Flower Drum Song (1961)

A very belated tribute to an actor I’ve actually seen only in a couple of films, but whom I like a lot: James Shigeta. The Hawaiian-born Shigeta passed away on July 28 this year, and it came to me as a shock a couple of days ago when I discovered that he was gone—and that no newspaper and none of the sites I occasionally visit—mentioned it. The news, however, made me remember the first film in which I saw James Shigeta: Flower Drum Song, one of his earliest films. Very different from his debut film (the superb The Crimson Kimono, one of my favourite noirs), but enjoyable in its own way—and an interesting commentary, both deliberate and unwitting, on immigrants in the US.

James Shigeta and Miyoshi Umeki in Flower Drum Song

Most people, when talking of Rodgers and Hammerstein, speak of films like The Sound of Music, South Pacific, Carousel, Oklahoma! and The King and I. Flower Drum Song, based on the 1957 novel by CY Lee, was their eighth collaboration – and, while it was nominated for several Oscars—rarely seems to be among the first Rodgers and Hammerstein films that come to mind. Truth to tell, I had actually never seen it till a few years back.

But, without further ado: what this film is all about.

The story begins through a series of watercolours as the credits roll: watercolours which start by depicting the busy streets of Hong Kong, and end—with the titles—at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Here, on a ship sailing into San Francisco Bay, are two stowaways all the way from Hong Kong: Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) and her father Doctor Li (Kam Tong).

Mei Li and Dr Li arrive in San Francisco
They’ve come with a scrap of paper on which is scrawled an address in Chinese. Dr Li is worried; they are, after all, illegal immigrants. They mustn’t draw attention to themselves. Mei Li is rather more practical: if she faints on the street because of hunger, they’ll draw even more attention than if they ask someone directions to that address.

Eventually, with the help of a lady who can read Chinese, and a policeman (who, when he discovers they’re from the East, asks, “Ah, from New York?”), Mei Li and Dr Li arrive at their destination: the very fashionable Celestial Gardens nightclub, the owner of which is Sammy Fong (Jack Soo).

The Lis meet Sammy Fong
From the conversation which follows, it emerges that Mei Li is here as Sammy’s picture bride. Sammy, though, doesn’t seem to have been expecting her. He (though he doesn’t say that to the girl and her father) isn’t keen on marrying Mei Li. In fact, he’s been having, for the past 5 years, an affair with the sultry Linda Lo (Nancy Kwan), the lead dancer at Celestial Gardens.

Sammy Fong with Linda
This is a sticky situation; even Sammy, American though he may be, realises that. It won’t do to outright tell Dr Li that they’ve come all this way—and illegally too—for nothing. He must save face; his own, and Dr Li’s.

Fortunately, Sammy Fong knows someone who can help: Auntie Liang (Juanita Hall, the only non-Asian to play a major role in the film). Auntie Liang is about to finish citizenship school, runs a successful food business, is very savvy, and is on the lookout for a bride for her nephew, Wang Ta (James Shigeta).

Ta is about to graduate from college and has no intention of getting married in the near future, but his father Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong) is very anxious for Ta to get a wife soon. And not one of these American girls either (which includes Chinese-American girls): they’re all, in Wang Chi-Yang’s opinion, too modern, too irreverent, too everything that isn’t right.
Sammy Fong figures Mei Li will be just right. For Wang Chi-Yang and Auntie Liang, at any rate; whether or not Ta himself will be keen on marrying her isn’t his concern.

So Mei Li’s photo is passed on to Auntie Liang, who immediately approves.

Sammy Fong passes on Mei Li's picture to Auntie Liang
Sammy and Auntie Liang accompany Dr Li and Mei Li to Wang Chi-Yang’s house. Here Wang Chi-Yang, after examining the girl’s teeth (and being informed by Dr Li that Mei Li has a tendency to plumpness—a sign Wang Chi-Yang interprets, correctly, to be a sign of fertility), is immensely pleased. Yes, this is the girl he wants for a daughter-in-law.

Wang Chi-Yang approves of Mei Li for Ta
Auntie Liang offers a word of advice: Wang Ta is a young man, and American. He will not be happy about marrying a girl just because his father’s chosen her. He would want to do it the American way, not the Chinese: he would want to fall in love with a girl and marry her.
Wang Chi-Yang (who’s so old-fashioned, he keeps all his vast wealth in a large box under his bed, wads and wads of dollars stashed away), huffs at this. But he gives in. Sort of. All right: Ta will get one week to fall in love with Mei Li.

