Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Musical Comedy-Drama of Chinese Immigrants and their Generational Clashes Arrives Percussively on Blu-ray
DIRECTED BY HENRY KOSTER/1961
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MAY 24, 2022/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
It takes a hundred million miracles for a movie to go right. For this movie- the very first big-budget Asian-centric musical to come out of Hollywood- it had to have taken even more. Thankfully, Universal-International’s lucky stars aligned for this ambitious project that boasts no major movie stars, but considerable production value.
The biggest names in the mix were and are the film’s originators, the mighty Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Only, by the time of Flower Drum Song’s November 1961 premiere, Hammerstein had been dead from cancer for over a year, and Rodgers is said to have turned away from monitoring the film adaptations of their work. Instead, name-in-the-trailer movie producer Ross Hunter (All That Heaven Allows) was minding the store, with director Henry Koster (No Highway in the Sky) at the helm. Ace cinematographer Russell Metty (Spartacus) captured the vibrant visuals in glorious 2.35:1 scope while Fred Astaire’s choreography partner from the old days, Hermes Pan, saw to the film’s many varied dance moves. If there’s any doubt, that’s a very solid behind-the-camera talent pool. It’s an incredibly rare instance that goes to show that decades before Crazy Rich Asians won the hearts of the world, Hollywood put A-list effort behind a very Asian film.
And yet, Flower Drum Song is a tremendously American story. Within its surface of knotty romance and all manner of song n’ dance (ranging from cloying childrens’ numbers to surprisingly sexy club acts), this is a tale of immigration. In this case, immigration of the illegal variety. (If the prospect of all Chinese characters + illegal immigration triggers outrage, there’s always Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music; its movie adaptation would take the U.S. by storm four years following this one. The outraged can thank it for financially saving what would spawn Rupert Murdock’s Fox [News] Corporation. But they must remember, in The Sound of Music, the Nazis are villains).
Beyond all of that, though, Flower Drum Song is poignantly about the generational divide. That’s always an immediately potent story element (Rebel Without a Cause; Footloose), but rarely moreso than for immigrants of staunch traditional backgrounds in the teenager-centricity of late ‘50s/early ‘60s America. Amid the film’s many expert interviews included on the disc’s bonus features, the claim is voiced that it may well have been the first major musical to do so. In the key song, “The Other Generation”, older characters carrying on in their Chinese traditions lament of the Americanized younger set, “They want to lead a life that’s all their own…”. But then, that younger set gets its own piece of the tune, they confirm the disconnect: “the more I see of grownups/The less I want to grow”.
Right along with the breakthroughs of Flower Drum Song are its shortcomings, some of which have been flagged from the start. Others have emerged as more pronounced over the years. Not only do popular and personal tastes shift over time (case in point, the bygone popularity of this style of musical film), but so do cultural sensitivities. Here, it’s no longer acceptable that many of the Chinese characters are portrayed by non-Chinese actors (as talented as they are). That’s just one example.
The resolutions in the handling of the generational divides in the story have also not landed well with some. Then there’s the whole question of to what degree are the show and the film’s creators simply engaging in crass appropriation. To paraphrase one of the interviewees from the numerous vintage DVD behind-the-scenes featurettes that have made their way to KL Studio Classics’ recent Blu-ray edition of the film, Flower Drum Songhas something to offend everybody. With the song “Chop Suey”, its own musical ode to “the Chinese food invented by Americans”, the production seems to lean into this aspect of itself being “a little bit of everything.”
That said, the film is an awfully impressive effort all around, particularly in the area of its well-rounded characterizations of its leads and co-leads. A commanding Nancy Kwan takes the lead as popular showgirl Linda Low. Kwan proved to be in the right place at the right time in the early-‘60s, just as Hollywood was opening wider to authentic casting of Asian roles. Around the same time that she made a splash in Flower Drum Song (her solo number “I Enjoy Being a Girl” is a showstopper), she also drew acclaim for her leading role in Richard Quine’s romantic drama The World of Suzie Wong.
The central what’s-what of Flower Drum Song is that shluby ladies’ man and nightclub owner man Sammy Fong (Jack Soo) finds himself in an arranged marriage with the much younger and just-off-the-boat demure Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki). This is a problem because he’s finally falling for his longtime fling and prime attraction in his club, Linda Low (she of the racy “Fan Tan Fannie” striptease fame). Can he shake free of Li and the considerable heaped-on social baggage of his mother, her father, and the scads of others?
Li, meanwhile, has fallen for the handsome Wang Ta (James Shigeta, The Crimson Kimono)… Thanks to Soo’s impressive tightrope walk of a performance, we’re able to sympathize with the likes of Fong as he reveals his softer sides. In fact, few if any in Flower Drum Song are outright unlikeable, even as the situations grow perplexingly more complicated as it goes. The story takes viewers to wildly varying environs with wildly varying characters- all Chinese- but never feels ungrounded or cumbersome.
KL Studio Classics gives the lush and vibrant Flower Drum Song the much-needed Blu-ray treatment with a brand new 2K master. The extras, while voluminous by the label’s standards, are all ported over from the old packed-out DVD. They are upscaled properly, and are terrific to have here, even as they kind of run together and overlap stylistically. Here’s the full official list:
-Audio Commentary by star Nancy Kwan with film historian Nick Redman
-A Classic Evolves: From Print to Stage to Screen – Broadway legends Rodgers & Hammerstein adopt the best-selling novel into a theatrical hit and a Hollywood classic (19:06)
-Faces of the East: Casting Flower Drum Song – Learn how the film was one of Hollywood’s first to cast Asian actors as strong Chinese characters who achieve success and happiness (9:09)
-The Songs of Flower Drum Song – From the unforgettable “I Enjoy Being A Girl” to the East-meets-West classic “Chop Suey”, experience the wonder of these dazzling musical numbers (11:00)
-An All-Access Pass to the Sets and Costumes of Flower Drum Song (5:52)
-The Legacy of Rodgers & Hammerstein (4:25)
-Theatrical Trailer (Newly Mastered in 2K)
-5.1 Surround & Lossless 2.0 Audio
-Optional English Subtitles
As a new crop of hit Broadway musicals and their inevitable film adaptations make permeate today’s zeitgeist, it’s wonderful to have something as differently vintage as Flower Drum Song to look back upon. Despite its progressive advancements back in the day, not everyone today will be entirely comfortable with this film. That understandably being the case, however, it must be said that Henry Koster’s Rodgers & Hammerstein adaptation retains much worth beating the drum over.