Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Flower Drum Song (1961) & Unrequited Love

Often the love triangle in a romantic comedy or musical film ends showing the 2 leading characters in love and very happy. Meanwhile you can almost hear the 3rd character's off-screen sobs, muffled only by the cotton balls in his bottle of antidepressants. Who hears the cry of the loveless supporting character? Rodgers & Hammerstein
In Flower Drum Song (1961), the prolific duo who brought you Oklahoma! (which contains another tragic 3rd wheel) brings you their Broadway play about a love pentagon with 2 gentlemen and 3 ladies who are hit by cupid's darts. The third lady, Helen Chao (Reiko Sato), who pines for Wang Ta (James Shigeta) who thinks of Helen as a sister (don't you just hate that sometimes?), is obviously going to lose out.

The happy couples: "We're having fun and you're not, Helen. Nyah! Nyah!"

R&H allow the lovelorn seamstress
to get some tough stuff off her chest. When Helen realizes the inevitable she expresses her loss in the song "Love, Look Away."
Love, look away! Love look away from me
Fly when you pass my door, fly and get lost at sea.
Call it a day, love, let us say we're through.
No good are you for me, no good am I for you.
Wanting you so, I try too much; after you go, I cry too much.
Love, look away,
Lonely though I may be, leave me and set me free
Look away, look away, look away from me.
In Flower Drum Song
" In the original novel, the character Helen Chao (who sings the song in the stage version) commits suicide over her unfulfilled love. Hammerstein cut the death from his libretto, but the power of 'Love, Look Away' is great enough that it still seems to portend tragedy. " - R&H Encyclopedia
This song is about as fair a shake at expressing unrequited love as a supporting character is going to get in a RomCom. What I really like about the Helen character is that she is not that unpleasant person who you can't wait to get out of the picture so that the leads can get on with their lives. Because she's the most self-sacrificing player and she remains quiet for so long, it would be almost cruel not to give her that torchy spotlight to let her hair down.

And let her hair down she does, quite literally, in the song's accompanying abstract ballet. As Helen sings she walks out onto the patio/roof where there is a heavy San Francisco fog. As the lyrics end we follow Helen into a dream about her life with Ta. It's like following Dorothy as she walks into Oz for the first time. We're not in Kansas anymore; we are no longer in reality.

Helen walks into a cavernous room whose walls seem to be made of curtains. A sewing mannequin on wheels draped in a flowing white outfit (designed by Irene Sharaff) passes by and the next thing we know Helen has swapped clothes with it. The reserved lady's usual bun is replaced with a long ponytail and her conservative dress becomes a diaphanous creation with long slits at the legs for ease of movement. It reminds me of Walter Plunkett's dreamy outfit with the long train for
Cyd Charisse in Singing In The Rain (1952).


Dream World Helen has a great time with Dream World Ta for a few minutes then a sewing mannequin wearing Linda Low's
(Nancy Kwan) provocative nightclub costume (that we've seen in the earlier striptease number "Fan Tan Fanny") rolls by. Ta chases the mannequin and Helen is left alone. Suddenly the spurned woman is met by men in masks who are all wearing copies of Ta's outfit but she never again has the same relationship with the real Ta.
By using masks on Ta's doppelgangers and inanimate objects for other characters, the only human faces we see in the dream ballet are those of Helen and Ta, keeping the focus on their relationship. The wheeled mannequin also conveys how Linda Low, from Helen's perspective, seems to breeze in and "steal" Ta without much effort.

Back in real life things only get worse for Helen.
It's a heartbreaking situation, but at least she gets to say so onscreen.

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