Auntie Liang offers a suggestion
Ta, of course, has no idea of all that’s being planned for him. He is busy fixing up a date with a girl he met recently—and who should it be but Sammy Fong’s girlfriend, Linda? Linda is obviously bored with Sammy, and happily goes along on a light-hearted jaunt with Ta, telling him that she’s a student of music. And Ta, sweet and naïve that he is, believes her.

Ta goes on a date with Linda
For Linda, the date with Ta is a good way to pass the time—until she realises, from a chance remark that he makes, that his father is filthy rich. Linda immediately gets much sweeter, much more loving, and much more eager.

…so eager, in fact, that at their next date, she sweetly bulldozes Ta into letting her come for his graduation party. She tells him that her brother, who’s a sea captain, Commodore Lo, is very strict: he will not approve of her going about with Ta, and will want her to marry Ta. Ta is a little taken aback at this, but Linda is so lovely and so brilliantly persuasive, he can’t bring himself to say no.

... and another
Much to Ta’s surprise, when he gets home at night after his date with Linda, he finds a stranger at home: Mei Li. Ta, of course, hasn’t a clue that Mei Li is his bride-to-be (at least as far as his father, her father, and she are concerned). Mei Li, however, is instantly enchanted by him, and falls head over heels in love.

Ta and Mei Li meet
Only to have her heart broken on the night of the graduation party.

It’s a grand party, celebrating both Ta’s graduation from college as well as Auntie Liang’s graduation—after five years of slogging—from the citizenship school. Mei Li has been having a wonderful time (wearing a daring ‘American’ gown gifted to her by Wang Chi-Yang), when Linda arrives with her ‘brother’ (actually, a colleague from Celestial Gardens). Within minutes, she’s announced, loud and clear enough for everybody to hear, that her brother has given the go-ahead for her marriage to Ta.

Lind drops a bombshell at the party
Ta is embarrassed. His father doesn’t know what’s hit him (Linda’s exuberant hugging of her future father-in-law does nothing to endear her to him). Mei Li, with her usual grace and dignity, pleads a headache and goes away to her room. Sammy Fong, meanwhile, manages to wrangle a quiet word alone with Linda: what’s this all about? And Linda tells him she’s just trying to get some ‘social security’. Sammy is not pleased.

Sammy Fong confronts Linda
The next morning, Dr Li comes to Wang Chi-Yang to let him know that they’ll be leaving. Wang Chi-Yang, distressed, goes to talk to Mei Li to persuade her to stay—Ta, he says, doesn’t really love that other girl; he will come to love Mei Li.
Mei Li, because she’s been brought up to always venerate her elders, cannot refuse Mr Wang, and so she agrees to stay.

Mei Li agrees to stay
But will Mei Li’s one-sided romance come to anything? Wang Ta, even if he’s not really in love with Linda (and yes, even he doesn’t seem to think it true love), is certainly not in love with Mei Li. They are, after all, polar opposites. Mei Li is traditional, Chinese to her bones. Ta, though he looks Chinese, is American. If it comes to that, he shares more in common with the quiet dressmaker Helen Chao (Reiko Sato), a family friend who is also in love with Ta, but will probably never even summon up the courage to tell him.

Helen Chao, secretly in love with Ta
So who gets the man? Ambitious, brash, glamorous Linda, who’s already publicly staked a claim? Shy, quiet and oh-so-traditional Mei Li, who is favoured by our hero’s father? Or Helen (who doesn’t seem to have much of a chance)?

What I liked about this film:

The lyrics, by Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers’s music is nothing exceptional, but for me the highlight of the songs of Flower Drum Song was the lyrics. The signature song—A Hundred Million Miracles—for instance, has wonderfully poetic (and poignant) little examples of everyday things that are minor miracles: the creation of a song, the first steps of a toddler, the hatching of fledglings… another of my favourite songs from the film is Love, Look Away: a beautifully touching expression of a love that one knows can never be.

Talking of Love, Look Away: the second thing about Flower Drum Song that I really like is the choreography. The dream sequence that follows Love, Look Away is a particularly fine example of ballet (as in the dream sequence from Oklahoma!, here too the main actors are replaced for much of the sequence by professional dancers, but the overall effect—depicting Helen’s useless love for Ta, her hope that he will someday love her too, and her knowledge, deep down, that he will not—is mesmerizing).

