Growing up in the 50s and 60s I got to see all the Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musicals, so when they started appearing on DVD, and later Blu-ray, I collected them all.
All except one, that is.
In part that’s because a few years ago when I re-viewed the 1962 remake of “State Fair”, which I had enjoyed very much as a teenager, I could barely stand to watch the whole thing, it was so filled with cringe-worthy moments, and since “Flower Drum Song” was produced around the same time, I feared it too might suffer from the same problems.
More importantly, over the years “Flower Drum Song” has developed a reputation for being condescending towards its Asian American characters.
But a few nights ago while listening to the Original Cast recording of the show, I was reminded of what a wonderful score lay at its heart, so I decided to order the DVD.
How bad could it be?
I quite enjoyed it.
Oh, I could criticize this or that aspect. Yes, some of the musical numbers are over-produced, particularly towards the end, and yes, this is not a great movie by any means, but it is a lot of fun.
Basically, it’s a musical comedy set in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown about the clash between Chinese and American cultures and the older and younger generations. Is it condescending to its characters? Keeping in mind that it is a product of the late 50s, early 60s, and judging it side by side with other works of its time, I do not find it so, although perhaps I’m not the best person to judge, but I can see how a few lines of dialogue here and there might be considered problematic. In any case, I’m certainly not going to argue with anyone about it.
Anyway, here are a few random comments.
It was standard practice to expand the orchestra for musicals, so it’s no surprise that Robert Russell Bennett’s inspired orchestrations for the Broadway show were scrapped in favor of Hollywood Neutral; the new orchestrations aren’t bad, they may even be good once I get used to them, but they don’t have the “elegant simplicity” of Bennett’s originals (as one of my Facebook friends described them).
Oscar Hammerstein having died, Joseph Fields received sole screenplay credit, and he rearranged the plot (for example, the key scene in Sammy Fong’s Celestial Bar occurs much nearer to the end of the film rather than the end of the first Act) and reordered and repurposed many of the songs. Some scenes, such as Mei Li and her father’s arrival in this country, which could not very well be done on a stage, are shown, part of the “opening up” of the script.
“The Other Generation”, which in the play is motivated by Wang Chi-yang’s horrified discovery that his son is planning to marry a nightclub stripper, is moved to a much earlier place in the story, well before he makes that discovery, so all the lyrics referring to that discovery are jettisoned, leaving him with but a single chorus to sing before the other generation takes over and sings their version of the song in its entirety.
It is perhaps no surprise that in the song “Don’t Marry Me”, the following lines, which had served as the climax, were excised, Ali Khan having died in a car crash the previous year:
Similarly “You Are Beautiful” is moved to a much later scene so that Wang Ta can sing it directly to Mei Li.
The only song missing from the movie is “Like a God”, but there is a snippet of its lyric in a poetry reading.
What kind of makeup did they put on Juanita Hall? That can’t be her natural skin color. [Update: On second viewing I think it may have been the lighting as it only seemed odd in some of the scenes. Or maybe it was my TV.]
I recall that when I saw the movie as a 12-year-old that I was a bit impatient with the character of Helen Chao, but I now find her to be very sympathetic and I rather wish she had been developed a little bit more. Then again my impatience with her then might have been due to the ballet which probably worked better on the stage than it does in the film.
Regardless of what one thinks of its treatment of the Asian American characters, I think its attitudes towards its female characters are far worse (sample lyric: “The girl who serves you all your food is another tasty dish”; Linda Low makes clear that her only purpose in life is to find a man, any man, to marry). But then again, the show was written in 1958, so it is just a reflection of its times.
I can’t leave without mentioning that one of the key plot points is that two of the main characters have entered this country illegally, in fact, that turns out to be the basis for the resolution of the plot.
One last thought. The play and the film were based upon the book “The Flower Drum Song” by Chinese American author C. Y. Lee. Apparently he was quite pleased with what the old white men did with his novel, and he still defends it to this day. Yes, he’s still alive and will turn 100 in December, and his book is still available on Amazon. I just might have to read it one of these days.
Update: one more thought. The thing that seemed most dated, of course, was the slang employed by the younger son. I suspect some of that seemed dated by the time the movie was released!
Update the second: if you download the sample Kindle file of “The Flower Drum Song” novel, both C. Y. Lee's Author's Note and David Henry Hwang's Introduction provide some interesting details about the creation of the novel and the play/movie, as well as the Asian American community's reaction to it.
Update the third: I’ll try to summarize David Henry Hwang’s main points and hope I don’t distort them too much. He grew up in the 1960s hating the depiction of Asian characters on TV with one exception, that being the movie “Flower Drum Song” which he saw on late night TV. But in the 70s Asian Americans on college campuses began to organize for more authentic portrayals (remember that until 1965 immigration of Asians was suppressed because of quotas), and “Flower Drum Song” was considered “inauthentic” merely because it was written by Caucasians.
Even the original novel by C. Y. Lee was regarded as suspect because it had been a best seller; if the masses liked it, how artistic could it be? So Lee’s works were rejected from the growing canon of “authentic” Asian American works. Even though Hwang and many of his fellow students actually liked “Flower Drum Song”, it served as something to rally against. He recognizes now that their arguments were unsophisticated, and he’s helping to restore the works of C. Y. Lee into the canon of Asian American works.
So it boils down to he doesn’t really have a problem with the original “Flower Drum Song” musical, it was just a casualty of the movement in the 70s to let more Asian American voices be heard.