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May 17, 2022

Flower Drum Song

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Henry Koster - 1961
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

For those unfamiliar, Flower Drum Song was the penultimate musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, first staged in 1958. The story was adapted from the novel by C.Y. Lee. Stage producer Joseph Fields had a hand in crafting the play for Broadway, making it lighter than the novel, further emphasizing the comic aspects with the film's screenplay. The basic story is of an illegal Chinese immigrant, a young woman who expects to be the picture-bride of the very Americanized nightclub owner. He in turn is in love with his star performer who has begun setting her sights on a young college student, son of a wealth Chinatown patriarch. The film is essentially a comedy about cultural differences and degrees of assimilation, and radical for its time with an all Asian and Asian-American cast. Some of the points I bring up have been mentioned by others. What is offered here is hardly the last word on a film that has undergone multiple readings.

Although it would be easy to do, I will not bother enumerating most of the problems I have with Flower Drum Song. Several of those issues are addressed in the supplemental interviews. Those supplements are from the Universal Home Video DVD issued in 2006. The film itself is from a new 2K master which looks great. There are two audio options of 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound. What has stayed in my mind are some of the cultural shifts that have taken place since the time of the film's release. The watercolor paintings by Dong Kingman, seen in the opening credits depicting a ship traveling from Hong Kong to San Francisco, look spectacular.

Nancy Kwan was only 22 years old when she starred as Linda Low, the featured performer in the Celestial Gardens nightclub located in San Francisco's Chinatown. Kwan was not a singer, as was dubbed by B. J. (Betty Jane) Baker. Kwan was a trained dancer, and her energy is obvious from the first time she appears, but especially in the elaborate "Grant Avenue" number. In a more perfect world, Nancy Kwan would have made a film with Elvis that could have been up there with Viva Las Vegas. Kwan's also too brief duet with teenage Patrick Adiarte, "You be the rock, I'll be the roll", hints at what could have been. While Kwan had a relatively solid career, there was little that made use of her dramatic or dancing talents. Five years later, Kwan's co-star, James Shigeta would play Elvis' best friend in Paradise Hawaiian Style.

Patrick Adiarte was seventeen at the time of filming and one of the cast members from the original 1958 Broadway production. In one of the supplements, it is mentioned that his role as the thoroughly Americanized son of a Chinese patriarch was explanded to take advantage of his dancing abilities. Reiko Sato's dancing is showcased in a ballet as part of the song, "Love Look Away". Sato appeared in one more movie, while Adiarte had a short career in supporting roles in film and television.

In one of the supplements, playwright David Henry Kwang talks about how the original play and film both present a tourist's eye view of Chinese-Americans. Kwan attempted to correct some of the aspects of the original play with his revised version of the play that was staged in 2002. One of the steps Kwang took was to bring the play more in keeping with the more serious source novel by C. Y. Lee. The 1957 novel itself was unusual as a best seller about Chinese-Americans written by a Chinese immigrant. While issues of representation and cultural appropriation have not disappeared, in the seventeen years since the interviews were done for the Flower Drum Song, Asian-Americans have been more visible in telling there own stories including those where race is not a factor. While there has been progress, it is primarily in the realm of the independent films. A small news article from 2021 mentions a possible revised film version of Flower Drum Song although the disappointing box office of the new version of West Side Story and In the Height has probably put those plans on hold.

What makes Flower Drum Song still worth watching are the musical numbers. It might be worth noting that the Broadway version appeared a year after West Side Story. Both share the theme of cultural tensions of being the other in the United States. The big difference is that the Chinese-Americans in Flower Drum Song exist in an insular society with limited and cordial interaction with white society, while the Puerto Ricans of West Side Story are reminded by white society and each other of their outsider status. While the song, "America", in West Side Story points to the cultural tensions, "Chop Suey", in Flower Drum Song is a celebration of cultural assimilation, albeit one with some very dated references. Choreographer Hermes Pan uses "Chop Suey" as a starting off point for an extended dance scene that segues from cha-cha to square dance to rock.

The most famous song, "I Enjoy Being a Girl", is staged in a way to take advantage of the wide screen format. Nancy Kwan sings to herself with the reflection from three mirrors. The reflections turn into three differently dressed versions of Ms. Kwan, a celebration of being a fashionista. The dances are all filmed primarily with full shots with the occasional medium shot. The staging of the musical numbers for the camera is similar to the collaborations Fred Astaire did with Hermes Pan that it could well be that Pan had more to do with the direction in those scenes than credited director Henry Koster.

The commentary track with Nancy Kwan and film historian Nick Redman primarily splits between Kwan discussing the making of the film and her own life. There should be note on the blu-ray package to note that the commentary was part of the 2006 DVD. Kwan mentions how James Shigeta and co-star Miyoshi Umeki had known each other as popular singers in Japan prior to their acting careers in Hollywood films. Also pointed out is the appearance of Henry Koster's wife in a mock old movie seen on television. With the discussion of what David Henry Kwang did and did not do with revision of Flower Drum Song, I have to wonder what the late Nick Redman would have made of Tony Kushner's revisions to West Side Story for a contemporary audience.

