Henry Koster’s Flower Drum Song (1961) is perhaps the least known of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stage to film adaptations. Based on the serious novel by C.Y. Lee, the story’s social premise appealed to Broadway producer Joseph Fields who convinced R&H to have a look at the property. Reportedly, Lee sold the story to Fields for $3000 and a percentage of the gross – a very savvy move when the Broadway show went on to become a stunning success.
Given that four other R&H Broadway smashes had already made it to the big screen, it was inevitable that Hollywood would eventually acquire the rights. Billed as ‘the most romantic musical’, and well received at the time of its release, today the film is a rather stoic and often overly sentimental comedy of errors that makes more stereotype than sushi of its Asian American actors.
The film stars Miyoshi Umeki as Mei Li, a Chinese refugee smuggled to San Francisco with her father (Kam Tong) aboard a freighter. Once docked in the harbor, Mei performs ‘flower drum songs’ in the street while seeking out her 'picture husband', Sammy Fong (Jack Soo). Fong is the proprietor of a ritzy nightclub; the Celestial Gardens in old Chinatown. Currently, his headline act is the sultry dancer, Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) who has been engaged to Fong for the last five years but is increasing growing impatient with the stalemate in their affair.
To ease the tension and make Sammy jealous, Linda takes up with Wang Ta (James Shigeta); the eldest son of a local merchant, Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong) who clings to the ‘old ways’ and will not see his first born marry into crass commercialism. Meanwhile, Sammy has a plan of his own. To thwart his own marriage to Mei Li, Sammy delivers her to Wang’s home as a suitable prospect for Ta. The third wheel in Ta’s romantic life is Helen Chao (Reiko Sato), a dress maker who seems the most ideally suited to his manner and temperament.
The irony of the story is that after establishing Helen’s character as the perfect match for Ta’s affections, the plot jettisons her in favor of concocting an awkward set of events that lead Ta into Mei Li’s arms. In C.Y. Lee’s novel, Helen commits suicide after learning that Ta will marry Mei – a gruesome finale averted in both the stage and screen versions by simply excising Helen from the story all together.
The score, as with most R&H offerings, is first rate including the now classic ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl’, the haunting ‘A Hundred Million Miracles’ and the gregarious ‘Chop Suey.’ Producer Ross Hunter delivers a fairly inviting bauble immeasurably fleshed out by Irene Sharaff’s stunning costumes, Howard Bristol’s magnificent set design and Russell Metty’s evocative cinematography that captures all the gaudy glitz and tea light warmth of old Chinatown. If there is any fault in the piece, it belongs to Koster’s rather pedestrian direction that creates a rather stagy proscenium during several of the dance sequences – leaving too much space between the audience and the actors to either create or maintain overall intimacy that, on the whole, seems lacking.
Universal Home Video’s DVD transfer is, on the whole, an adequate presentation – though not without its flaws. Colors are generally bold, vibrant and nicely balanced. Archival establishing shots on location in San Francisco exhibit more film grain than one might expect, as do the matte process shots employed for a bit of film trickery during the number ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl.’
There’s also a considerable amount of image flicker during this song. For the rest, flesh tones appear much too orange. Contrast levels have been nicely rendered. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites however are almost always slightly blue or yellow. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital with an uncharacteristic spread across all channels.
Universal Home Video has really gone to town on this catalogue title, producing a litany of informative extras worthy of the source material. There are 5 featurettes covering virtually any and all aspects of the production with interviews from surviving cast and crew and an audio commentary by Nancy Kwan and film historian Nick Redman that is quite interesting. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)