Thursday, April 26, 2018

the tale of two suzie wongs

The actresses France Nuyen and Nancy Kwan have been on my mind quite a bit lately, not only because I admire the two women but largely because Turner Classic Movies recently screened Richard Quine's 1960 film version of Paul Osborne's play, "The World of Suzie Wong," in which both starred -  Nuyen on stage and initially in the movie and Kwan in the finished film.

Turner Classic Movies has been devoting April to the career of William Holden - and "The World of Suzie Wong" was on the schedule.

For the occasion, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz has been joined by Stefanie Powers for brief pre- and post-screening discussions about the actor and his work. Powers and Holden had been a couple prior to his death in 1981 and they shared an enthusiastic partnership in animal activism. Powers' own activism and commitment haven't subsided a bit since Holden passed at age 63. She's carrying on the work they started together and, by doing so, they remain a couple.

But back to "The World of Suzie Wong." While the movie was extremely popular in its day, it is rarely shown these days. So I was there for TCM's screening on April 16th. (I referenced the film in a recent essay on Quine.) "Suzie Wong" is not a very good movie, but then, if you read the reviews, it wasn't a very good play either. However, despite the reviews, both the stage and film versions were big audience favorites, largely because the material promised a certain exotic titillation. That said, a bit of history...

Flashback: "The World of Suzie Wong" opened on Broadway - at the Broadhurst Theater - on October 14th, 1958. Based on a novel by Richard Mason, it was written for the stage by Osborne, who coincidentally also did the adaptation for the movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific," a roadshow event that opened a few months earlier - the previous March of the same year. And another coincidence/connection: Joshua Logan was the director of both "South Pacific" on film and "The World of Suzie Wong" on stage.

Speaking of Rodgers and Hammerstein, their latest musical at the time, "Flower Drum Song," opened a few months after "Suzie Wong" -  at the St. James Theater on December 1st, 1958. The presence of the two playing on Broadway concurrently confused audiences. Reportedly, some theater-goers went to "Suzie Wong" expecting a musical, while others were under the impression that  "Flower Drum Song" was the controversial play about a displaced artist befriending a young prostitute.


Logan had discovered and cast the exquisite France Nuyen, then in her late teens, as Liat in "South Pacific" and was impressed enough to take her to Broadway for "Suzie Wong." William Shatner was cast as the artist and, in his autobiography "Up Till Now," he writes that Nuyen could speak only limited English at the time: “She learned all her lines phonetically. Much of the time she didn’t understand the emotional meaning of the words she was speaking ... She was a lovely young lady. She had this beautiful face, and when acting in films – for the immediacy – she was wonderful."

While it may be true that she worked better on film because the camera loved her face, Nuyen nevertheless won a Theater World award in 1959 for the her performance, as did Shatner. And despite the mixed reviews, the play ran for two years - until January 2nd, 1960. It was produced by David Merrick and Seven Arts, the production company of Ray Stark, and when Stark struck a deal with Paramount for the film, Shatner's role went to Holden. “Yeah, they got some handsome movie star … I couldn’t understand it,” Shatner has joked. “But he was a wonderful actor.”

Meanwhile, over at the St. James Theater, audiences were experiencing a new kind of Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. "Flower Drum Song" broke away from the team's proven formula (you know, period piece with an innocent heroine and a dubious hero) for something more modern, something contemporary. "Flower Drum Song" is the liveliest and most jazzy of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, with its bounce gleefully exploited by Gene Kelly, who directed the stage production, and by Carol Haney, who did the choreography (with an assist from Kelly, no doubt).


The musical was based by Joseph Fields on a novel by C.Y. Lee who had fled war-torn China in the 1940s and came to the United States, attended Yale and settled in San Francisco's Chinatown as a translator and journalist. Lee wanted to be a playwright and tried but ended up writing a novel, "Grant Avenue," whose title was changed to "The Flower Drum Song."

The musical was noted for a cast that was nearly entirely Asian, with the exception of Larry Blyden who played one of the male leads (and who was married to Haney).

Pat Suzuki, a Japanese-American pop singer who had been interned during World War II, played one of the two female leads, showgirl Linda Low, and Miyoshi Umeki, also Japanese, essayed the role of shy Mei Li. Umeki had just won an Oscar for her role in "Sayonara," directed by ... Joshua Logan. It was Logan, busy with "Suzie Wong," who had suggested Umeki to Gene Kelly, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.

