Friday, January 07, 2011

"Sunday" Ballet in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song (1961)

Flower Drum Song  is one of my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein productions in part because there is no threat of death in it (unless you count Helen Chao’s theatrical torch song which practically begs her to plunge a dagger into her abdomen or press an asp to her bosom). The movie is filled with heavy drama - unrequited love, the threat of deportment, potentially disgracing oneself and family - still the story perfectly balances light and shadows.


One of the lighthearted numbers in the movie, (and arguably, the most enchanting one) is the song and dance, “Sunday.” The revolutionary Broadway duo were known to place a ballet in the middle of a musical to underscore tension. These dance moments are usually found in the movie versions of their stories as well. I get chills when in Oklahoma! Laurie ingests that drug and dreams (in dance) about being abducted and ravaged by the smelly Judd Fry. In Flower Drum Song (1961),  however, the dream ballet is relentlessly cheerful and induced, not by a whiff of peddler‘s elixir, but by imagining the smell of coffee in the morning.

Sammy (Jack Soo) and Linda (Nancy Kwan) have finally become engaged after a five-year courtship and are absolutely giddy.  It’s hilarious that a couple of beats after she says “yes,” he starts to sing
Now that we’re going to be married
I keep imagining things
Things that can happen to people
When they are wearing gold rings
When did he have time between her assent and the music cue  to “keep imagining” anything? The Broadway version states “I’ll keep imagining things,” which makes a little more sense.

Still, it’s a cute song which contrasts with Sammy’s other duet - the one with Mei-Li where he implores her “Don‘t Marry Me.”   In “Sunday,” Linda and Sammy sing about being married, awaking on the weekend and lounging around the house with only each other. A little fog appears and suddenly their street clothes have turned into coordinated pajamas.
Although the ballet is generally upbeat, the choreography knocks down the couple’s illusions. Instead of seeing only each other, the house fills to the brim with guests, a flirtatious maid, a gardener who prunes hats, two teens and a kid who kicks a cane out from under grandpa. The couple sings of being happy together, but the guy talks to other women in full view of his wife (who promptly throws the ladies out with a flurry ). It’s all done with a deft touch, but the dangers of reality have crept into the dream,  preventing the domestic tranquility expounded in the lyrics. I suppose the couple is aware of the irony since it is their daydream.

The house boasts modern furniture, bright colors and a to-die-for wardrobe. Linda sports orange Capri pants with a white lace dressing gown and high-heeled bedroom slippers. She’s gorgeous lounging around the house like that. I’d be hard pressed to wear anything other than a t-shirt and sweats when no one‘s looking.

The maid wears a tea-length uniform with so many petticoats that she resembles her duster, especially when she sways her skirt to the beat as if she‘s dusting the base of an imaginary piano.

My absolute, all time favorite character in this ballet is the butler on skates. Yes! Hired help who roll around your house like indoor carhops. I love it! I mean, look at this guy! He glides around with that perfect movie butler’s stoic expression,  completely unimpressed with his own movements.



Butler makes an arc around the bank of seats while Sammy, Linda and guests lift cups from his tray and take a sip. He makes another trip around to gather the cups, then off he goes, as though this is all perfectly normal.  I love it!


He’s only on screen for about 15 seconds, but that little bit of business is one of the first things I think about when hearing the title of this film.  I haven’t been able to ascertain whether roller skating was in the play, but I’d like to think that since Gene Kelly directed the Broadway hit, the man who tapped on skates in a film a few years prior might have had something to do with one of the best moments in this movie.

Near the end,  the dance goes into complete bedroom farce mode with the characters chasing one another  in and out of doorways - grandma is after grandpa who is after the maid and Sammy is still chasing his lady friends, etc. Linda breaks a bottle over Sammy's head which brings them out of the dream world.


Despite the imagined marital upsets, the two are still smiling. This number is a lovely comic rest period before the heavy drama ahead in the film.

2 comments:

  1. Glorious analysis of this number. This film was one of my favorites as a kid. Clearly I need to see it again!

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  2. garbolaughs,
    The colors and lines of the furniture and clothing in this film stick with me as well. The late 1950s/early 1960s style is one of the most beautiful times captured on film. It has the orderliness of the 1950s with the modern look of the 1960s (you know, before the '60s became shag carpet and peace signs).

    It's a gorgeous film in so many ways.

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