Release Date(s)1961 (May 24, 2022)
Studio(s)Universal-International (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
The novel The Flower Drum Song by C.Y. Lee was adapted initially into a stage musical by Joseph Fields and Oscar Hammerstein and later into a film, with Joseph Fields given sole screenplay credit. The lush Technicolor film centers on the cultural and generational conflict between contemporary Western expectations and traditional Asian customs as it affects four young people of Chinese descent living in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Mei Li (Myoshi Umeki) and her grandfather (Kam Tong) arrive in San Francisco, where Mei Li is to wed nightclub owner Sammy Fong (Jack Soo) in an arranged marriage. The loose-living, boisterous Sammy is the polar opposite of shy, reticent Mei Li. He’s also in love with his star nightclub entertainer Linda Low (Nancy Kwan), a woman far more in tune with his personality. Discouraged that after five years she still can’t squeeze a marriage proposal out of Sammy, Linda now has eyes for Wang Ta (James Shigeta), son of a wealthy merchant (Benson Fong).
Richard Rodgers wrote the music and Oscar Hammerstein wrote the lyrics for the musical in 1958, when the team was at their creative peak. Unlike the other Rodgers and Hammerstein films, Flower Drum Song doesn’t have a serious narrative that runs through it. Generational and cultural clashes are addressed but treated lightly and humorously. In the song The Other Generation, both younger and older Chinese-Americans complain about not understanding each other.
As with other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, songs emerge naturally from the story, each one making a point tunefully. Chop Suey, for instance, equates the Chinese-sounding dish devised by Americans with the melting-pot nature of America itself—a country made up of a little this, a little that. Linda sings I Enjoy Being a Girl while preening before a three-way mirror as various images of herself in the glass put on a fashion show. This is a young woman completely comfortable in her own skin, who identifies far more with an American lifestyle than with Chinese tradition. Sammy, realizing his arranged marriage to Mei Li can only result in unhappiness for the two of them, feels honor-bound to fulfill the marriage contract but humorously, and in desperation, explains to her in Don’t Marry Me the numerous ways he’s far from a sterling catch. A Hundred Million Miracles, the first song heard, is sung by Mei Li and sets the theme of the film—in America, anything can happen, and the relationships will, in the end, work themselves out.
Flower Drum Song was the first major Hollywood film to have a majority Asian cast in an Asian-American story. It would hold that distinction until The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Though the film still relies on stereotypes held over from the 1950s, the characters are presented respectfully and intelligently. Linda is unapologetically modern in every way. Mei Li, learning day by day about the society into which she was plunged, is trying to navigate the pull of two cultures.
The dances have been expanded by choreographer Hermes Pan considerably from the Broadway show. Taking advantage of the widescreen and lavish set design and costuming, they really dazzle, whether the big production number Grant Avenue or the dance specialty in The Other Generation, featuring young human whirlwind Patrick Adiarte. In Love Look Away, a beautiful ballad dubbed by opera singer Marilyn Horne for Reiko Sato, a modest room opens up to a dreamlike fantasy world with Sato and partner performing a lovely romantic ballet on a surrealistic set backed by shimmering silver curtains.
Performances are mostly light and airy and the plot never enters the realm of melodrama. Director Henry Koster keeps the pace brisk, and the musical numbers—though not reaching the caliber of The King and I or South Pacific—are entertaining and well staged. The theme of assimilating into a new culture might be pounded a bit too heavily at times, but the film is consistently entertaining.
Flower Drum Song was shot by director of photography Russell Metty (Spartacus) on 35 mm film with Panavision cameras and lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Kino Lorber’s brand new 2K master offers a dazzling visual experience. Clarity and contrast are excellent with a palette ranging from deeply saturated reds, vibrant yellows, and brilliant blues to subtle pastels. Sets and costumes are lavish. A bit of “movie magic” is employed when Nancy Kwan sings as three different reflections look back at her from her dressing room mirror. In the Sunday number, the set is designed with forced perspective, giving the impression that the set is far deeper than it actually is. Lighting is high key in the production numbers. With the exceptions of a brief scene in which Kwan and Shigeta drive in a convertible overlooking San Francisco and a Chinatown parade, everything was filmed on sound stages or on Universal’s back lot, dressed to resemble San Francisco’s Chinatown.
