Friday, September 1, 2006

Flower Drum Song


Directed by Henry Koster
Written by Joseph Fields (screenplay), C.Y. Yee (novel), Joseph Fields & Oscar Hammerstein II (stage play)
Starring  Nancy Kwan,  James Shigeta, Jack Soo,  Juanita Hall and Miyoshi Umeki
IMDB Entry

I'm a big fan of musicals -- both movies and on stage, and Rogers and Hammerstein are among the most successful composer/lyricist pairs in history.  I find they run hot and cold.  The King and I is a truly great musical.  Oklahoma! is close -- it's everything everyone says about it when it comes to influence, but is marred by ultimately disturbing main characters, who gratuitously mistreat Judd Fry.  South Pacific is good overall (though the movie is not as good as the stage show). 

On the other hand, I find Carousel incredibly overrated.  A weak score (except for the Carousel Waltz), dim and cloying characters that are treated with contempt by the script, and ultimately, it specifically equate spousal abuse with love.  Such things were looked down upon even when the play came out, and I can't figure why it's so highly regarded.

Then there's Flower Drum Song. Part of the reason it's less known is the subject matter:  the life of Chinese Americans.  Though Hammerstein was a devoted foe of prejudice, the attitude toward the people is a bit dated.  This is not an unusual issue:  some people who were quite advanced for their time in racial matters suddenly get charged with being racist simply because the tolerance they were trying to advocate has become the norm, and begin to look backward.  Will Eisner's The Spirit also is charged with this, even though Eisner was dead set against racisim.

In the movie, there is some stereotyping, but it is respectful of the people involved, and the characters  aren't ridiculed for their attitudes, even when they are meant to be humorous.

Miyoshi UmekiBut what really makes it work is the performance of Miyoshi Umeki.  I remember when she appeared on television in The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and the critics spoke of her so fondly.  When I saw the film, I could see why. Yes, she's Japanese, not Chinese, but that's not really important.  She is just plain charming, a delight in every scene she's in.  No wonder people wanted to see more of her.

The plot is typical romantic fluff, with the culture of Chinese-Americans adding to the mix.  Nancy Kwan was one of the most successful Chinese-American actresses of her time, and Jack Soo is fine as the man pledged to marry Umeki, but more interested in Kwan.  The songs are generally good, with "I Enjoy Being a Girl," (sung unironically by Kwan), "Chop Suey," "A Hundred Million Miracles," "Grant Avenue," and "The Other Generation" standing out.

A film that full of charm and music:  what more can you ask from a musical?

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