I’m not a fan of the term “guilty pleasure” because if you like something, you like it, and you’re the ultimate authority in that department (and if what you like is harming someone else, you should just stop consuming it, period). It makes more sense to me to speak in terms of the problematic pleasure, meaning something you enjoy but which you also recognize comes with baggage that should be acknowledged, the way most adults can acknowledge that some of the founding fathers of our country had no problem with owning other human beings and enriching themselves from the labor of those enslaved people.
The film of Flower Drum Song, directed by Henry Koster, is to me a problematic pleasure. I love it for the music (Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II knew how to write a song, and “Grant Avenue” has to be one of the leading earworms of all time), the spectacular production numbers, and the committed performances of the cast. At the same time, I cringe at the stereotypical portrayals of some of the characters (not the fault of the actors, surely, but of expectations placed on them) and the dated aspects of this production, from the chop suey lettering in the title cards to the clichéd “Oriental” strains of some of the overture. Flower Drum Song is a product of its time (Chin Yang Lee’s novel was published in 1957, the musical was first produced on Broadway in 1958, and this film was released in 1961), and I totally understand why some might decide to give it a miss. On the other, you can also acknowledge that while some aspects of this film are offensive today, there’s also a lot that can be enjoyed.
The story involves the interactions among a number of characters within San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) and her father Dr. Han Li (Kam Tong) have recently arrived in the United States, where a marriage has been arranged between Mei Li and Sammy Fong (Jack Soo), owner of the Celestial Gardens nightclub. Sammy wants out of the deal, because he prefers Linda Low (Nancy Kwan), the nightclub’s leading star. Meanwhile, Master Wang (Benson Fong) and his sister-in-law Madame Liang (Juanita Hall) decide that Mei Lei might make a good match for their son Wang Ta (James Shigeta), who also has his eye on Linda, while Helen Chao (Reiko Sato), a seamstress, is secretly in love with him. The younger and older generations bemoan their inability to understand each other, but as this is a musical from the 1950s you can guess how it ends, although perhaps not how it gets there (information one character gleans from watching television plays a key role, and how American is that?).
In general, Hollywood had no problem with yellowface casting in the 1950s and 1960s, and to some extent the practice carries on today. That makes it all the more remarkable that almost all the Asian roles in Flower Drum Song are cast with Asian (although not necessarily Chinese) performers. These casting choices also mean you get to enjoy a lot of performances from actors, singers, and dancers that you might be unfamiliar with (my favorite find is the dancer Patrick Adiarte, a Hullabaloo regular probably best known today for playing Ho-Jon on the TV series M*A*S*H). Also notable is the use of paintings by watercolor artist Dong Kingman, son of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong, in the opening title sequence. The major exception to casting Asian roles with Asian actors is Juanita Hall: perhaps, because she was successful playing the Asian/Pacific Islander character Bloody Mary in South Pacific, whomever cast her as a Chinese person in this film figured it would work again.
Flower Drum Song was nominated for five Academy Awards (art direction, cinematography, costume design, scoring, and sound), as well as a variety of other awards, including the Grammy for best sound track album. It was the 12th highest-grossing film in the United States in 1961, despite getting a release late in the year (Nov. 9). | Sarah Boslaugh
Flower Drum Song is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber, made from a new 2K master. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by actor Nancy Kwan and film historian Nick Redman; featurettes about the journey of Flower Drum Song from novel to Broadway to Hollywood (19 min.), the film’s use of Asian actors (9 min.), the film’s songs (11 min.), the film’s sets and costumes (6 min.), and the legacy of Rogers and Hammerstein (5 min.); and the trailers for this film and Thoroughly Modern Millie.