A frame from the dream sequence following 'Love, Look Away'
Finally, the entire concept of race, cultural and generational differences, and more. Flower Drum Song, in an era when Hollywood was still very racist, is unusual (not that it manages to overcome what was perhaps an inherently racist bias, but still). One major plus point for me was that this was a film not about the white majority, but about the Chinese population in San Francisco, and it shows: barring Juanita Hall and a bit part by a white actor (who, ironically, plays a mugger), all the speaking parts are by people who’re of Asian origin. No yellowface.

And, refreshingly, even some tongue-in-cheek jabs at the racist stereotypes that prevail in society: there’s a scene where Wang Chi-Yang, distraught and shaken after being mugged, is asked by Auntie Liang what the robber looked like; he says, “Don’t ask me what he looked like! All white men look alike!” There’s also the fact that whenever Auntie Liang mentions food, it’s always something the ‘average American’ back then—and possibly even now, in some cases—would consider outlandish: snake meat, octopus, thousand-year eggs. (There’s a risk with this one, though: it just might be too subtle for some audiences to realise that fun is being poked).

The film acknowledges the various types of Chinese in America: those (like Wang Chi-Yang) who still cling doggedly to their roots and their traditions; those (like Helen Chao, or even Ta) who, while more inclined to American-ness because of their growing up in America, still do have vestiges of their Chinese-ness; and people like Wang Ta’s younger brother, who is out-and-out American. These differences—subtle and not, wide gap or bridge—are touched on throughout the film, but not in any great depth.

Ta and Mei Li, opposite but not quite
Finally: my main reason for wanting to rewatch the film. James Shigeta, with not much to do here except look handsome. But how well he manages that, too.

James Shigeta as Wang Ta in Flower Drum Song
What I didn’t like:

Something that is a grouse of mine with most Hollywood musicals: not much in the way of storyline, not too well-scripted, and just too much faffing through songs. In Flower Drum Song, the basic story is sweet and predictable, but there are plot elements (Linda and Sammy’s relationship and the path it takes, or Helen Chao, or even Mei Li’s relationship with Ta) which take unexpected—and unexplained—turns.

Slight spoiler ahead:

And there is—though not as absolutely in your face as a lot of Hindi films have made it over the years—the idea that the ‘good’ (read traditional, treating elders’ word as gospel truth, etc) girl wins in the end. Not completely, because it’s not as if the bad girl loses outright, and also because the good girl does show some initiative and spine… but still. It is there. And it does get my goat.

Spoiler ends.

RIP, Mr Shigeta.

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18 thoughts on “Flower Drum Song (1961)

  1. Do you know I made three (three!) visits to your blog today to find out whether you had posted something new? *pout over* Lovely review as usual, Madhu, and yet another film that I haven’t watched. Oh, WDIGTT?

    and possibly even now, in some cases—would consider outlandish: snake meat, octopus, thousand-year eggs. (There’s a risk with this one, though: it just might be too subtle for some audiences to realise that fun is being poked).

    I’d like to think that Hollywood was slyly poking fun at their own stereotyping of other races; I suspect, though, that this really was their idea of what the Chinese eat, and that it was specifically used to underline their ‘otherness’.

    • “Do you know I made three (three!) visits to your blog today

      Oh, Anu – that is sweet of you! Thank you. :-) And I’m glad you enjoyed the review. Do try and watch Flower Drum Song – if for nothing else than the fact that it’s an unusual film for its lack of white people! (By the way, have you seen The Crimson Kimono?)

      Yes, I too hoped fun was being poked at Hollywood’s own stereotyping of other races and the food they eat, but I too had a suspicion it wasn’t poking fun at stereotypes.

      • I must confess I haven’t watched The Crimson Kimono either. Will put both films on my to-watch list, and keep fingers crossed that Netflix will have it.

        By the way, I both approve and disapprove of the change in your background. I approve because it is very minimalistic, giving the impression of being written on sand (though I know it’s meant to be cardboard or something), with the letters being ‘dusted off’.

        And well, not ‘disapprove’ exactly, but I am a bit sad that your header is now generic, instead of the lovely one you had before. I mean, the focus of your blog is still on films, no? :(

        • I think it’s weathered sandstone, Anu. ;-) It’s not as if the blog’s focus has shifted, really – films, after all, are what I’m most enthusiastic about. But maintaining two separate blogs – one for cinema, the other for my other writing – was getting a bit cumbersome, and anyway, combining the two seemed like a good way of bringing people who know my other writing to my cinema writing, and vice-versa.

          I hope you especially get to watch The Crimson Kimono: very good indeed.

