I’m working on a screenplay and one of the films my co-writer asked me to watch was Flower Drum Song. As my writing partner noted, it is “perhaps the only mainstream musical with all Asian American characters.” The sad thing is that he was right. The closet thing I could think of was the King & I. And that play wasn’t all Asian American.
So over the holidays I watched the 1961 Universal –International film starring James Shigeta, Nancy Kwan, Jack Soo, and others. Although I’ve seen it before (a long long time ago), it was nice to see again. Truth be told, lots of it made me cringe. Some of the jokes—okay, lots of the jokes, the stereotypes, the bad accents, made me want to hit my head against the wall… but what got me was that such a film got made in the first place—and in the 1960s. I doubt that anyone would/could make such a movie now. The closest thing that I could think of was Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. I hope I’m wrong about this.
In honor of the movie, I thought I’d share with you eight (since we’re 8Asians and all) fun facts, trivia, and observations about the Flower Drum Song.
- Check out how the original book was discovered: “[The author C.Y. Lee] had hoped to break into playwriting, but instead wrote a novel about Chinatown, The Flower Drum Song (originally titled Grant Avenue). Lee initially had no success selling his novel, but his agent submitted it to the publishing house of Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. The firm sent the manuscript to an elderly reader for evaluation. The reader was found dead in bed, the manuscript beside him with the words “Read this” scrawled on it. The publishing house did so, and bought Lee’s novel, which became a bestseller in 1957.” Source.
- Interesting note about the casting of the musical play: “The three producers [Meryle Secrest, Rodgers, Hammerstein and Fields] sought Chinese, or at least Asian, actors to fill the cast, an idea that was, at the time, considered “very risky”. In the 1950s, there were relatively few Asian-American actors; Rodgers believed that Asians avoided acting because of shyness.” Source.
- Anna May Wong was supposed to play Madame Liang, but she died before the movie started filming. Source.
- Nancy Kwan was so beautiful and James Shigeta was so handsome. Kwan and Shigeta were easily the best things about the movie.
- Two of the singing voices in the film were done by non-Asians including Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) and Reiko Sato (Helen Chao) were dubbed by B.J. Barker and Marilyn Horne respectively. Source.
- Did you know that Jack Soo, who played Sammy Fong, was really Goro “Jack” Suzuki? He changed his name because of anti-Japanese American prejudice. There is an amazing documentary you should see called You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story. For more information, go to http://www.jacksoo.com/.
- Juanita Hall who played Auntie Liang (which was supposed to played by Anna May Wong), was the only non-Asian to play a major role in the film. Source.
- I didn’t know this, but “the film was the only Hollywood adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to lose money.” Source.