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Flower Drum Song (1961) is the only screen version of a Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II Broadway musical to be filmed by Universal Studios, and the one that many consider to have the most imaginative choreography (by Hermes Pan). The film is a splendid showcase for Nancy Kwan, a spectacularly beautiful Eurasian who was trained in classical ballet and had earlier enjoyed screen success in The World of Suzie Wong (1960). Flower Drum Song producer Ross Hunter said of his star, "Nancy Kwan is gorgeous. I'm sold on the glamour approach. After all, if you really want the girl next door, all you have to do is go over and ring the bell."
Flower Drum Song, set in San Francisco's Chinatown, takes a comic look at the clash between tradition-bound Chinese and their emancipated Chinese-American counterparts. Kwan, in the role originated on Broadway by Pat Suzuki, is Linda Low, a thoroughly Americanized showgirl who is the sultry star attraction at a nightclub run by Sammy Fong (Jack Soo). Sammy has signed a marriage contract with Mei Li (Myoshi Umeki, an Oscar winner for Sayonara, 1957), a mail-order bride from Hong Kong. But, since he and Linda are romantically involved, Sammy tries to arrange for Mei Li to marry college student Wang Ta (James Shigeta). Also participating in the romantic roundelay is Linda's seamstress (Reiko Sato), who is secretly in love with Ta.
It's all worked out with the aid of the typically jaunty Rodgers & Hammerstein songs, including "Love, Look Away," "Don't Marry Me," "A Hundred Million Miracles," "I Am Going to Like It Here," "Grant Avenue," "Chop Suey," and the best-remembered number, "I Enjoy Being a Girl," as performed by Kwan in front of a three-way mirror.
Joseph Fields, in adapting the musical's book that he co-wrote with Hammerstein, "opened up" the action so that the film could include location shooting in Chinatown. Fields' efforts won him a nomination from the Writers Guild of America for the year's best-written screen musical. Flower Drum Song also won five Oscar nominations, for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color Cinematography, Costume Design, Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Sound.
Myoshi Umeki repeats her role from the Broadway version, as do Juanita Hall as Madame Liang and Patrick Adiarte as Wang San. On Broadway, Jack Soo played the M.C. of the nightclub where Linda performs; in the film he graduates to being the club's owner (a role played onstage by the distinctly non-Chinese Larry Blyden). A revival of Flower Drum Song, with a new book by socially conscious playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), opened on Broadway this past fall at the Virginia Theatre with Lea Salonga in the role of Linda.
Producers: Ross Hunter, Joseph Fields (Associate)
Director: Henry Koster
Screenplay: Joseph Fields, from novel by C.Y. Lee
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Joseph C. Wright
Original Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Editing: Milton Carruth
Costume Design: Irene Sharaff
Principal Cast: Nancy Kwan (Linda Low), James Shigeta (Wang Ta), Miyoshi Umeki (Mei Li), Benson Fong (Wang), Jack Soo (Sammy Fong), Juanita Hall (Madame "Auntie" Liang), Reiko Sato (Helen Chao), Patrick Adiarte (Wang San), Kam Tong (Doctor Li).
C-132m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe