One of the perks of checking in books is finding "gems" you didn't know existed in the library. One such came across my desk last week, the Special Anniversary Edition of "Flower Drum Song," a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical made into a movie in 1961. A smash on Broadway, the play was adapted from C. Y. Lee's book of the same name. It was his first novel and he wisely took a commission instead of a flat fee for the play and movie rights to his book. The musical follows the tale of a very sweet, innocent Chinese girl and her father, Mei Li and Dr. Li, (Miyoshi Umeki and Kam Tong), who leave China by smuggling themselves onto a freighter to San Franscisco to fulfill a contract to marry a San Francisco nightclub owner. He, hilariously played by Jack Soo, has been dating his chorus girl star Linda (Nancy Kwan) for five years without ever mentioning the "M" word. The arranged marriage was set up to please his mother. The matchmaker Aunt (Juanita Hall) has a very eligible nephew Wang Ta (James Shigeta) and so she convinces her brother-in-law (Benson Fong) to take over the contract. Hijinks ensue when Ta becomes infatuated with Linda and starts to court her. She somehow twists him into a proposal (he's more than a little naive when it comes to women.) Mei Li falls for him at first sight and another girl, a seamstress named Helen (Reiko Sato) has been harboring an undeclared love for him for years. I'll leave the rest to your imagination, taking into account the era in which the film was made.
This was a break-through movie for Asian Americans, who didn't seem to mind that three of the leads, who were supposed to be Chinese, were played by Japanese. It was the first movie to star an all Asian cast and many of the cast members went on to careers in the movies and television. Casting Hawaiian born Shigeta was also very unusual, because he was the first Asian male to play a romantic lead in a movie. Umeki went on to star in "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," but I'll always remember her in "Sayonara" with Red Buttons and Marlon Brando, a sweet film about Japanese war brides. Nancy Kwan was a talented singer and dancer, although they dubbed her voice. She appears in several (overlong to me) modern dance numbers. Remember, this was 1961. The great thing with DVDs is that you can fast forward through the dance numbers if you're not a modern dance fan..
There are great special features on the DVD. The author C. Y. Lee, appears and has a funny story about how he came to take a percentage of the rights, instead of the flat fee of $50,000 he was offered. Nancy Kwan also appears, older - but just as beautiful as she was then. Features on the casting, the songs and the costumes and sets complete the Extras.
If the above appeals to you, you can rent the movie, along with any other weekly release, for $1 at the library. Maybe pair it with "South Pacific," another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. We'd love to see you at the library!