An ex-husband and wife team star in a musical version of 'The Taming of the Shrew'; off-stage, the production is troublesome with ex-lovers' quarrels and a gangster looking for some money owed to them.
Texan farmers the Frake family head for the Texas State Fair in Dallas. The parents are focused on winning the competitions for livestock and cooking. However, their restless daughter Margy and her brother Wayne meet attractive new love interests.
Chinese stowaway Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) arrives in San Francisco with her father to meet her fiancé, wealthy nightclub owner Sammy Fong (Jack Soo), in an arranged marriage, but the groom has his eye on his star singer Linda Low (Nancy Kwan). This film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical is filled with memorable song-and-dance numbers showcasing the contrast between Mei Li's traditional family and her growing fascination with American culture. Written by
New DVD Resuscitates Rodgers and Hammerstein's Quaintly Entertaining East-Meets-West Musical
As a Japanese-American raised in the 1960's, I always had mixed feelings about the 1961 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Chinese-American musical comedy. Although it was refreshing to see so many Asian faces in a mainstream studio movie (granted several Japanese-American actors in Chinese roles), the portrayals always struck me as trite and catering to pre-existing stereotypes. Now that it has finally come out on DVD forty-five years after its initial release, I can appreciate it much more without raising my eyebrows as much, perhaps because it now seems so much a nostalgic product of Eisenhower-era sensibilities. Another reason is that the DVD contains a pristine print that balances the saturated use of color throughout. Moreover, there is the music, which while not grade-A material from the legendary team, has enough of their recognizably melodious style to make the whole affair quite entertaining now.
Set in San Francisco's Chinatown in the late 1950's, the soufflé-light story, written by Joseph Fields, is a family-oriented, musical-chairs romantic comedy focused on East-West cultural differences primarily in the well-to-do Wang household headed by the ultra-traditional Master Wang. It starts with pretty Mei Li, who has stowed away on a Chinese steamer with her professor father to become a mail-order bride for nightclub owner Sammy Fong. En route, they end up staying in the Wang home where she develops a crush on eldest son Wang Ta. But he is infatuated with saucy showgirl Linda Low, who is intent on making Sammy jealous enough for him to propose after five years of non-commitment. Wang Ta and Linda turn out to be a mismatch, which would be good news if only Mei Li's marriage contract were not so binding. If that situation is not complicated enough, dressmaker Helen Chao has a lifelong crush on Wang Ta as well.
An all-Asian cast was assembled, a rarity in itself back then, and it helps that most perform within the constraints of the movie quite well. Looking like a porcelain doll brought to life, Miyoshi Umeki lends her uniquely plaintive quality to the role of Mei Li, and she sings with quiet clarity on her trademark song, "A Hundred Million Miracles". As Wang Ta, James Shigeta, also a pleasant singer, is sincere with the matinée idol looks to match, although his naïve character seems excessively dim when it comes to women. Both, however, are overshadowed by the shenanigans provided by Nancy Kwan, at her pin-up cutie peak, as Linda, and Jack Soo in full Dean Martin mode as the cynical Sammy. Even though their stormy relationship seems to be lifted completely from Nathan and Adelaide's in "Guys and Dolls", they provide the lion's share of the entertainment with the domestic fantasy, "Sunday" a particular highlight.
While dubbed, Kwan performs the boudoir classic, "I Enjoy Being a Girl", with sexy flair, and she dances with graceful exuberance on "Fan Tan Fannie" and especially on "Grand Avenue" with a virtual battalion of dancers. Benson Fong, who memorably played Charlie Chan's #3 son in his youth, brings the necessary bluster to Master Wang, while Juanita Hall, Bloody Mary from "South Pacific", stays mainly on the sidelines as the understanding Auntie Liang except when she solos on "Chop Suey". Of the supporting cast, two performers stand out - teenaged Patrick Adiarte dancing energetically as younger son Wang Tan, and as the lovelorn Helen, Reiko Sato leads a stunning ballet on the show's best song, "Love, Look Away" (her voice is dubbed by legendary soprano Marilyn Horne). The opening credits showcase a series of striking watercolor paintings from artist Dong Kingman, and Russell Metty's richly colorful cinematography can finally be appreciated with the DVD.
The 2006 DVD extras are generous starting with a solid commentary track from Kwan and British film historian Nick Redman. Even though Kwan sometimes gets derailed by her life story, she and Redman partner well in bringing out intriguing aspects of the production and cast. There are five featurettes which feel like components of one feature-length documentary since the same participants show up in all five. The first one talks about the story's transition from the original novel by C.Y. Lee to the Broadway musical directed by Gene Kelly to the 1961 movie to the 2002 Broadway revival developed by David Henry Hwang. The other shorts focus on the casting, the score, sets and costumes, and a more personal look at Rodgers and Hammerstein. It's interesting how veteran filmmaker Henry Koster is barely mentioned since he directed the film, though his pedestrian direction is truly the least impressive part of the movie.
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