There are two audio options: English 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. The stereo track is especially potent in delivering the musical numbers dramatically, with specific instruments easily discerned. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout. Only Umeki and Fong speak in a slightly halting manner, suggesting an imperfect command of English. The Alfred Newman orchestrations are rousing and range from lightly comic to dramatic. The score contains romantic ballads, comic numbers, dance production numbers, and an elaborate fantasy ballet.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Nancy Kwan and Nick Redman
- A Classic Evolves: From Print to Stage to Screen (19:06)
- Faces of the East: Casting Flower Drum Song (9:09)
- The Songs of Flower Drum Song (11:00)
- An All-Access Pass to the Sets and Costumes of Flower Drum Song (5:52)
- The Legacy of Rodgers and Hammerstein (4:24)
- Trailer (2:46)
- Thoroughly Modern Millie Trailer (2:39)
The audio commentary is a pleasant conversation between actor Nancy Kwan and film historian Nick Redman. Kwan avoided seeing the original Broadway show because she wanted to put her own stamp on the role of Linda Low. She and the dancers had six weeks of rehearsal before filming began. Hermes Pan, who created many of the dances in Fred Astaire’s films, choreographed. Primarily a dancer, Kwan was surprised at getting into movies. She recognized the importance of Flower Drum Song to both the Asian community and Asian-American actors. Kwan provides anecdotes about the filming, her co-stars and director Henry Koster, and talks about the critical and public’s reaction to the film. In the 1970s, she went to Hong Kong and set up her own production company, learning the business from the other side of the camera. She credits this experience with making her a better actor. Kwan is very proud of the film because it created awareness that there are many capable, talented Asian-American actors.
A Classic Evolves: From Print to Stage to Screen – Author C.Y. Lee deals with assimilation into American culture and discusses using generational and cultural gaps to tell his story. Ted Chapin of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization discusses the adaptation of the book into a stage musical. The characters represent the complete spectrum of what it is to be an American. The film had universal appeal because of the identifiable characters. Because Oscar Hammerstein had died, Joseph Fields was given sole credit for the screenplay. Flower Drum Song is the only Rodgers and Hammerstein piece that is just pure fun.
Faces of the East: Casting Flower Drum Song – All characters in the film are taken seriously. Up until Flower Drum Song, Asian characters had been either completely good and noble (Charlie Chan) or entirely evil (Fu Manchu). They were not relatable to actual Asian-Americans. All major characters are Asian and played by Asian-Americans—a first. Gene Kelly directed the original Broadway show. Overviews are provided of the actors and their careers. Shigeta was a role model for Asian-American males. Kwan played an Asian character very different from what audiences had seen on screen before. Some Asian-Americans who were comfortable asserting their own identity found the portrayals too tied to 1950’s stereotypes. The film was “caught in a net of cultural appropriation.”
The Songs of Flower Drum Song – Rodgers and Hammerstein were expert at making songs emerge naturally out of action. No song in any Rodgers and Hammerstein show can be omitted without affecting the story. Kwan had to shoot I Enjoy Being a Girl over two days because of the tricky use of mirrors. A Hundred Million Miracles establishes the theme that good outcomes of conflicts are miraculous. Don’t Marry Me was written quickly, put into the show that night, and was a hit with the audience. Love Look Away is a plaintive romantic ballad. Four versions of Grant Avenue were written, each jazzier than the one before. Chop Suey epitomized what Americans were about and contained a dance arrangement created specially for the film. For The Other Generation, Patrick Adiarte, an excellent young dancer, was given a solo after his role was repeatedly beefed up.
An All-Access Pass to the Sets and Costumes of Flower Drum Song – The film was made to look beautiful. The real Chinatown was blended with the studio Chinatown. The film can be broken down into three settings—the American world with glamour and fun; the traditional Asian-American world; and the presentational setting. The look of the film is reflective of producer Ross Hunter’s taste. Irene Sharaff’s costume designs brought East and West together.
The Legacy of Rodgers and Hammerstein – An overview of the team’s career and memorable works is provided. Their shows became increasingly complex. Even though the subject matter was exotic, they concentrated on the human side of the story, making characters recognizable. “They had the ability to find the emotion and mine it again and again.” Their shows were “the Cadillacs of postwar America. They were meant to last, and last they did.” You couldn’t be an American in the late 50s and early 60s and not know one of their songs.
As in most Rodgers and Hammerstein works, the strength is in the musical numbers. These are lovingly staged in Flower Drum Song with Hermes Pan’s choreography, Irene Sharaff’s costumes and imaginative sets making them sparkle. There’s no heavy plot running through the script, which might seem overly frothy to some, but the film has charm, and its characters mostly rise above Asian stereotypes.
- Dennis Seuling