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May 17, 2022

Flower Drum Song


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 May 17, 2022 06:11 AM