Monday, April 6, 2009

Chinatown Swings

Even among people who like Hollywood musicals, Flower Drum Song has fallen into a degree of obscurity. Not forgotten, exactly, but considered gauche, embarassing. That's a shame.

Part of the reason--as a slate of talking heads who include David Henry Hwang say on the DVD commentary--is the fact of it being a story of the Asian community in San Francisco, and of Rodgers and Hammerstein being two definite non-Asians. It is certainly a stylized view of Chinese-Americans. But of course, musicals are flights of fancy by definition. You have to adjust your expectations going in.

The surprising thing is the amount of real stuff that the film touches on. Not to rub the audience's nose in it, but to acknowledge it at least. The premise involves a near-elderly man and his daughter arriving in America five years early and needing to find the daughter a husband. Five years early? you say. Yes, as Chinese, they are kept on a waiting list for ten. The evocation of racist laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act is subtle, but stinging. It should also be noted that the character Wang Chi Yang is robbed in broad daylight early on after changing a large bill. The mugger is white, and apparently feels confident that he'll get away with robbing a foreigner.

Beyond whatever consciousness-raising one may get, the film boasts many other pleasures. The songs, definitely. The faux-Asian motifs pushed Dick Rodgers a little out there, and he thrived. The first vocal number, "A Hundred Million Miracles", establishes an almost fairyland feel, a touchstone for later songs.

Which brings us to the performances. There's really not a weak one. But two actors who later had too-brief successes on television stand out. Miyoshi Umeki is an amazing charmer as picture bride Mei Li. She interacts with Chinese-Americans who have distanced themselves from the Old World ways she and her father represent, yet it's no surprise more than one falls in love with her. Umeki may be best remembered now as housekeeper Mrs Livingston on The Courtship of Eddie's Father, after which she retired from acting.

Then there's Jack Soo as Sammy Fong. He plays a Dean Martin kind of role here, a carefree bachelor who barely realizes he might want to change. But his Dino act has more of a scent of clammy desperation, and yes that is a compliment. Soo later found an artistic home as Nick Yemana on Barney Miller, unfortunately dying of cancer after only a few seasons. Here he's locked in a push-pull romantic battle with Nancy Kwan, who smells like trouble even to a liberal Westerner. Meaning that they're perfect for each other.

Mention might also be made of the older characters played by Kam Tong, Benson Fong, and Juanita Hall (the latter actually a light-skinned black woman) the latter two of whom have constant good-natured battles.

Does Flower Drum Song hold up? I think yes. Or no, it was always silly. Depends on how you look at it, but it is timeless and joyful.


susan said...

I saw it so long ago all I remembered was singing 'I Enjoy Being A Girl' but your review certainly brought the story back to me. Watching '100 Million Miracles' was a nice bit of time warping for early in the day. Nicely done.

btw - Have you had any deliveries lately?

Ben said...

Deliveries? As I've recently found out, they don't really let you take up obstetrics as a hobby.

Oh, I kid. Yes, I did get the parcel. More on which later. But thank you.