Of the six Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to go from Broadway to film, Flower Drum Song is the only one that was not produced by 20th-Century Fox. One of the possible reasons is that Fox had already had their remake of Rodger and Hammerstein's State Fair in development at the same time. In any event, Flower Drum Song was the 11th or 12th most popular film of 1961, based on pre-computer box office tallies. Setting aside aspects of the screenplay that were reflected dated stereotypes at the time of release, the musical numbers remain entertaining and inventive.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:11 AM

May 10, 2022

Mamba

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Production still with (from left) Albert Rogell, Ralph Forbes, Eleanor Boardman and Jean Hersholt.

Albert Rogell - 1930
Kino Classics BD Regions ABC

Kino opens their blu-ray version of Mamba with a disclaimer noting the racist nature of the film. This probably unnecessary for those most interested in seeing the film as they presumably have a longer view of film history, and history in general. At the same time, the supplements center around the discovery and restoration of what was the most complete print of a "lost" film. After my first pass at viewing Mamba, I wonder if contemporary audiences might have been better served with a commentary track or an essay by someone like Donald Bogle or Jacqueline Stewart to help place the film in perspective with the changes that have taken place in the past ninety-two years since the initial release. There is a bit to unpack here with the unquestioning white supremacy and colonialism of the time.

The story by itself is mind-boggling. The bulk of the film takes place in a German colony in East Africa in 1913. Jean Hersholt plays the part of the area's biggest landowner, boasting of a plantation with 2000 workers. Overweight and slovenly, he literally tries to push his weight around, bossing the German and British soldiers who are there to keep the natives in line. Hersholt more or less buys the aristocratic daughter played by Eleanor Boardman to be his wife. The two get married, but Boardman refuses to consummate the relationship. On board the ship from Germany to Africa, Boardman meets Ralph Forbes, appearing as an officer in charge of the German colony. World War I causes the Germans and British to fight each other, with the natives taking advantage with tribes joining up to rebel against the Germans. The British troops save the overwhelmed Germans because nothing could be worse than Africans in control of their own land.

Those last couple of reels are unintentionally humorous as they play like the like the most cliched Western with African "savages" instead of Native Americans, and a British cavalry complete with bugle charge coming to the rescue. It is also not enough to note that Mamba is a pre-Code film. In the opening few minutes it is suggested that Hersholt not only fathered a child with a native woman, but also has a black mistress. The theme of adultery is also significant here. The restored version is from an Australian print missing three minutes that were censored locally. Dialogue was preserved from a complete set of soundtrack discs. What apparently crossed the red-line for Australian censors was Hersholt's pawing of the uncooperative Boardman on their honeymoon voyage.

Kino Classics has emphasized the historical nature of Mamba. The film is noted as being the first drama to be filmed in the two-strip technicolor process. At a time when before there was an industry standard for sound film, the movie was projected with separate synchronized RCA discs. The film was produced by Tiffany, a poverty row studio that at that time was helmed by director John Stahl. Tiffany Pictures basically put all their eggs in one basket with a budget of $500,000. The film was a hit, but not enough of one to keep the studio from going under a couple years later. The opening shot is riposte to the myth of early talkies being static, with the camera traveling for about two and a half minutes through the port of the German colony. The supplements cover the recovery of the only known print in Australia, the subsequent restoration of Mamba as well as a brief history of Tiffany Pictures.

In spite of directing over one-hundred films, with a career that began as a teenager, there is very little written about Albert Rogell. What can be gleaned from his filmography and the available films is of a journeyman director of B films who continually went from assignment to assignment without distinguishing himself. John Stahl left Tiffany for Universal around the time of the release of Mamba, directing the first versions of Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession, among his handful of highly regarded films.

The commentary track is by Ozploitation filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith. The more interesting points concern how the film was probably perceived by viewers at the time of release versus reading the film from a contemporary perspective. Even discussing Mamba as a product of its time, one can argue about the presentation of the Africans as savages in need of civilization while at the same time providing temporary employment for a large number of black actors and extras while the United States was feeling the effects of the Great Depression. My only dispute with Trenchard-Smith is in his characterization of the three top billed actors, all very recognizable names at the time of production. Still, Trenchard-Smith should get kudos for his research and insights.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:08 AM

May 06, 2022

Julietta

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Marc Allegret - 1953
Icarus Home Video Region 1 DVD

Julietta is the second of two films by Marc Allegret that has just been released as a DVD from a restored print. Perhaps because the stakes were not as high as filming a literary classic, I found this a better film than Allegret's version of Lady Chatterley's Lover. What is surprising is not just how funny this earlier film is, but that it works so well with the literary pedigree and two stars associated with more serious work. Again, Allegret adapted a novel, in this case by Louise de Vilmorin. The author's most famous novel was the basis for Max Ophul's Earrings of Madame de . . .. The screenplay was by Francoise Giroud, whose started as a script-girl on Alleget's Fanny in 1932, later becoming a journalist as well as briefly France's Minister of Culture. Jean Marais is better known for his more somber roles in films by Jean Cocteau, while Jeanne Moreau's only comparable excursion into comedy would come after stardom was established with Viva Maria!.

