Oh boy, it’s hard to talk about Flower Drum Song without wincing. It’s not an outright terrible film, but it is loaded with baggage that hinders one maximum enjoyment of this entertaining but unwieldy adaptation.
Many of the problems with Flower Drum Song originate in the Rodgers and Hammerstein book/score, which is widely considered one of their weaker efforts. That’s not even taking into consideration the cavalcade of stereotypes on display, or the overstuffed nature of this adaptation that leaves all of its main players as mere sketches and supporting ideas instead of fully fleshed out characters. And we still haven’t even talked about the uneasy nature of watching Juanita Hall, a black woman, play a Chinese woman and belt out “Chop Suey,” the lowest of the film’s many low points.
At its heart, Flower Drum Song is primarily about two things: generational conflict, the Old East versus the New West, and a series of young romantics falling in and out of love with each other. There’s just too much going on in the story that it feels both burdened with too much and too little. Yet there’s still the chance to watch a group of primarily Asian actors take the lead, play scenes of romance and comedy, sing and dance.
Miyoshi Umeki gets her finest hour as a movie star in her limited filmography here. She’s reprising her Tony nominated stage role, and she’s consistently charming and endearing, deploying moments of sly humor then hitting you hard with her musical abilities. She also gets the closest thing to a full-blooded character here, yet she’s still sidelined and lost in the ever-expanding shuffle of musical numbers and characters hogging the limelight. She’s still demure and bashful at points, but she gets to engage in physical comedy (“Don’t Marry Me” with Jack Soo is a riot), sing (“A Hundred Million Miracles” is a delight under her guidance), and assert some brains and agency by finding the loophole in her arranged marriage to run off with the man she truly loves.
Supporting her are Nancy Kwan, saucy and vivacious as naughty girl Linda Low, Jack Soo, who plays Sammy Fong as if he stepped out of a Damon Runyon short story, and James Shigeta, wonderful and impossibly handsome as the leading man. Yet there’s still the strange vision of watching these characters get sidelined for moments that place the emphasis on the wrong thing. Kwan’s “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” one of the best and campiest songs in the show, understandably gets the lavish treatment, but the extended dance breakdown in “The Other Generation” just eats up time as the kids are hardly major factors in the story. Same goes for “Love, Look Away,” undoubtedly one of the best moments in the film for its beautiful dancing and production design, but it’s given to a character that has barely registered as integral to the story in any way except for this one moment.
Even worse is the icky political undercurrent that stacks the deck in favor of tradition, and forces Umeki and Kwan to square off in a variation of the virgin/whore complex. Flower Drum Song wants us to believe that the old ways are the best ways, and that includes the quiet, docile wife. It’s all wrapped in glossy colors, extensive production design, and a general sense of happy, warm fantasy. The Chinatown we spend time in here is clearly a confection with no basis in reality or resemblance to the realities of assimilation.
It was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 2008, which makes perfect sense as its more interesting as a cultural artifact than an actual film. It has something in common with 1943’s pair of all-black musicals, Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather: they’re rare glimpses to watch a majority of people of color get to play actual characters and display the full range of their talents, even if the material does crudely dip into stereotype.