Flower Drum Song (film)

Flower Drum Song is a 1961 film adaptation of the 1958 Broadway musical Flower Drum Song, written by the composer Richard Rodgers and the lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. The film and stage play were based on the 1957 novel of the same name by the Chinese American author Chin Yang Lee. It was nominated for five Academy Awards.

Flower Drum Song
1961 theatrical release poster
Directed byHenry Koster
Produced byRoss Hunter
Screenplay byJoseph Fields
Based onFlower Drum Song
by Oscar Hammerstein II
Joseph Fields
The Flower Drum Song
by C. Y. Lee
StarringNancy Kwan
James Shigeta
Miyoshi Umeki
Jack Soo
Benson Fong
Juanita Hall
Music byRichard Rodgers
CinematographyRussell Metty
Edited byMilton Carruth
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • November 9, 1961 (1961-11-09)
Running time
132 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$4 million[1]
Box office$5 million (US/ Canada rentals) [2]

In 2008, Flower Drum Song was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Flower Drum Song became the first major Hollywood feature film to have a majority Asian cast in a contemporary Asian-American story. It would be the last film to do so for a third of a century, until 1993's The Joy Luck Club.[3][4]


A young woman named Mei Li emigrates from China to Chinatown, San Francisco as an illegal immigrant with her father. After landing, the Lis seek the address of Madam Fong, the mother of Sammy Fong, to whom Mei Li has been promised in an arranged marriage. While asking where to find Madam Fong, Mei Li performs a flower drum song to earn money ("A Hundred Million Miracles"). Sammy is the owner of a night club, the Celestial Gardens (inspired by the actual Forbidden City nightclub) and is already romantically involved with his leading showgirl, Linda Low. The Lis arrive at the Celestial Gardens during a show ("Fan Tan Fannie").

Sammy does his best to dissuade Mei Li from marrying him, introducing her to Madame Liang, the sister-in-law of Master Wang. Liang and Wang bemoan the gap between immigrants and their offspring ("The Other Generation") as Master Wang's younger son, Wang San, gives his own take on the gap to some younger children. Dissolving the marriage contract is harder than either imagined. Master Wang is persuaded by Madame Liang to allow Mei Li to fall in love naturally with Master Wang's eldest son, Wang Ta, and the Lis move in with Master Wang. But Wang Ta is dazzled by the charms of Linda, who flirts with him ("I Enjoy Being a Girl"). He asks her to go on a date, and she convinces him to give her his fraternity pin to symbolize they are "going steady" during the date.

When Mei Li sees Wang Ta sneaking back in after the date, she mistakes his friendly greeting as a welcome to the household and starts to warm to America ("I Am Going to Like It Here"). Linda plans to use Wang Ta to force a real commitment from Sammy Fong out of jealousy, but Sammy gets wind of her scheme when Linda attends a party to celebrate both Wang Ta's graduation from university and Madame Liang's graduation from citizenship classes. Madame Liang compares the citizens of America to a mix of different ingredients ("Chop Suey"). At the party, Linda has Frankie Wing, the club emcee, pose as her brother to grant permission for Linda to marry Wang Ta. Mei Li, hearing this, becomes discouraged, while Ta and his father argue over his marriage plans. Ta argues that he is old enough to make his own decisions, but the father says that he will be the one to let Ta know when he is old enough.

At the New Year's Parade, Linda rides on a float and sings about Grant Avenue, Chinatown's "western street with eastern manners" ("Grant Avenue"). Sammy, in an effort to keep Linda from marrying Wang Ta, invites Wang Ta and his family to Celestial Gardens, where they see Frankie Wing recall girls he has known ("Gliding Through My Memoree") and Linda's nightclub act ("Fan Tan Fannie"). Wang Ta is shocked at her performance. He leaves, distraught, accompanied by his friend since childhood, the seamstress Helen Chao. Chao also grew up in America and deeply loves Wang Ta. Ta becomes drunk in his misery over Linda, and Helen ends up letting him stay for the night in her apartment, where she declares her unrequited love ("Love, Look Away").

