbreviated version of the musical. Bob was a great king, and I loved performing Anna - especially singing "Getting to Know You." Our last performance was a big one - a presentation for our fellow thespians and teachers. I was wearing a beautiful red ball gown with a zipper down the back and, as I bowed lower and lower to the king ("Yes, your majesty; no, your majesty. Tell me how low to go your majesty!") - the zipper broke and the back of my dress split apart. Fortunately, by this time I was lying on the floor, having gone as low as I could, and the curtain closed. All was well, but it sure played havoc with my curtain call! Thanks for reminding me why I love movies, Willie, especially this one.

hobby said...

Nice summary, thanks.

Last week you went up against the Megaphone, this week its walking the LM tightrope - I suppose we should expect nothing less from someone brave enough to have a blog on 'Religion, Sex & Politics' :)

hobby said...

Off topic:
I notice you dont use comment moderation - do you get comment notification emails from Blogger?
If so, are you still getting them?

I stopped getting them a few days ago for some reason, but have not changed any of my settings, so I'm wondering if it is a problem for everyone, or just for me?

Dr. Will said...

Thanks, Sylvia, and thank you Hobby for your encouragement of either my courage or my foolishness. I get comment notifications and if the comment is not useful I delete it; no need for delayed moderation, I think.

hobby said...

Thanks for that - I changed to another email address and now I am getting the comment notification emails again.

Banning 'The King & I' seems such a petty nonsensical thing to do, especially in a country where sex tourism is rampant and where all manner of 'pussy shows', live sex shows etc seem to be acceptable, yet a fluffy musical gets banned - go figure!