Flower Drum Song (1961)

I have a bit of a complicated history with Rodgers and Hammerstein. I had somehow managed to avoid their musicals during my childhood, and didn’t watch a single movie based on their work until I became a young adult. The first one I watched was The Sound of Music (1965), which soured me on them immediately. It was supposed to be this wonderful classic, but what I watched was a trite bore that attempted to cover paper-thin characters with a paint of seriousness and pretend-complexity. Maybe it works on stage, but it didn’t work on film. I don’t know if it’s just a matter of different tastes or if I can view the film more “objectively” because I don’t have nostalgic memories of it, but The Sound of Music is terribly overrated, as far as I’m concerned.

I have since seen quite a few other film versions of their musicals, always in the hope that I might find the key to enjoying R&H musicals, or at least one or two of them; and while I have not had as strongly negative a reaction as to The Sound of Music, my general impression of Rodgers and Hammerstein films hasn’t changed: they are dragged down by a lack of memorable musical numbers (there tend to be one or two good ones in every film, of course, but the rest are usually disposable), flat characterisations, and super-thin plots. The latter is especially noticeble in some of the later film versions, which are simply too long and often padded by a paint of “social critique” that adds complexity only if you don’t think about it too much (at best), or comes across as pandering, flat-footed and misguided (at worst). The dissonance between light and frivolous songs and the the serious subject matter of the backdrop isn’t usually resolved in a satisfactory manner.
Really the only one of their films I unabashedly like is the initial television production of Cinderella (1957) featuring Julie Andrews, where stereotypical characters and a simple plot aren’t a problem, but a feature, and where the sort of pretentiousness I’ve lamented isn’t present. (I have also seen the two more recent television productions, and they are nowhere near as charming; I’m not sure what that says about the quality of the underlying play vis-a-vis a particular performance.)

With that out of the way, here’s my take on Flower Drum Song: The film begins with a lovely slideshow of watercolour paintings that function as a sort of prologue: a young woman and her father travel from Beijing to Hong Kong, where they sneak onto a ship going to the United States. The stowaways get off in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a setting the film does not leave. Her father takes the woman, Mei Li, directly to a night club whose owner, Sammy Fong, the girl is supposed to marry. While Sammy Fong was aware of the arranged marriage, he’s none too thrilled with his bride-to-be arriving on his doorstep unannounced, since he is already involved with Linda, one of his showgirls. He devises a plan to trade Mei Li off to another family with an eligible bachelor. That young man, named Wang Ta, is much more interested in Linda, however, and not easily swayed by his own father’s wishes. So now the fathers, Sammy, and Mei Li must band together to make Wang Ta fall in love with her.

This love quadrangle is needlessly complicated even further by the seamstress Helen, who has feelings for Wang Ta she is unwilling to express and he is unable to see. My favourite scene in the movie is a lengthy wordless dance sequence in which Helen metaphorically confronts her demons of unrequited love, but objectively, her entire subplot could have easily been cut and replaced by a single scene; its only purpose seems to be to drag out the story and throw another complication in Mei Li’s path.
All of the dance-only sequences are superfluous, really, and the other two or three (depending on which scenes you count) are not as engaging as Helen’s brief hijacking of the plot. A dream sequence of sorta-domestic bliss involving Sammy and Linda is particularly grating and wears out its welcome as soon as the actors stop singing. Speaking of, many of the songs are also unnecessary, and not very well staged. Also, not a lot of care seems to have been taken in matching speaking and singing voices, because there’s a noticeable shift for many of the actors.

The movie’s primary character juxtaposition is between showgirl Linda and shy Mei Li: Linda outwardly seems to be an independent, modern woman full of self-confidence who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. Unfortunately, what she wants isn’t a career or self-fulfilment; all she wants is the attention of men, eventually leading to a wealthy husband who can satisfy her materialistic lifestyle. She even sings a song about it, which, while melodically the best in the film, is terribly outdated lyrically; Western society’s concepts of femininity and masculinity have moved on since then, I’d like to think (compare and contrast).
Hence, Mei Li is not the polar opposite she may have been originally conceived as. True, she is not as forward and aggressive as Linda in pursuing a man. In fact, she is extraordinarily passive for the vast majority of the film, adhering to the traditional concept of filial piety and going along with everything her father suggests. She is willing to let herself be “inspected” without objection, to prove she is a worthy bride-to-be. She does it to please her father, but in the end, she, too, is all about getting married.

Minor spoilers were smuggled to below

Both women are horrible role models, and while it certainly seems like the film agrees with that assessment in Linda’s case, it does so for all the wrong reasons. When Wang Ta finally accepts the error of his ways and rejects Linda, he does so not because she’s shallow, but because he learns of her profession. Linda is a little too independent and modern for him, a “good boy” at heart who would rather have a good (meaning, meek) girl. The relationship between Sammy and Linda makes sense even from a modern perspective, of course, but the screenplay seems to be saying that both are shifty, immoral characters who deserve each other and are not worthy of marrying someone more traditionally-minded. Mei Li, on the other hand, is continually praised by other characters for how obedient and unassuming she is. There is no talk whatsoever that her behaviour was anachronistic even for the time the play was written. I can’t imagine that it’s performed like that today. It’s no wonder that Mei Li, the ostensible main character, is nowhere to be found on my DVD cover; she’s too boring and (as presented) uninteresting. She starts out a timid push-over and remains one for the rest of the film; there is no character development of any sort for her, or most of the rest of the characters. Mei Li’s father is a cypher, Wang Ta’s father is a caricature straight out of a sitcom, Wang Ta himself is just incredibly bland.

In the end, Flower Drum Song cannot manage to break the chain of – at best – tolerable film versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. The essentially all-Asian cast is laudable for the time, I suppose, but a consequence of staying within the “ghetto” is that any racial conflicts are completely ignored. That’s legitimate, but if the creators absolutely had to cover an “important” topic, like the difficulties of assimilating into American culture, they should have done a better job of integrating that into the plot and characters, and tried to avoid some of the more obvious “Chinatown” stereotypes. Which brings me back to my original complaints about Rodgers and Hammerstein. It continues to be beyond me what others see in their work.

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