If Assistant Director Roger Vadim had his way, Julietta would have been the first time Brigiitte Bardot and Moreau would have been in the same film, though not sharing screen time. Dany Robin, who was a popular star at the time has the title role during a year that Bardot had only begun getting credited supporting parts. Julietta is a young woman, 18 years old, engaged to a wealthy older man, and having second thoughts about her engagement. On the train to Paris with her mother and older sister, she notices a cigarette case left behind by a passenger at a stop in Poitiers. The passenger is a well known local lawyer, Andre. Julietta catches Andre but loses her train. Talking Andre into letting her spend the night at his house, Julietta connives to extend her stay as a way of avoid the impending nuptials. Confusion reigns when Andre's fiancee, Rosie, comes to visit.

There are echoes of the classic screwball comedy at work here with Marais frenetically trying to hide the presence of Robin from Moreau, with physical bits such as completely spilling a tray filled with food and drink. Moreau is the hysteria prone fiancee shrieking at the sight of a spider, unexplained noises, a blown fuse while she is taking a bath, and mistaking Marais for a ghostly apparition when he is seen covered in one of the several bedsheets he is carrying. Moreau's performance is the most interesting to watch because it is both atypical, but also because Moreau's face is so smooth and unlined, as if she has yet to become the fully formed actress who would become more formidable a few years later. Dany Robin is attractive but so easily upstaged by Moreau and Marais. Robin's best moment is in the film's opening scene with her pirouetting on the beach towards the camera. A year after Lady Chatterley's Lover, Brigitte Bardot was now a top billed star in France with four of six films released that year, one directed by Marc Allegret.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:29 AM

May 03, 2022

Lady Chatterley's Lover

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L'Amant de lady Chatterley
Marc Allegret - 1955
Icarus Home Video Region 1 DVD

Contemporary viewers of Lady Chatterley's Lover may be wondering what the fuss was about, at least in the United States where it was temporarily banned for allegedly "promoting adultery". The U.S. release occurred in 1959, almost simultaneously with the publication of D. H. Lawrence's novel, itself the subject of banning internationally. At the same time, Marc Allegret is still a relatively unknown director in spite of his prolific filmography for a couple of reasons. The stateside distribution of foreign films has always been inconsistent during Allegret's career with feature films spanning from 1931 through 1970. Allegret's films never were part of the revival arthouse circuit possibly due to the influence of Francois Truffaut and his dismissal of the "cinema de papa". While Children of Paradise and double features of Diabolique and Wages of Fear were easy to see theatrically in the 1970s, films by the peers of Carne and Clouzot remained unknown.

In the case of Lady Chatterley's Lover, I think I can see what Truffaut was criticizing. I can not claim to be knowledgable about Lawrence, and while I did read the novel, that was about thirty-five years ago. But for a film based on a novel that is about emotional and physical love, it is a very stately affair. There is more life in Jack Cardiff's 1960 film of Sons and Lovers. By 1969, the demise of the old production code meant that Ken Russell could more more direct in filming Women in Love. Between the limits of film censorship in 1955 and Allegret's discretion, the only scene depicting sex between Lady Chatterley and Mellors, the gamekeeper, begins with a two-shot of the couple embracing on blanket in a shack, their faces and shoulders visible, followed by a shot of a very tall tree, chopped down in the woods, falling, the symbolism impossible to miss, followed by another of Lady Chatterley and Mellors in the same embrace but with suggested nudity. While D. H. Lawrence used some very clear language regarding sex, most of the reference to sex as filmed by Marc Allegret is mostly avoided, with Danielle Darrieux's erotic potential covered up with large towels and blankets.

Allegret also updates the film to its then contemporary setting, so that references to the past war would be World War II. There is some streamlining of the novel so that most of the film takes place within the confines of the Chatterley estate with even the outdoor scenes feeling claustrophobic. This was one of the last staring roles for Danielle Darrieux before continuing her career in mostly supporting roles through 2010. The British actor Leo Genn appears as Lord Chatterley. Mellors is played by the Italian actor Erno Crisa, whose filmography indicates a career mostly in smaller supporting roles. There is very little written about Marc Allegret in English. The summary of several of his earlier films suggests that there is more of interest in several of earlier films. Allegret also has a reputation for launching the careers of several French stars including Simone Simon and Brigitte Bardot. While this new restoration of Lady Chatterley's Lover> may not improve Allegret's standing in terms of film scholarship, it remains of historical interest, as well as providing a showcase for the talents of its iconic star.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:56 AM