  2. Madhu,
    I am coming here after Anu’s wonderful review of Rachida set in the backdrop of Algerian Civil War. While that film is stark, yours seems to be endearing. But isn’t good girl winning precisely the reason why it must be so likeable? Was any other ending feasible?

    This is the second wonderful review I am reading in a day. You are not only Masala-sisters, but good-cinema-sisters and good-writing-sisters.

    AK

    • “You are not only Masala-sisters, but good-cinema-sisters and good-writing-sisters.

      AK, you are too kind! You have made my day – to be put in the same category as somebody who writes as well as Anu does! That is wonderful. Thank you so much. :-)

      I haven’t read Anu’s review yet – just the first paragraph – because I was really busy yesterday. But that first paragraph did give me an inkling of a film that would be pretty stark. In comparison to that, (and, actually, like most musicals) Flower Drum Song is all light and fluff – a far cry, I believe, from the novel it was adapted from. Now I’m keen on reading that, to see how different it is from the film.

      But yes, it is a fairly enjoyable film, and it doesn’t tax your emotions. :-)

  3. I was obsessed with Hollywood musicals as a kid, so I made myself watch pretty much anything that aired on the classics channel. My memory of this one was that I always was so disappointed in it compared to other R & H musicals (tho it was a musical and so I dutifully watched it whenever it was airing), and found it really slow moving. In more recent years, getting more into Asian cinema of all kinds, it’s been growing in my mind that I should revisit this, but I hadn’t even got around to looking up screencaps to see what it was ACTUALLY like. [It’s probably been 17-18 years, so I barely remember any of the specifics.]

    Long story short, I AM convinced, and amused. This is exactly the sort of thing I would like now, but I can see how some of the humor and the social commentary would completely slip past a child. Thanks for your review, it was quite amusing in itself :)

    • Compared to South Pacific, I think Flower Drum Song is better, but I agree with you about it coming off a poor second compared to most of R&H’s other films. And, what a coincidence, Miranda – I also revisited this mainly because I’ve been watching a lot of Asian (particularly Korean) cinema over the past few months. Loads of films. Flower Drum Song, actually, is very different in look and feel and essence, because – except for Mei Li, her father, and Wang Chi-Yang, everybody else is basically American to some extent, even if they look Asian.

      Thank you for the appreciation. :-)

  4. I am travelling, I just found a little time, so I thought I will check my mail, I saw your blog update, I clicked on the link with the intention of skimming through your post and commenting later, but I had to read it. I had no idea about this actor. It was quite interesting, despite the negatives you have mentioned. Thanks to you I learn a lot about different kind of films.

    • Shilpi, thank you! I’m feeling very smug about being able to stop you in your tracks. :-D

      James Shigeta doesn’t have very much to do – as I mentioned – in this film except look good. But I thought he was wonderful in The Crimson Kimono, and there’s another film – called Bridge to the Sun, I think – which is highly praised, though I’ve not seen it: it’s based on a real life story about an American woman who married a Japanese diplomat before WWII, and how the war tore their lives apart.

      Incidentally, even though Shigeta was of Japanese origin, he didn’t learn the language (since he was born and brought up in the US) until he went to Japan and lived there for some years. He became a huge success in Japan and came to be known as the ‘Frank Sinatra’ of Japanese cinema.

  5. A Hollywood version of Teen Deviyaan? Need I even ask if Ta finally ends up marrying Mei Li? Helen Chao looks far more interesting. And how do they resolve the illegal immigration issue?

    Something that is a grouse of mine with most Hollywood musicals: not much in the way of storyline, not too well-scripted, and just too much faffing through songs.” I tend to avoid Hollywood musicals for much the same reasons. Plus, the songs in most musicals (Sound of Music is an exception) never work for me – they’re too much like sing-song dialogues than songs in the best of Bollywood tradition.* ducking to avoid the brickbats *

    • ” I tend to avoid Hollywood musicals for much the same reasons. Plus, the songs in most musicals (Sound of Music is an exception) never work for me

      The Sound of Music – and Fiddler on the Roof – are exceptions for me. Plus, Bells are Ringing, which I simply adore, even though it isn’t perfect either. I guess in that case, Judy Holliday was a big factor in my love for the movie (and Dean Martin didn’t hurt either). Plus, one of the most adorable endings. :-) But, on the whole, I really don’t think Hollywood knew how to do musicals. Not when you compare them to Hindi cinema, when done well. Actually, if I come to think of it, Hindi cinema in the 50s and 60s invariably managed to deliver on the songs, even if they couldn’t always do great stories.

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