In the morning, Mei Li comes to deliver a burned coat for Helen to mend, and becomes distressed when she discovers Wang Ta's clothing in Helen's kitchen. When Wang Ta wakes up (seconds after Mei Li leaves), he still does not notice Helen's affections, even as she pleads for him to stay, and he leaves quickly. He goes to speak with Mei Li, now realizing that she is a better match for him than Linda Low ("You Are Beautiful"), only to have Mei Li reject him, saying that she once loved him, but not anymore.

She and her father leave Master Wang's house and pursue the marriage contract between Mei Li and Sammy Fong. Sammy has already proposed to Linda, who daydreams about wedded life ("Sunday"). Unfortunately, now that Mei Li is pursuing Sammy again, he and Linda will be unable to marry as the contract with Mei Li is binding. Sammy enumerates his many faults ("Don't Marry Me") in a last-ditch attempt to convince Mei Li to break the contract. Before the wedding, Wang Ta goes to see Mei Li, and they both realize that they are deeply in love with one another. They agree to try to come up with a way to get Mei Li out of her marriage contract.

The day of the wedding, right before she is to sip from a goblet (which would seal her marriage to Sammy), Mei Li declares that, because she entered the United States illegally, the contract is null and void. Wang Ta can thus marry Mei Li, and Sammy decides to marry Linda right there as well, resulting in a double wedding.


  • Nancy Kwan – Linda Low (singing dubbed by B.J. Baker), a showgirl at Celestial Gardens, Sammy's nightclub
  • James Shigeta – Wang Ta, older son of Master Wang Chi-Yang
  • Miyoshi Umeki – Mei Li, arranged bride for Sammy Fong
  • Benson Fong – Wang Chi-Yang, master of the Wang household
  • Jack Soo – Samuel Adams "Sammy" Fong, owner of the Celestial Gardens nightclub
  • Juanita Hall – Madame Liang, sister-in-law of Master Wang Chi-Yang
  • Reiko Sato – Helen Chao (singing dubbed by Marilyn Horne), a seamstress raised in America with unrequited love for Wang Ta
  • Patrick Adiarte – Wang San, younger son of Master Wang Chi-Yang
  • Kam Tong – Dr. Han Li (singing dubbed by John Dodson), Mei Li's father
  • Victor Sen Yung – Frankie Wing, emcee at the Celestial Gardens
  • Soo Yong – Madame Yen Fong, Sammy's mother
  • James Hong – Headwaiter at the Celestial Gardens


Although the score of Flower Drum Song did not produce many hit tunes, the song "I Enjoy Being a Girl" has been recorded by such performers as Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Pat Suzuki, and Phranc, and it has been used in other movies and shows. Parodies of the song including a U.S. Gap company commercial with Sarah Jessica Parker. There are over a dozen versions of the song on YouTube, including parodies based on Harry Potter and Battlestar Galactica.

Compared with the Broadway musical on which it is based, the film rearranged the order of the songs.[5] According to David Henry Hwang, the song "Like a God" was dropped from the film because studio executives were worried it could "offend audiences in the American South".[6] Alfred Newman, the conductor and music supervisor, wrote a letter to producer Ross Hunter protesting the excision of music arrangers from the credits during post-production; Hunter agreed to reinsert a credit for Ken Darby, the associate music supervisor.[7]


Flower Drum Song: The Motion Picture Sound Track
Soundtrack album by
Various artists
Released1961 (1961)

The 1961 soundtrack album from the film was critically praised; Variety lauded Newman's "rousing orchestration".[9] Shortly after its release by Decca Records, both the monaural and stereo versions of the soundtrack charted on the list of bestselling records, according to Billboard Top LP's list.[10] For the film soundtrack album, the performers were credited by role, not name, since "several of the performers in the movie don't do their own singing."[11] The singing voice of the character Linda Low (portrayed by Nancy Kwan) was dubbed by B. J. Baker,[12][13] a Caucasian studio singer who had worked with Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, The Righteous Brothers, and Sam Cooke.

The torch song "Love, Look Away" sung by Helen Chao (portrayed by Reiko Sato) was also dubbed in by the American opera singer Marilyn Horne,[12][13] who was offered the job by Alfred Newman, the film's conductor and musical supervisor, after Horne's triumphant début with the San Francisco Opera in Wozzeck. Horne and Newman were friends through her extensive background singing on film soundtracks.[14] In addition, Dr. Han Li (portrayed by Kam Tong) is dubbed by John Dodson.[12][13]

The film soundtrack was reissued on CD by Decca Broadway on September 24, 2002, which added a bonus track of "Love, Look Away" (2:27), recorded by Rosemary Clooney around 1958.[12][13][15]

All tracks are written by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics).


