Thursday, January 19, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Taming the Barbarians" (on Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's The King and I--and the film by Rene Clair, I Married a Witch)

taming the barbarians

Robert Pirosh, Marc Connelly (screenplay, based on the novel The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith, complete by Norman H. Matson), with further dialogue by René Clair, André Rigaud, and Dalton Trumbo (all uncredited), René Clair (director) I Married a Witch / 1942
Ernest Lehman (screenplay, based on the musical by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, based, in turn on Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam), Walter Lang (director) The King and I / 1956
Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics, based on Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam), Richard Rodgers (music) The King and I / Los Angeles, Hollywood Pantages Theatre / the performance Howard Fox and I attended was a matinee on January 18, 2017

Unintentionally—what I might again describe as a fortuitous coincidence—I happened, yesterday, to watch René Clair’s 1942 fantasy I Married a Witch and, later that afternoon, attended a traveling stage production of Bartlett Sher’s The Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I
       Almost immediately I was struck by the fact that—although these works, in most ways, are vastly different—both concern rather exotic worlds in which the major figures find themselves, falling in love with individuals that are defined by some as barbarians.

      Although that word is never uttered in I Married a Witch, it is clear that Jennifer (Veronica Lake) is an “actual” rather than a societally “perceived” witch, having centuries ago been condemned to death by Wallace Wooley’s  (Fredric March) ancestor, Jonathan. In Clair’s fantasy she comes back to life only through a trial by fire, the destruction of a city hotel, and she and her father have long doomed the Wooley tribe to bad marriages, a tradition Wallace is about to carry out in a forced wedding with a local political bosses’ daughter, Estelle Masterson (a forever frowning Susan Hayward).

     Accordingly, if there was ever a true barbarian it is Jennifer and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway), set on the destruction of the civilized world. Indeed, it is the chaos they introduce into the so-called civilized world that makes the first part of this film so delightful. It is hard even to sympathize with the hypocritical Wallace and his ancestors, given their bourgeois aspirations and their sacrifice of their ideals to community demands. 
      March, clearly not in love with his arguing fiancée, spends most of this part of this movie with a drink in his hand, as he tries to escape Hayward’s scolds.
      But the movie shifts course when the barbarians “get inside,” so to speak, and refuse to leave. And what else can you do when they’ve squeaked through but to fall in love. It’s interesting just how influential this film was on later works such as the play and film Bell, Book, and Candle, and the television series Bewitched. In each of them falling in love is associated with witch-craft, and requires the male to readjust to a life with a woman who used magical powers to woe him. Of course, in the very fact that the woman has also fallen in love, she loses her powers—or at least in the case of Bewitched, is compelled to control them.

      Obviously, in all three of these “bewitching” tales, even if the women are originally powerful, they are also seen to be dangerous outside forces who got their companions through guile and cunning, and in suggesting this, send subtle misogynistic messages, particularly since the women must lose those powers to continue the marriage. Yet the surge of the betwitching powers, in which of these works, is what make them so much fun, and with the marriage comes necessarily with family members who still may have the magical gifts, causing embarrassment or outright dangers for the husband. At the end of I Married a Witch, we see the couple’s young daughter astride a broom.
     The King and I, obviously, has no witchcraft behind it. Yet, given the exoticism of the “barbarians’” world that the proper English school marm, Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) enters, it might as well be magical, which the sets (in this case by Michael Yeargan), costumes (by Catherine Zuber), and music all attempt to recreate. The Thailand of Rodgers and Hammerstein is a gold and marbled fantasy land that has been, quite literally, “dreamed up.” Is it any wonder that the straight-thinking Anna keeps demanding of the King (José Llana) a normal home outside the confines of the palace.

      Symbolically, of course, she is asking for a “home” with him, an impossible thing. How is she to become the teacher to his family and him if she, too, is not a kind concubine, and her refusal to enter into that state is also what makes her even more interesting to him—not to say her outlandish dress and manners. In a song I had forgotten, since the movie had excised it, “Western People Funny,” we get the so-called barbarians’ reaction to Anna and her kind, and we get a new perspective on how the Victorian hoops and tight ribbons must have appeared to the Siamese.

     This King, however, is clearly not stupid, and quite openly perceives that he will be seen by the English and other western cultures as a barbarian, particularly if he desires to “build a wall around Siam to protect his country.” Hearing these lines on stage two days before the inauguration of a President who has expressed that very desire, made many in the audience, I am sure, flinch. 
      Anna sagely advises him to do just the opposite, to invite the outsiders into his world so that they might see he is not a true barbarian. Of course, by doing so, the writers and composer hint that the true barbarians, in this case, may be the westerners, not the people of Thailand; and this insinuation helps to soften the quite obvious colonialist sympathies of the musical, something that has always made me winch in watching the film and stage work. It’s still hard—hearing such works as “A Puzzlement” and even “I Whistle a Happy Tune”—whose reprise during the King’s death seemed terribly inappropriate and, I’d argue, should have, as the movie did, been deleted—as the endless repetition of “etc, etc., etc,” makes it somewhat difficult to stomach some of this musical’s disdain of cultural differences.
     Never mind, by the time the big bash is over, and we’ve experienced the cross-cultural lectures of the stunning Jerome Robbins-inspired ballet-within-a musical, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” the situation has radically shifted. The King, a bit like Trump, is now convinced of his own cleverness, and Anna, after a breathless series of polkas in “Shall We Dance,” has fallen in love with the seeming barbarian.
      Given her position still as an outsider, however, she cannot completely “redeem” him, and he is still committed to punishing his slave-concubine from Burma, Tuptin (Manna Nichols). He is, after all, a kind of barbarian in Anna’s eyes, and recognizing that he remains so in her eyes, quite literally destroys him.
     However, even the fact that the departing Anna determines to stay on and help the Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan, so much better than the movie Prince) during his new reign, it is hard to forgive her moral abandonment. And, in the end, we do feel that, despite all of her good intentions, it is she who has been not only the King’s adversary, but his personal barbarian—a kind of colonialist amazon who has imposed her views and values upon a vastly developed society, even if it be an autocratic one.
      The things that save this musical from its thematic inconsistencies are many: the wonderful singing of all involved (although the necessary amplification of voices, given the vast size of the Pantages theater, was a bit disconcerting), the simple yet elegant settings (including a gloriously beautiful curtain used to marvelous effect throughout), along with orchestral settings I’d not heard before which made me aware of just how muted was the symphonic version presented by the 1956 movie, as well as all the other stage-craft talents in lighting and costumes, and, of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s resplendent score. Let me just admit that I loved this production.
       Maybe it’s just the times, our fears, the whole notion that the grand dreams of a global identity are beginning to crash around us, creating societies of opposition that bear an uncanny resemblance to the worlds of pre-world War I and II, but I couldn’t shake the idea that in both these very different works, I was witnessing a battle of wills between cultures that, despite their attraction, couldn’t quite allow each other to live or simply be themselves.

Los Angeles, January 19, 2017

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