Once he became immortalized – and a Tony® and Academy Award® winner – as 19th-century King Mongkut of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stage and screen versions of The King and I, Yul Brynner (1920-1985), born 97 years ago today in Vladivostok, Russia, became a go-to guy for roles that required a regal bearing and/or cunning leadership. Indeed, his next-released film following the movie opening of The King and I (1956) cast him as the defiant Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II in the even more popular Biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956). His third screen role in that career-watershed year was also aristocratic and also personally appealing because its plot’s political and romantic intrigues evoked his homeland’s turbulent history. While filming The King and I at Twentieth Century Fox studios, Kiev-born director Anatole Litvak, then preparing the film adaptation of the Marcelle Maurette/Guy Bolton play Anastasia (1956), approached Brynner to take on the role of ex-Russian Imperial Army officer General Bounine, lately a nightclub owner in Paris between the two World Wars. Brynner/Bounine would pursue two major goals. In the plot, wily con man Bounine rescues and, with the help of his co-conspirators (played by Akim Tamiroff and Sacha Pitoeff), seeks to tutor and reinvent a suicidal amnesiac named Anna Anderson (Ingrid Bergman) into the image and identity of the mysteriously lost, sole-surviving Romanov family heir, a grand duchess with a claim on a huge $10-million family inheritance. In the production, Brynner the co-star would play a steadying hand in helping a tentative Bergman reacclimate to big-budget studio filmmaking after six years of morality-minded exile from Hollywood work following her extramarital affair, divorce and later marriage to Italian director Roberto Rossellini. (During the Paris shoot, Yul Brynner: The Inscrutable King author Jhan Robbins recounted an occasion when Bergman and Brynner went ice-skating at a public rink and an outspoken woman approached the pair and called the scandal-scarred Bergman a “slut” and a “hussy” and derided Brynner for co-starring alongside her. Brynner reportedly escorted Bergman off to the side and then whirled back onto the ice and “collided” with the boorish heckler, sending her sprawling, etcetera, etcetera.) When Brynner and Bergman both won Oscars® that year (Bergman absent from the ceremony due to her starring on the Paris stage in Tea and Sympathy, a role which her fellow The King and I Best Actress nominee Deborah Kerr created on Broadway and also filmed in 1956), it seemed reminiscent of a redemptive and well-deserved coronation.
Anastasia came off smoothly in comparison to another occasion for Brynner donning royal robes nearly three years later. Tyrone Power had been playing the role of the ancient king of Israel in director King Vidor’s big-budget historical saga Solomon and Sheba (1959), when he was felled by a lethal heart attack two-thirds of the way through filming in Madrid. Offered a choice salary and gross-profit participation, Power’s friend Brynner stepped into the part on short notice, changing the dramatic thrust of the film, opting to play a more dynamic monarch in the Brynner-persona mold rather than the more thoughtful and reserved approach taken by Power, while resisting and ultimately succumbing to the charms of the alluring, Egypt-allied Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida, also a producing and profit participant) and warding off the militaristic maneuvers of his vengeful, throne-seeking brother Adonijah (George Sanders). Brynner’s arrival on scene proved disruptive at first, and the need for extensive retakes took a bit of a toll on the company, since Brynner and Power were distinctly different physical types. In his 2006 Yul Brynner: A Biography, Michelangelo Capua noted: “At first, Yul and Lollobrigida did not have good chemistry on the set. She got upset after Yul had furtively photographed her with a huge telephoto lens while she was in a huge tub doing a scene taking a bath (wearing skin-colored tights). Gradually, thanks to Yul’s savoir faire, the relationship improved. Having an interest in photography, Lollobrigida was impressed by Yul’s pictures and his kindness (he taught her how to use his camera, which she borrowed for a while). To the reporters who frequently asked Yul for his opinion of his Italian co-star, he discreetly replied, ‘Gina makes coming to work in the morning a pleasure.’ In a recent TV interview, the Italian actress confessed that of all the famous stars she had worked with, Yul was the only one with whom she had a brief romance. Lollobrigida was also Yul’s date on the night of the [March 29, 1959] Spanish premiere of The King and I in Madrid.”
Twilight Time’s splendid hi-def widescreen Blu-rays of the heart-rending Anastasia (available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/31072/ANASTASIA-1956/) and the eye-filling Solomon and Sheba (available here: http://www1.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28646/SOLOMON-AND-SHEBA-1959/) prove that in the company of radiant and ravishing leading ladies and sumptuous trappings, Brynner still rules impressively.