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DVD SAVANT

Flower Drum Song
Special Edition


Flower Drum Song
Universal
1961 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 132 min. / Street Date November 7, 2006 / 26.98
Starring Nancy Kwan, Miyoshi Umeki, James Shigeta, Benson Fong, Jack Soo, Juanita Hall, Reiko Sato, Helen Chao
Cinematography Russell Metty
Choreographer Hermes Pan
Art Direction Alexander Golitzen, Joseph C. Wright
Film Editor Milton Carruth
Original Music Richard Rodgers
Written by Joseph Fields from the play by Joseph Fields and Oscar Hammerstein II from the novel by C.Y. Lee
Produced by
Directed by Henry Koster

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Flower Drum Song is a charming but dated Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. For a recent revival its book was thoroughly rewritten to reflect a more modern cultural point of view on minorities. Recent revisionism of classic plays can be somewhat annoying, as when newer productions of Oklahoma! make Laurey into an assertive Tomboy. In the case of Flower Drum Song it seems to be a good idea, as watching this colorful musical is like taking a nostalgic trip down Stereotype Boulevard

Synopsis:

Mei Li and her father Doctor Li (Miyoshi Umeki and Kam Tong) smuggle themselves into San Francisco and make haste to the nightclub of Sammy Fong (Jack Soo), who has been officially engaged to her by custom for almost five years. Sammy hands Mei Li over to Auntie Liang (Juanita Hall), who promotes her to the rich Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong) as the perfect wife for his son Wang Ta (James Shigeta), soon to graduate from college. The complications are numerous. Wang Ta has no intention of allowing his father to dictate his marriage plans. Seamstress Helen Chao (Reiko Sato, singing voice Marilyn Horne) is quietly in love with Wang Ta. And Sammy Fong's long-time girlfriend and floor show headliner Linda Low (Nancy Kwan, singing voice B.J. Baker) makes a gold digger's play for Wang Ta. She even has the club's comic pretend to be her brother, to close the marriage deal. Wang Chi-Yang despairs that, if he had his way from the beginning, the right marriage arrangement would have worked out fine.

There's nothing openly offensive about Flower Drum Song, but there is a depression factor in watching a movie with an all-Asian cast perform a play with an agenda about as deep as a quick bus loop through Chinatown. The stated conflict between traditional Chinese customs and the new-fangled American way of doing things is presented as the lightest of light comedy, with rarely a sentence going by that doesn't make an easy joke. The dialogue has fun with everyone's silly-sounding Chinese dish Moo Goo Gai Pan, and Chop Suey even becomes a song. A hip Chinese character says he can't tell whites apart. The young Chinese-Americans all talk hip lingo that's roughly fifteen years out of date, the kind of amiable but artificial jive that Charlie Chan's Number One son dishes out.

None of this is strictly offensive, but all we learn about Chinese-Americans is that they are cute comedians. The flashy main singer and dancer is a stacked Americanized China Doll. Her opposite number is a "preferred" quiet and respectful girl with traditional values. Taken as a whole, the movie's message is that the old ways -- like arranged marriages -- are best. Outside of the glamour aspect, I can't imagine the film being all that relevant to Asian-Americans of 1961.

The comparable play and movie is West Side Story, which is more modern and relevant on all counts. If Latin Americans relate more to the story of the gangs fighting in New York, it's surely because history has confirmed that America is an ethnic battleground and not a warm melting-pot. Flower Drum Song is a fantasy about a quaint, cute generational conflict. Even as its kids adopt baseball and Rock 'n' roll, the Chinatown of Flower Drum Song is, was, and remains outside mainstream America.

On the other hand, the movie is a big step up for Asian-American actors. It made several careers, including that of Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta. "Name" talents like Miyoshi Umeki (Sayonara) get to show their range, along with nice turns from familiar talents like Benson Fong and Victor Sen Yung. In Flower Drum Song many of the dozens of Asian performers have solid roles instead of just playing waiters and servants. In the film's defense, it's ridiculous to expect complete cultural honesty when it wasn't exactly common anywhere else in American movies or culture.

Produced by Ross Hunter, Flower Drum Song has the high-key bright color sameness of most musicals of the day, and director Henry Koster doesn't add much to make the film visually memorable. All the highlights come from the Hermes Pan musical numbers. Mei Li's several reprises of A Hundred Million Miracles are charmingly small-scale, while the big radio hit comes when Linda Low sizes herself up in a mirror in I Enjoy Being a Girl. Juanita Hall sings the East-meets-West numbers Chop Suey and The Other Generation.

African-American actress and singer Juanita Hall played the Tonkinese native Bloody Mary in South Pacific and here plays a Chinese-American. The rest of the casting crosses ethnic lines as well, with many of the major players being of Japanese ancestry. Leading man James Shigeta had made his debut two years earlier in Sam Fuller's The Crimson Kimono in the role of a detective in love with a white woman. Fuller confonted the issue head-on, and launched Shigeta on a sterling career playing handsome Asian men that commanded respect independent of their race.

Oddly, the play has parallels to Ross Hunter's earlier All That Heaven Allows, where American culture is represented by a television set given to Jane Wyman, to 'keep her company' in her presumed dotage. In Flower Drum Song, a television is a wedding gift so beautiful it must be displayed in a parade, and the heroine solves her romantic problem by watching a TV show.  1 Flower Drum Song is a fun nostalgic souvenir of the late 1950s, but its book is not something that will win over modern audiences.


Universal's special edition of Flower Drum Song is a sparkling enhanced 'scope transfer of a film in perfect condition ... all the bright colors look accurate and cheerful. The track is offered in DD 5.1 and 2.0 .

The disc offers a fascinating and well-produced featurette about the genesis of the novel, play and musical, and two more less comprehensive looks at the casting, production and songs. Nancy Kwan and Patrick Adiarte (James Shigeta's younger brother who dances) contribute their thoughts. Apparently Gene Kelly helped put the show together, and recruited young comic Goro Suzuki to change his name to Jack Soo and become an actor. The writer of the new Broadway revival explains that he altered the story completely because the Fields and Hammerstein original presented a condescending tourist's view of Chinatown, right down to the lyrics of the songs.

A final featurette looks at the career of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Film Historian Nick Redman is a congenial host for Nancy Kwan on the commentary track. Ms. Kwan's oft-repeated diplomatic phrase to describe Flower Drum Song is that it is "about East meeting West."


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Flower Drum Song rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Five featurettes, commentary with Nancy Kwan and Nick Redman.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 8, 2006

Footnote:

1. Besides demeaning the Chinese as TV-addicted, the show that inspires Mei Li is about a Mexican 'wetback' with no legal status in the United States. The word wetback is repeated several times for comic effect. That's two ethnicities slurred in one go! Two points!
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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