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May 09, 2008

Invitation to the Dance Blog-a-thon: Flower Drum Song

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Flower Drum Song
Henry Koster - 1961
Universal Region 1 DVD

One last contribution to the Invitation to the Dance Blog-a-thon, a more traditional kind of musical, and a choice made more timely by a posting over at Edward Copeland's by Josh R.

There is so much both right and wrong with the film version of Flower Drum Song. The film and original play were made with good intentions, and yet . . .

Having a virtually all Asian cast in a mainstream Hollywood film was admirable, but having them portray Chinese or Chinese-Americans seems to emphasize the idea that all Asians look alike. I also have a problem with the casting of American-American Juanita Hall as a Chinese matriarch, no matter that Rogers and Hammerstein loved her. Even when the older characters do not speak pidgen English, there is still the taint of Hollywood stereotypes. Had Anna May Wong not died, and played the part filled by Hall, that may have been another reminder of how little had changed for English speaking Asian actresses since the release of Picadilly. Flower Drum Song works best in not looking too deeply at what may be wrong, and enjoy what is best in the film, primarily Nancy Kwan.

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There were times when watching and listening to Nancy Kwan that her energy and attitude reminded me of Ann-Margret. Kwan never achieved the career of Ann-Margret which is yet another example of Hollywood's lack of imagination. Not that things have changed that much in the fifty years since the Broadway show opened, and the forty-seven years since the film's release. Flower Drum Song took advantage of Kwan's dance training. That ability was ignored until the end of the decade when Kwan appeared in The Wrecking Crew with the dance transposed to martial arts.

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The other standout scenes involve talented Patrick Adiarte as the very American young man who loves baseball and rock and roll, dancing with Kwan as well as showing his solo abilities. The show's best song, "Love, Look Away" is part of a ballet on an abstract set, performed by Reiko Sato, with the singing voice dubbed by Marily Horne.

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As one whose interest in Asian films has directed me to seeing some of the recently released DVDs of Hong Kong musicals made during that time, there are questions on how Flower Drum Song would have been perceived had there been awareness of the musicals that usually starred Linda Lin Dai. The Shaw Brothers produced musicals were Hong Kong versions inspired by the musicals Hollywood produced at the time. Of course the only people aware of Linda Lin Dai would be the residents of the real Chinatowns. That the dance sequences are reasonably filmed documents of the performances probably has more to do with choreographer Hermes Pan, than director Henry Koster. Serious thoughts get pushed aside when one considers that the best reason to bother with Flower Drum Song is the sight of Nancy Kwan's legs.

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Posted by peter at May 9, 2008 12:54 AM


She was breathtaking. Despite its beyond-belief stereotyping I like "The World of Suzy Wong" for Nancy as well; she takes this absurd character which exists really only in the imagination and gives her some real life.

Posted by: Campaspe at May 12, 2008 10:41 AM

As a little black girl in the sixties who loved movies, The Flower Drum Song was my favorite. I imprinted on James Shigeta as my first crush. He was strong, gentlemanly, and very attractive. I wanted to be Nancy Kwan because she epitomize to me what I, as little black girl, should want to be when I grew up; sexy, feminine, independent, and have all the guys wrapped around her finger. I remember many hour of dancing before a mirror with just a towel on in an effort to stand, move, and present myself as feminine as possible, as Nancy Kwan did. James Shigeta still takes my breath away when I am fortunate to catch him in a movie. The Flower Drum Song was not a movie with an all Asian cast, for me it was a coming of age movie with some of the best actors, dancers, singers, I had ever seen on the large screen who happened to be Asian.

Posted by: Vanessa at October 29, 2009 07:42 PM