#395) Flower Drum Song (1961)

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#395) Flower Drum Song (1961)

OR “Chinatown Presents ‘Guys and Dolls’”

Directed by Henry Koster

Written by Joseph Fields. Based on the musical by Fields and Oscar Hammerstein II, and the novel by C.Y. Lee. Songs by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II.

Class of 2008

The Plot: “Flower Drum Song” highlights the lives and loves of several residents in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mei-Li (Miyoshi Umeki) arrives from China for her arranged marriage to nightclub owner Sammy Fong (Jack Soo). Sammy is already in a relationship with showgirl Linda Low (Nancy Kwan), so he attempts to pawn Mei-Li off on Wang Ta (James Shigeta), who also has a crush on Linda. The plot thickens from there, as does the dissection of an ever-changing Chinese American culture. Oh, and it’s a musical from the white men who brought you “South Pacific” and “The King and I”!

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “milestone” that “presented an enduring three-dimensional portrait of Asian America”.

But Does It Really?: This is a tough one. On one hand, it’s a second-rate film adaptation of a second-rate Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and its depiction of Chinese Americans, while always respectful, is nevertheless misguided and culturally inappropriate. On the other hand, it’s the only major Hollywood movie of the era with a predominantly Asian cast, playing a variety of dimensional, mostly stereotype-free characters. “Flower Drum Song” has its problems, but it’s enjoyable and progressive enough to not warrant any major cringing. A slight pass for NFR inclusion; this one is definitely on here for its representation rather than any artistic merits.

Everybody Gets One: Miyoshi Umeki originated the role of Mei Li on Broadway, fresh off her Oscar-winning turn in 1957’s “Sayonara”. Umeki is still the only Asian woman to win an acting Oscar. Nancy Kwan became an overnight star with 1960’s “The World of Suzie Wong”, and while her career peaked with “Flower”, she’s still a vocal activist for Asian actors, as well as for AIDS awareness.

Wow, That’s Dated: Despite several progressive leaps towards diverse representation of Chinese and Chinese American people, most of the major players are not of Chinese descent. Among them: Miyoshi Umeki and Jack Soo (Japanese) Reiko Sato and James Sigeta (Japanese-American) and, in the film’s only case of YELLOWFACE WARNING, Juanita Hall (African-American and Irish).

Seriously, Oscars?: Despite good-but-not-great reception from critics and audiences, “Flower Drum Song” received five Oscar nominations in various tech categories. The film lost all five awards to that other movie musical based on a hit Broadway play: “West Side Story”.

Other notes

  • Surprisingly, this was the first movie musical for director Henry Koster, screenwriter Joseph Fields, and producer Ross Hunter.
  • I can’t put my finger on it, but “A Hundred Million Miracles” (aka the actual Flower Drum Song) sounds so…Rodgers & Hammerstein.
  • Jack Soo has a connection to another NFR entry: He and his family were forced to stay in the Japanese internment camp in Topaz, Utah. Hats off to anyone who survived that and decided to go into show business.
  • Shoutout to actor James Hong, seen here as the Celestial Gardens’ head waiter, and also seen in every movie you’ve ever watched; and he’s still going at 90 years old! Hong is perhaps best remembered as the maitre’d at another Chinese restaurant.
  • Yes, Madame Liang is played by a light-skinned African American in yellowface, but Juanita Hall was not the first choice. Anna May Wong was originally signed to play the part, but died of a sudden heart attack six weeks before principal photography began. Hall was cast on short notice, having originated the role on Broadway.
  • “The Other Generation” is somewhere between “Kids” and “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria”. It goes on too long, but at least Hermes Pan had some fun with the choreography.
  • Despite its increasingly problematic context, “I Enjoy Being a Girl” is the highlight of the film. There’s some inventive split-screen effects, and Nancy Kwan is an engaging performer, although her singing is dubbed by white backup singer B.J. Baker. Was Marni Nixon out of town?
  • “Chop Suey” is the most troubling number in the show: a song written by white men about a Chinese woman appropriating American culture. Also, it turns out not a lot of words rhyme with “Chop Suey”.
  • It was around the time of Nancy Kwan’s fan dance routine that I started wondering, “Wasn’t this a Miyoshi Umeki vehicle? Isn’t she the star?” This film isn’t quite sure which of the four lovers it wants to focus on, but also never fully commits to being an ensemble piece. It’s weird.
  • “Love Look Away” is Helen’s only chance to shine in the movie, but then she disappears. In the original novel Helen committed suicide, but this ending was removed, leaving her plot thread dangling.
  • “Sunday” is a sweet number, but two dream ballets in one movie? You’re already in enough trouble as it is, R&H.
  • I wasn’t expecting one of the 700+ movies on this list to prominently feature Jack Soo as a song-and-dance man, but damn it, this was worth the trip out. Thanks, NFR!
  • The ending is a clever workaround to the double-wedding we all knew was coming. But for god’s sake, stop saying “wetback”! You’re making it worse!
  • And they all got married and had a stereotypically large amount of children. Good night, white America!

Legacy

  • “Flower Drum Song” was well-liked in its day, but in light of the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s, the popularity of both film and play dropped considerably. A revival of the stage version came to Broadway in 2002, retaining the songs, but with a drastically overhauled book by playwright David Henry Hwang.
  • “I Enjoy Being a Girl” is one of those songs that you know, but weren’t aware was from a show. Free of its original context, the song is performed today mostly as a light-hearted pre-feminism anthem, or as an ironic drag number.

Further Viewing: It would be another 32 years before the next major Hollywood movie with a predominantly Asian cast: Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club”. Not so coincidentally, “Joy Luck” also features “I Enjoy Being a Girl” on its soundtrack.

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