Monday, June 1, 2020

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song

Miyoshi Umeki as Mei Li.
My elementary school chorus teacher introduced me to the Broadway musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. To be specific, she favored the catchy songs from The Sound of Music and The King and I. Hence, I always experience some built-in nostalgia whenever I watch those movie adaptations. Yet, despite that background, I never sought out the 1961 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song--and it seemed to purposefully elude me. That changed, though, when I recently discovered it on Amazon Prime.

Nancy Kwan as singer Linda Low.
Set in San Francisco, it opens with the arrival of stowaways Dr. Li and his granddaughter Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki). The latter has journeyed to America to fulfill a marriage contract with Sammy Fong, a nightclub owner she has never met. Sammy has no interest in getting hitched, having been romantically involved with singer Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) for five years. He hatches a scheme to introduce Mei Li to Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong), who wants his Chinese-American son Ta (James Shigeta) to marry a woman with Old World values. This leads to a series of misunderstandings and deceptions before true love wins out.

Benson Fong's as Ta's father.
Flower Drum Song holds the distinction of being the first Hollywood production with an all-Asian cast. That may explain in large part why it was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant and added to the National Film Registry in 2008. Its critics counter that it promotes cultural stereotypes and casts non-Chinese actors in Chinese roles (e.g., U.S.-born James Shigeta was of Japanese ancestry). One can't argue with the latter complaint, but the "stereotypes" in Flower Drum Song are merely stock movie characters. Who hasn't seen a movie with a feisty father figure who wants to impose his values on his children?

The screenplay has a lot of fun with portraying the differences between American and Chinese culture...and everything in-between. While the elders hold on to their old-fashioned values, the kids embrace everything snazzy and new. And in the middle, there's Ta's aunt, who has merged both worlds and become an American citizen after studying for five years. This central theme is captured playfully in the lyrics to the song "Chop Suey":

Living here is very much like chop suey 
Hula hoops and nuclear war 
Doctor Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor 
Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee, and Dewey 
Chop suey!

Flower Drum Song features a pleasant selection of songs, although the only bona fide hit was the playful "I Enjoy Being a Girl" (lip-synced by Nancy Kwan in a clever number in which she performs with three mirror reflections of herself). Miyoshi Umeki sings the sweet opening song "A Hundred Million Miracles" and duets with Jack Soo on the clever "Don't Marry Me." Of course, there are some forgettable songs as well, including the melodic but empty "Love, Look Away."
Nancy Kwan times three!
Filmed entirely on studio sets, Flower Drum Song bursts with bright colors and the cast provides plenty of high energy. Nancy Kwan may not sing her songs (her vocals are dubbed by B.J. Baker), but she dances up a storm. And while the cast was ignored by the Academy Awards, the film earned Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Score, and Best Sound.

Flower Drum Song may not rank with the best Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals, but even their second-best is better than most. I was happily surprised and recommend checking it out if you haven't done already.

Here's one of the musical numbers, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:


  1. Referring to an earlier Nancy Kwan movie,one critic called this "The World of Woozy Song".

  2. Not having seen this in years but recalling it fondly, I made my daughter take a break from working at home to spend a "Sunday" watching Flower Drum Song. From the charming paintings in the opening credits to the expected wrap-up, a good time was had by all.

    It was a chance for theatre buff mom to share information on the play, directed by Gene Kelly, etc., and dive into the fun, dancing, and the Technicolor.

    PS: "Being a Girl", she was already a James Shigeta fan. That's how we roll in this shire.

  3. Flower Drum Song, the Movie, is most fun to watch with someone who only knows Jack Soo from Barney Miller.
    First off, they can't place Soo as the handsome (if comic) leading man he plays here.
    Ultimately, they spot him by his speaking voice - but the real test comes when he starts to sing.
    Jack Soo has two big songs here: "Sunday, Sweet Sunday" with Nancy Kwan, and "Don't Marry Me", with Miyoshi Umeki.
    Jack hits them both out of the park.
    Of course, maybe somebody in the room will recall the "hash brownies" episode from Barney Miller, wherein Yemana took the audience by surprise with "Almost Like Being In Love" …

    These are the moments to remember …

  4. Enjoyed reading this -- I haven't seen it since I was a child and just ordered the DVD!

    Best wishes,

  5. The mirror scene is fa-bulous! Where has this film been all my life?

  6. Many thanks for your sagacious insights about this underrated R & H gem wirh its echoes of how 'Guys and Dolls' was coverted for cinema. All the same, I'm fond of the mournful "Love Look Away" and ballet sequence. ��