After the novel was released and became a bestseller, options were offered to author C.Y. Lee to produce a movie or stage adaptation. Lee was torn between the movie offer, which was more lucrative at $50,000, but would force him to give up all rights, or the stage offer from Joseph Fields, which only gave him $3,000 but only relinquished stage rights. After getting drunk the night of the decision, Lee could not remember the offer he chose, but his agent congratulated him on making the right choice the next morning. It turns out Lee had chosen the offer from Fields, who initially wanted to produce a play and eventually a movie, but after Fields mentioned the novel to Rodgers and Hammerstein, they signed on to write the musical.[17]

The 1961 film production of Flower Drum Song was produced by Universal Studios, a break for Rodgers and Hammerstein, who had previously had their films produced by Twentieth Century Fox. The screenplay was written by Joseph Fields, who had previously collaborated with Hammerstein on the libretto for the musical, but had not previously written a major musical film; likewise, the director Henry Koster and producer Ross Hunter were working on their first musical film.[5]

San Francisco watercolorist Dong Kingman painted the opening title sequence, which traces the journey of Mei Li from Hong Kong.[18] Hermes Pan provided the choreography.[19]

Principal photography began on March 20, 1961; the film was largely shot at Stage 12 of the Universal Studios Lot, on a 51,300 sq ft (4,770 m2) set built to reproduce Chinatown, including the opening scenes at Saint Mary's Square (complete with a replica of the stainless steel statute of Sun Yat-Sen sculpted by Beniamino Bufano), at a cost of $310,000.[7]


The film was notable as the first that featured nearly all Asian American cast members[20][21] (one of the few speaking Caucasian parts being that of a mugger), including dancers, though three of the singing voices were not Asian ones.[22][19][23] The contemporaneous paucity of Asian actors notably forced producers to dress Arnold Stang in yellowface as a Chinese cook for an episode of Wagon Train, since "all of Hollywood's Oriental actors were busy making 'Flower Drum Song'".[24] Starring in the movie were Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Benson Fong, James Hong, Reiko Sato and the original Broadway cast members Jack Soo, Miyoshi Umeki, and Juanita Hall (an African American actress who previously played the Pacific Islander Bloody Mary in the Broadway and film productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific).

Anna May Wong had been scheduled to play the part of Madam Liang, but she died in February 1961, before production began.[25][26] Kwan won the role of Linda Low when she met Ross Hunter, the producer of Flower Drum Song, at a party after he saw her film debut in the 1960 film adaptation of The World of Suzie Wong.[19] Kwan's casting was announced in February 1961.[27]

Changes from musical and novel

Among various changes for the film, the song "Like a God" was changed from a song into a beat poetry presentation. The film (and earlier stage version) is lighter-hearted than the novel upon which it is based. Most notably, while Helen is simply left alone and broken-hearted in the musical and film versions, Ta's rejection of her prompts her to commit suicide in the novel. In the novel, Mei Li does not arrive in Chinatown illegally, nor does she have an arranged marriage with Sammy Fong (whose character was created for the musical and film).[5]

Filming locations

Although set in San Francisco, only a few scenes were actually filmed on location,[28] notably a scene with Kwan and Shigeta on Twin Peaks. But neither Kwan nor Shigeta actually filmed at this location. Doubles stood in for them for the long shots of the car arriving and leaving Twin Peaks. The close-ups of Kwan and Shigeta in the car were process shots filmed at Universal Studios in Hollywood with the view from Twin Peaks projected on a screen behind them.

