Flower Drum Song (1961): Rodgers and Hammerstein Oscar Nominated Musical, Starring Nancy Kwan

The only Rodgers and Hammerstein works to be produced by Universal, Flower Drum Song was also one of their few musicals to be a commercial disappointment.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

Made on a budget of $4 million, the musical barely recouped its expense–the largely dismissive reviews certainly didn’t help at the box-office.

Flower Drum Song
Flower Drum Song (1962 poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

The film deals with culture clash between old-world Chinese and younger assimilated Chinese-Americans.

Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) and her grandfather (Kam Tong) arrive in San Francisco, and the former is about to wed (in an arranged marriage) nightclub owner Sammy Fong (Jack Soo).

However, Sammy is in love with cabaret entertainer Linda Low (Nancy Kwan), even if the latter is more interested in Wang Ta (James Shigeta), the son of a wealthy merchant (Benson Fong).

The songs include “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” “A Hundred Million Miracles,” “The Other Generation,” “Love Look Away,” “I Am Going to Like It Here,” “Don’t Marry Me,” “You Are Beautiful,” “Grant Avenue” and “Chop Suey.”

Of all the tunes, one enjoyed longer life, “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” which in the movie is sung by Kwan (dubbed by Caucasian singer B. J. Baker), standing in front of three mirrors and watching herself changing various costumes.  This song was later recorded by Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Pat Suzuki, and Phranc, and was also used in other movies.

“Flower Drum Song” is handsomely mounted, but it’s not on the same level as “The King and I,” not to mention “The Sound of Music.”

Much of the charm and grace and of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s stage production were missing from the film, which was helmed by a director–Hnry Koster–who lacked affinity with the genre.  The movie also lacked subtlety, instead overemphasizing opulence and glamor, and spelling out its messages.

Asian-Americans of later generations have found the film offensive due to the prevalence of common stereotypes, and the miscasting Japanese American actors Shigeta and Umeki in Chinese-American roles.

That said, put in perspective, Flower Drum Song was the first major Hollywood movie to have a majority Asian cast in an Asian-American story.  Unfortunately, it would that status for more than two decades–until The Joy Luck Club, in 1993.

Oscar Nominations: 5

Cinematography (color): Russell Metty

Scoring of Musical: Alfred Newman and Ken Darby

Art Direction-Set Decoration (color): Alexander Golitzen and Joseph Wright; Howard Bristol

Costume design (color): Irene Sharaff

Sound: Fred Hynes, Waldon O. Watson

Oscar Awards:  None

Oscar Context

The musical movie “West Side Story” is one of the few winners in the Academy’s history to receive awards in all (ten) but one of its nominations, writing.  Scribe Ernest Lehman lost to Abby Mann, who wrote the script for Stanley Kramer’s courtroom drama, “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

A double honoree, Irene Sharaff was also nominated for (and won) the costumes of “West Side Story.”

In 1961, the four other Best Picture nominees were the old-fashioned melodrama “Fanny”; the WWII adventure “The Guns of Navarone”; the poignant feature “The Hustler” starring Paul Newman at his best; and the courtroom drama “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which was the most nominated film of the year.  In the Academy’s annals, “West Side Story” ranks alongside “Ben‑Hur,” “Titantic,” and “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” as one of the most Oscar‑honored film.

 

Credits

Universal-International (Ross Hunter)

Directed byHenry Koster

Produced by Ross Hunter

Screenplay by Joseph Fields, based on “Flower Drum Song” by Oscar Hammerstein II

Music by Richard Rodgers

Cinematography: Russell Metty

Edited by Milton Carruth

Distributed by Universal Pictures

Release date: November 9, 1961

Running time: 132 minutes