Grade:  B-
Musical
Not rated (would be PG)

I am not Asian or Asian American, so I’m not in a position to comment on what has lately been called “outdated cultural stereotypes” or “depictions.” But I can spot a song in this overlooked Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that feels more like it came out of South Pacific than San Francisco’s Chinatown, where this film version of the Broadway play is set. And I can look up who’s singing and see that, surprise, it’s the same woman who played Pacific Islander Bloody Mary in that earlier R&H musical. And that actress was of African and Irish American descent—not Asian American. 

Hollywood has a history of casting white. Marlon Brando as Japanese? That’s what audiences were supposed to believe when he played one of the leads in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). From 1957-58, TV’s The New Adventures of Charlie Chan featured Irish American actor J. Carrol Naish as the Chinese American detective. Of the 12 billed actors in The World of Suzy Wong (1960), only five in that “world” were Asian. In 1965, a remake of Genghis Khan replaced the laughably cast John Wayne from an earlier film with Omar Sharif in the title role—but Sharif was Egyptian. Even as late as 1980, British actor Peter Sellers starred as Fu Manchu in The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980). All of which is to say, Hollywood may have experienced a come-to-Jesus revelation when it came to casting whites as Native or African Americans, but they have been much slower to do so with Asian roles.

So it must have come as a pleasant shock to audiences that Flower Drum Song (1961), apart from Juanita “Bloody Mary” Hall, featured all Asian actors in the main roles—especially since that same year Breakfast at Tiffany’s presented Mickey Rooney as a buck-toothed nearsighted Asian caricature worthy of a WWII propaganda film. Also to its credit, Flower Drum Song was based on a novel by Chinese American C.Y. Lee. But while the film gets one thing right—telling an Asian American story from an Asian American perspective and using mostly Asian American actors—it lapses into the kind of flat characterizations that tend to accompany any attempt at humor. Often, unfortunately, that translates into outdated cultural stereotypes. Veteran character actor Benson Fong, who was forced into that straitjacket when he played Charlie Chan’s “Number 1 son,” is called upon for such service. And an outdated and corny routine featuring the children ends up in a See, hear, speak no evil pose.

It would be tempting to say that such things account for why this R&H musical has been less popular and has had fewer productions mounted than any of the talented team’s other musicals. But frankly, aside from “I Enjoy Being a Girl”—an Ann-Margret-style number sung by Nancy Kwan—the songs themselves are forgettable and seem less integral, though the music earned one of the film’s five Academy Award nominations. Two long dream sequence numbers also seem to detract rather than add to any building momentum.

The plot of Flower Drum Song is a tamer variation of the bedroom farce. This was the Hugh Hefner era, and playboy nightclub owner Sammy Fong (Jack Soo) has a thing for women in general and his spotlight attraction, Linda Low (Kwan), in particular—though Helen (Reiko Sato) has a thing for him. Complicating matters, Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) and her father (Ching Wah Lee) have stowed away aboard a ship from Hong Kong and arrive in San Francisco to announce that they are there to honor a marriage contract with Sammy that his mother had arranged. In Guys and Dolls parallel fashion, there’s also nice-guy Wang Ta (James Shigeta), who enters the picture when Sammy tries to get the marriage contract shifted to him by having someone approach his parents. Through a series of misunderstandings, Wang Ta finds himself needing to choose between the same two women as Sammy.

Flower Drum Song subtly tackles issues of immigration and assimilation, with one song, “Chop Suey,” devoted to America-as-cliché malapropisms as seen through the eyes of immigrants studying to become U.S. citizens. It’s a fun song, but who can remember the lyrics or the tune to be able to sing it later in the shower or while stuck in rush-hour traffic?

Ultimately, Flower Drum Song feels brave in what it attempts, and this film version is entertaining enough . . . as long as you don’t think about other R&H musicals like The Sound of Music, The King and I, Oklahoma!, or even South Pacific. Fans at Ranker.com placed this one ahead of State Fair, andI’d have to agree. If you consider the overall production, then Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head and Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage seem like the qualitative equivalents to Flower Drum Song.

Entire family:  Yes (but younger children will be bored)
Run time:  133 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  2.35:1
Featured audio:  DTS 2.0
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features:  B
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some drinking and smoking)

Language:  2/10—I frankly didn’t catch anything, so the 2 is in case things slipped past me

Sex: 1/10—The trailer promises “tempestuous” lovemaking, but there’s really just an innocent kiss and embrace or two, and one character sleeps over after drinking too much to set up a misunderstanding (but nothing happens and nothing is shown)

Violence: 0/10—Nothing at all, unless you consider getting doused with ice violent

Adult situations: 2/10—a variation of the bedroom farce, but all very G-rated apart from some drinking and smoking

Takeaway:  Flower Drum Song may not be as solid as other R&H successes, but it also isn’t bad enough to be as ignored as it is; fans will be glad that Kino Lorber has released this Blu-ray featuring a brand new 2K master