The film includes scenes from the 1961 San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade.[29][30]

Awards and honors

The film was nominated for five Academy Awards:[31][32]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


Flower Drum Song premiered in New York City at Radio City Music Hall on November 9, 1961.[35] The initial plan was to have the premiere on November 17 in San Francisco, at the Golden Gate Theatre, to benefit local hospitals, including the San Francisco Chinese Hospital. The Golden Gate Theatre premiere would be followed by a three-day Flower Drum Festival in Chinatown.[36] A private screening was held for President John F. Kennedy and his family at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port on November 24.[7] The film was widely released near Christmastime.[37][38]

Although it has been asserted the film was the only Hollywood adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to lose money,[39] the production rights were reported as costing $1 million and the budget was $4 million,[7] while gross revenues have been reported as $10.7 million.[40]

Home media

The film was first issued on VHS in 1986,[41][42] then reissued in 1991 followed by a LaserDisc version in 1992 by MCA Home Video.[43] The LaserDisc and VHS versions of the film were cropped to a 1.33:1 ratio using pan and scan with the exception of the "I Enjoy Being a Girl" sequence.[44][45] After the VHS and LaserDisc versions went out of print, the film was unavailable on home media for many years, while most of the other video versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein movies were released on DVD by other studios.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment (in association with the estates of Rodgers and Hammerstein) finally released a DVD version on November 7, 2006, with extra features on the making and casting of the movie. It includes interviews with David Henry Hwang, Pat Suzuki, and Nancy Kwan, and pictures from the 1958 and 2002 Broadway rehearsals and practice sessions, as well as pictures of Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Fields.[46]


Reviewing for The New York Times after the premiere, Bosley Crowther called the film neither "subtle or fragile ... It is gaudy and gaggy and quite melodic."[35] Life called it "gay, tuneful and well worth the admission".[18] However, Variety thought that "much of the fundamental charm, grace and novelty of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" has been overwhelmed by the sheer opulence and glamour [of the film]".[9]

As a boomer Asian American, you didn't often see people that looked like you on TV. And the idea that the younger generation, at least, was portrayed as American [in the movie] was unusual. So growing up, the musical represented one of the few positive portrayals of people that looked like me. And then, at another point in my life, it became something to be demonized.

  David Henry Hwang, 2001 Los Angeles Times article[47]

David H. Lewis calls it "a bizarre pastiche of limping mediocracy". He comments that since the 1958 version of the musical was only rarely revived for decades after its initial run, the film "would in future years come to stand for the stage musical it so crassly misrepresented"[48] and would serve as the version that academics and latter-day theatre critics would judge when they analyzed the musical. James Deaville countered that Koster and Hunter "wanted to make the musical more relevant and accessible ... [by] intensify[ing] the generational conflict ... [and] required spelling out much that the musical left to the audience's imagination."[5]

Some Asian-Americans have found the film offensive in later years due to common stereotypes and what was seen as miscasting Japanese American actors Shigeta and Umeki in Chinese American roles.[19] David Henry Hwang, who revised the musical for a 2001 revival, "had a secret soft spot for the movie version. 'It was kind of a guilty pleasure ... and one of the only big Hollywood films where you could see a lot of really good Asian actors onscreen, singing and dancing and cracking jokes.'"[49] Writer Joanna Lee praised the film's portrayal of Asian Americans as "prominent and legitimate American citizens".[5][50]