Flash Forward: The film version of "The World of Suzie Wong" started production in 1959 while the original stage production was still playing on Broadway and another version was touring. While Shatner was passed over for Holden, this was one of those situations where the star of the stage show - France Nuyen - was considered to own the role. There would be no "Suzie Wong" film without her. Paramount insisted she be part of the package, although it would later be reported that producer Ray Stark really wanted a young dancer from the Royal Ballet who had auditioned for him in London. That would be Nancy Kwan.

And Stark was determined to get his way.

Nuyen had left the stage production of "Suzie Wong" to make the film version on location in Hong Kong and London. During the pre-screening discussion of the film on TCM, Mankiewicz mentioned that Nuyen was ultimately replaced in the film by Kwan. But to say she was "replaced" gives the impression that she was dismissed before production even started.

This wasn't the case. The film was well into production and the "replacement" of Nuyen, which was made needlessly public at the time, was just one issue that plagued the movie. Just as the stage version of "Suzie Wong" went through painful rewrites during its tryouts in Philadelphia and New Haven, the movie also had a troubled history.

Stark originally approached Jack Clayton (fresh from "Room at the Top") to direct but he declined. The estimable Jean Negulesco was hired and was busy filming when Stark abruptly fired him and brought in Richard Quine, who had been helping Stark develop "Funny Girl" at the time. (Stark was the son-in-law of Fanny Brice, the subject of "Funny Girl.")  After five weeks of location work in Hong Kong and with the production ready to move to London for interior shooting, France Nuyen was next to go. When Nancy Kwan was hired, the production team and actors returned to Hong Kong in February of 1960 for extensive re-shoots.

In interviews, Shatner has referred not only to Nuyen's natural beauty but also to her strong will. She was not easily bullied and reportedly clashed with Logan during the rehearsals of "Suzie Wong." When she was taken off the movie version, the studio originally cited "chronic laryngitis" as the cause for the change in casting.

However, columnists like Louella Parsons reported that the reason for the termination was weight gain and ran photographs as illustrations. Nuyen was in a relationship with Marlon Brando at the time and the tabloids suggested she was depressed and, as a result, was overeating.

It was not pretty. It was humiliating. It was another case of Hollywood bullying - the bullying of women in particular.

Nancy Kwan's profile on Wikipedia offers an unusually detailed, quite revealing account of the "Suzie Wong" incident, including information about an early seven-year, $300-a-week contract she signed with Stark which predated the filming of the play and which reveals just how much the producer wanted her in that role - long before the movie was made. Kwan's preparation included taking acting lessons in Hollywood, playing a small role in the stage production and serving as Nuyen's understudy. When Nuyen left to do the film, Kwan took over the lead role.

During the discussion prior to the TCM screening of the film, when Mankiewicz mentioned that Nuyen was replaced by Kwan, Powers explained that the change was because Nuyen "suffered a sudden case of pregnancy."

This was news to me. Powers wasn't there, but Holden was. Perhaps the reported weight gain was a pregnancy. (Nuyen has one child - a daughter, Fleur - who was born five or so years after the "Suzie Wong" incident.) But my impression is that any trumped-up excuse would be used to rationalize the change in casting. Kwan may have been hand-picked by Stark but life wasn't any easier for her. According to the Wikipedia profile, after she got the film role, another producer of the play sued her for leaving with little notice. And on set, Stark reminded her: "France Nuyen is no longer in it, remember? If you're difficult, you'll be off it, too."

Where on earth were the suits at Paramount during all of this chaos, especially given that Stark was a first-time movie producer? (The film version of "The World of Suzie Wong" was Stark's entry into movies.)

In 2005, Kwan's $300-a-week wages and her employment with Stark were characterized as "indentured servitude" by veteran producer Edward S. Feldman and actor-producer Tom Barton - yet another example of how women in film are treated with casual disregard, both on screen and off.

The Aftermath: Nancy Kwan proved to be a charmer in 'The World of Suzie Wong." She received the best reviews in a movie that was otherwise dismissed. Her follow-up film would be her biggest hit, however - the movie version of "Flower Drum Song," no less. Henry Koster's faithful film of the stage musical provided Nancy Kwan with the opportunity to demonstrate her dancing talents as the plotting showgirl, Linda Low.

Ray Stark, still a fan of the actress, reportedly wanted to re-team Kwan and Holden in a film version of another show he produced on Broadway -  Richard Rodgers' 1962 musical "No Strings" (the only score for which Rodgers wrote both the music and lyrics) about an interracial love affair.

The Broadway production starred Richard Kiley and Diahann Carroll, who publicly questioned - and with good reason - Stark's plans to change the female lead's ethnicity.

