Monday, April 8, 2013

Flower Drum Song (1961)

5 nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Color - Alexander Golitzen, Joseph C. Wright, and Howard Bristol
Nomination: Best Cinematography, Color - Russell Metty
Nomination: Best Costume Design, Color - Irene Sharaff
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture - Alfred Newman and Ken Darby
Nomination: Best Sound - Waldon O. Watson (Revue SSD)

In a year in which films like Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty were released, it's hard to imagine that a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical from 1961 could be considered controversial.  Yet Flower Drum Song, with its often simplistic and cartoonish depiction of Asian-Americans, has been considered a troubling film to many since it was released more than five decades ago.

An adaptation of the tenth Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song was directed by Henry Koster, nominated for Best Director for The Bishop's Wife 1947), Flower Drum Song tells the story of Mei Li, a Chinese immigrant who arrives in San Francisco with her father to enter into an arranged marriage. Her husband-to-be doesn't want to settle down, so attempts to find another husband for Mei Li.  As various romantic pairings become entangled with one another in a manner reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy, the film deals with many questions surrounding the theme of Asian-American identity.  Some of these themes are dealt with in an interesting, thoughtful manner, but some are not.

The largest criticism directed at Flower Drum Song is that of cultural appropriation, or "Can and should non Asian-Americans depict the Asian-American culture?"  This question is dealt with quite thoughtfully in one of the DVD's bonus features, including a very thoughtful point of view from noted playwright David Henry Hwang.  It's a question I won't begin to attempt to answer in this post, but I will say that while the film should be lauded for being one of the first to portray Asian-American characters outside of comic relief - let's not forget that Mickey Rooney's offensive performance of an Asian-American in Breakfast at Tiffany's was released the same year as Flower Drum Song - some of the characterizations made me uncomfortable.  Still, I feel that the film, while far from perfect in how it portrayed Asian-Americans, was far ahead of its time and served as the bellwether to many of the Asian-American centered films that would follow.

Flower Drum Song is the source of a few notable songs that have become a part of the American Songbook, namely "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and "Chop Suey."  While these songs are worthy additions to the Rodgers & Hammerstein oeuvre, most of the film's numbers are largely forgettable.  The scoring of the film by Alfred Newman and Ken Darby, which received an Oscar nomination, is respectable, but not terribly exciting.

The film received four additional nominations, three for the look of the film and one for the sound.  With the possible exception of some of the Chinese-American inspired costume designs that were visually appealing and a good representation of the community it was attempting to represent, I didn't find any of these nominations to be particularly noteworthy.  The cinematography in particular felt rather lifeless, and the filming of the musical numbers was more similar to the musicals of the 1930's than the breakthroughs represented in films of the previous decade like Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris.

While Flower Drum Song has clearly built a legacy as a worthwhile and historically notable musical, it's not hard to see why it is generally held with less reverence than other efforts from Rodgers & Hammerstein.  I'm glad I watched it, but I don't think I will be returning to it like I do to other Rodgers & Hammerstein adaptations.

Remaining: 3155 films, 873 Oscars, 5421 nominations

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