See also


  1. Glenn, Larry (30 Apr 1961). "'FLOWER DRUM SONG' REPRISED CLOSE TO HOME". The New York Times (1923–Current file). New York, N.Y. p. X9.
  2. "All-Time Top Grossers". Variety. 8 January 1964. p. 69.
  3. Robert Ito (8 August 2018). "'Crazy Rich Asians': Why Did It Take So Long to See a Cast Like This?". New York Times.
  4. Melissa Hung (13 August 2018). "Six decades ago, 'Flower Drum Song' featured Hollywood's first Asian-American cast". NBC News.
  5. Deaville, James (2017). "The Many Lives of Flower Drum Song (1957–2002): Negotiating Chinese American Identity in Print, on Stage, and on Screen". In Yang, Hon-Lun; Saffle, Michael (eds.). China and the West: Music, Representation, and Reception. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pp. 119–136. doi:10.3998/mpub.5555199. ISBN 978-0-472-90075-6.
  6. Hurwit, Robert (9 February 2003). "'Flower Drum Song' set to different beats". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 20 September 2018.
  7. "Flower Drum Song (1961)". American Film Institute. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  8. "Flower Drum Song 1961 Film Soundtrack". Amazon. Retrieved August 29, 2018.
  9. "Flower Drum Song". Variety. 31 December 1960. Retrieved 2 September 2018.
  10. "Billboard Music Week Top LP's for Week Ending January 27". Billboard Music Week. January 27, 1962. Retrieved 5 November 2018. Monaural: #60; Stereo: #42
  11. Taeko (15 December 1961). "Show Biz Buzz". Shin Nichibei. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  12. Flower Drum Song at AllMusic
  13. Gans, Andrew (20 September 2002). "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song CD Hits Stores Sept. 24". Playbill. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  14. Horne, Marilyn. "Singers on Singing: Marilyn Horne". Hampsong Foundation. Hampsong Foundation. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  15. Wong, Cary (November 2006). "Flower Drum Song Musical and Album Reviews". Film Score Monthly. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  16. Flower Drum Song: The Motion Picture Sound Track at Discogs
  17. Kuchwara, Michael (1 December 2002). "'The Flower Drum Song': Where the Chinese-American novel began". The Times of Northwest Indiana. AP. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  18. "Life Guide". LIFE. Vol. 51 no. 21. 24 November 1961. p. 27. Retrieved 2 September 2018.
  19. King, Susan (25 January 2002). "Nancy Kwan Looks Back on an All-Asian 'Groundbreaking' Film". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  20. "The MANAA Video Guide". Media Action Network For Asian Americans. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  21. Hung, Melissa (13 August 2018). "Six decades ago, 'Flower Drum Song' featured Hollywood's first Asian-American cast". NBC News. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  22. Greson, Daniela (29 January 2016). "Tales of a new Chinatown: The San Gabriel Valley stories from 'Flower Drum Song' author C.Y. Lee". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  23. Kim, Heidi (22 September 2016). "'Flower Drum Song,' Whitewashing, and Operation Wetback: A Message from 1961". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  24. "TV Scout". Madera Tribune. 14 June 1961. Wagon Train has story about Chinese cook, written by Terry Wilson, who plays Bill Hawks here. When it came time to cast this, they found that all of Hollywood’s Oriental actors were busy making "Flower Drum Song," so Arnold Stang (in rubber eyelids) was cast.
  25. Hodges, Graham Russell Gao (2012). Anna May Wong: from Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend. Aberdeen, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. pp. 204–205. ISBN 978-988-8139-63-7. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  26. Monji, Jana (21 November 2016). "AFI Fest 2016: "Piccadilly" and a doomed diva". Roger Ebert. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  27. "Signs for Part". Desert Sun. UPI. 22 February 1961. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  28. Gleich, Joshua (2018). Hollywood in San Francisco: Location shooting and the asethetics of urban decline. Austin: University of Texas Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-4773-1757-0. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  29. "Gung Hay Fat Choy ... happy year of the ox to you". Oak Leaf. 2 March 1961. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  30. Taeko (29 June 1961). "Show Biz Buzz". Shin Nichibei. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  31. "The 34th Academy Awards (1962) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-08-22.
  32. "NY Times: Flower Drum Song". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-24.
  33. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  34. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  35. Crowther, Bosley (10 November 1961). "Screen: 'Flower Drum Song' Opens: Movie Drawn From a Musical Arrives; Music Hall Offering New Film in Color". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  36. Taeko (20 October 1961). "Show Biz Buzz". Shin Nichibei. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  37. Bacon, James (24 December 1961). "Family Films Make Comeback In Hollywood". Santa Cruz Sentinel. AP. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  38. "At Del Mar". Santa Cruz Sentinel. 27 December 1961. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  39. Lewis, Flower Drum Songs, p. 109.
  40. "Flower Drum Song (1961)". The-Numbers. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  41. "Flower Drum Song". VHS Collector. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  42. Stevens, Mary (1 August 1986). "Children Can Get Video Lessons From Mister Rogers, Mr. Wizard". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  43. "Flower Drum Song (1961)". LaserDisc Database. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  44. "New on Video". The Washington Post. 27 February 1992. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  45. Daly, Steve (27 March 1992). "Flower Drum Song". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  46. "DVD Review: Flower Drum Song". DVD Beaver. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  47. Phillips, Michael (16 September 2001). "Let the Debate Begin". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  48. Lewis, Flower Drum Songs, p. 108.
  49. Berson, Misha (2002). "A 'Drum' with a Difference". American Theatre. Theatre Communications Group. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved November 9, 2010.
  50. Lewis, Flower Drum Songs, p. 111.


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