Flower Drum Song (1961)
1961’s Flower Drum Song is a lively and exuberant musical from Rodgers and Hammerstein II. The film was based on the Broadway musical play of the same name, which came out in 1958 with music written by Richard Rodgers and lyrics written by Oscar Hammerstein II. Both the film and the stage play were based on the 1957 novel of the same name by author C.Y. Lee. The film was unusual at the time in being one of the first films ever to feature an almost entirely Asian American cast, with the only Caucasian part in the play being that of a mugger.
Directed by Henry Koster, who also directed The Bishop’s Wife and Harvey, Flower Drum Song is a lively musical comedy. This film is one of the lightest films featuring Rodgers and Hammerstein II and may well be one of their only musical comedies, with other films having a more serious tone. Joseph Fields wrote the screenplay for the film and also authored the book of the play, making the transition from stage to screen significantly less tumultuous than normal.
Flower Drum Song begins with a young woman named Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) arriving in America illegally (luckily Fred Thompson was nowhere to be found) with her father Dr. Li (Kam Tong). She is supposed to be entering into an arranged marriage in San Francisco’s Chinatown, so she shows up at the nightclub of Sammy Fong (Jack Soo), the intended husband. Fong is already involved with his leading showgirl, Linda Low (Nancy Kwan), so Fong does his best to deter Mei Li from marrying him. Instead, he sends Mei Li and Dr. Li to the home of Master Wang (Benson Fong) as a possible wife for Wang’s son, Wang Ta (James Shigeta). New and old cultures clash as the situation unfolds, with various other characters moving in and out of the picture. The songs are bold, funny, and touching and the performances are all grand.
The songs went through a lot of shifting between the stage version and the screen version, as did the emphasis on various characters. In the film, the character of Sammy Fong has a much larger role, whereas in the stage version, the character of Wang Ta was the major one. In the play, the character of Wang Ta had two songs to perform, whereas in the film the character only had one.
The film shifts a song sung by Wang Ta to the latter part of the film, whereas in the play, the song was sung at the beginning. The context of the song, which is “You Are Beautiful,” also changes. In the play, the song was sung to Wang Ta’s aunt, whereas in the movie it was utilized as a love song between Wang Ta and Mei Li.
The songs truly are great. “One Hundred Million Miracles” is great as performed by Miyoshi Umeki and cast members, serving as her theme song somewhat. “Fan Tan Fannie” is a bold vision that is expressive of the character of Linda Low, with the voice dubbed by B.J. Baker instead of Nancy Kwan. All of Kwan’s songs, incidentally, were sung by Baker, who was a studio backup singer working with the likes of Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke.
Possibly the most famous song is “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” which has been used several times since, including the Sarah Jessica Parker GAP commercials (ugh) and other ads. “Chop Suey” is another great one, as is the hilarious “Don’t Marry Me” as sung by Jack Soo and Baker. Each song has a heart-warming and humorous quality, which adds to the overall radiance and spacious tone of the musical.
Flower Drum Song has a lot to like. Despite not being the most well-known of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, I think it’s one of the best. Its feel overall is soothingly winning, as we examine the culture clashes between old and young, tradition and Americanized, and other aspects of immigration. The illegal immigration debate, which so frequently steams up the airways with its nonsensical black-and-white logic, is somewhat present here as the main characters quite obviously know that they’re illegal and quite obviously don’t care. The idea, instead, is of chasing a dream and finding One Hundred Million Miracles.
With strong, fun performances and cheerful songs, Flower Drum Song is the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical you need to see but probably haven’t seen. The dialogue is amusing and fresh and the characters are charming, making it easy to root for the overall happiness of those in the film. Flower Drum Song never slows down, never suffers from lack of pacing, and keeps things clicking along right up until the beautiful closing moments. Its comedy, its charm, and its self-awareness make it a very strong musical.