The character of international model Barbara Woodruff (Carroll's character in the show) is shaped by America's civil rights and racial issues that, while not spelled out in the play, are crucial to the role. The project was aborted, the film never made.

In 1962, following their interrupted work on "Suzie Wong," France Nuyen and William Holden would be paired again in Leo McCarey's "Satan Never Sleeps," an affecting drama in which Holden plays a priest assigned to a Catholic mission outpost during the Chinese Civil War of 1949 and Nuyen plays the young woman who joins him on his trip there. Clifton Webb, in one of his last roles, plays the elderly priest whom Holden is replacing at the mission.

Together At Last: Finally, there's the 2010 documentary about Nancy Kwan's life - Brian Jamieson's "To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey." Ka Shen (關家蒨) is Nancy's birth name. It's a film that I have never seen but hope to one day. In it, Jamieson follows Kwan from her birth in Hong Kong in 1939, the daughter of a Cantonese architect and a model of English and Scottish ancestry. Her parents self-exiled to North China in 1941 during the Japanese invasion and returned five years later. When she was 18, Kwan attended the Royal Ballet in London. Which led her to Ray Stark and "The World of Suzie Wong."

Among those interviewed in Jamieson's documentary are Ed Feldman, Joan Chen, C.Y. Lee and ... France Nuyen.

Note in Passing: Now back to Stefanie Powers. I remember a particularly memorable episode of the wonderful David L. Wolper 1960s series, "Hollywood and the Stars," which profiled Powers when she landed her first big role (as Lee Remick's sister in Blake Edwards' 1962 film, "Experiment in Terror") and in which she discussed how the Hollywood suits insisted that she cover her freckles. The episode was titled "Birth of a Star."  

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~images~
(from top) 

~Advertisement for the Broadway production of "The World of Suzie Wong"

~Stefanie Powers and William Holden

~Playbill for "The World of Suzie Wong"

~Playbill page for "The World of Suzie Wong"

~Joshua Logan, William Shatner and France Nuyen rehearsing the stage production of "The World of Suzie Wong"
~photography: Friedman-Ables 1958©

~Poster art for the play "Flower Drum Song"

~Pat Suzuki, Gene Kelly and Miyoshi Umeki during rehearsals for the stage production of "Flower Drum Song"
~photography: Friedman-Ables 1958©

~Playbill for "Flower Drum Song"

~France Nuyen and William Holden in a publicity shot for "The World of Suzie Wong" 
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1960©

~Nuyen and Michael Wilding in a scene from "The World of Suzie Wong," filmed before Nuyen left the production
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1960©

~Nancy Kwan and Holden in a scene from"The World of Suzie Wong"
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1960© 

~Stefanie Powers and Ben Mankiewicz
~photography: Turner Classic Movies 2018©

~France Nyuen as Suzie Wong on film
photography: Paramount Pictures 1960©

~Poster art for the film "Flower Drum Song"

~Choreographer Hermes Pan and Nancy Kwan working on the "I Enjoy Being a Girl" number from "Flower Drum Song" 
~And Kwan with director Henry Koster in preparation for "Fan Tan Fannie"
photography: Universal-International 1961©

~France Nuyen and William Holden in "Satan Never Sleeps"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1962©

~DVD dust jacket for "To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey"

~Wilding, Nuyen and Holden in a scene from "The World of Suzie Wong," filmed before Nuyen left the production
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1960©

7 comments:

Daryl Chin said...

This was quite a fascinating post: i had no idea that the film THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG had been started by France Nuyen (who had already been in SOUTH PACIFIC and IN LOVE AND WAR). One thing that i'll mention is that i remember when THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG and FLOWER DRUM SONG were on Broadway; often, after the shows, the casts of both productions would come down to Chinatown to eat, there were specific restaurants they would frequent (don't remember the names, but they're long gone). And a lot of the people in small, supporting roles were from Chinatown, so a lot of people from Chinatown went to see those shows. (There's a story about Los Angeles' Chinatown in 1936: because of several spectaculars being filmed by MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers - THE GOOD EARTH, THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, STOWAWAY, OIL FOR THE LAMPS OF CHINA - the entire population of Chinatown wound up as extras for the big crowd scenes, and the place was totally deserted for a day.) Unfortunately, both France Nuyen and Nancy Kwan wound up with relatively short careers, which seems to have been a problem with the studio system in its last days: there just were few parts for Asian women. (I should also note that another unfortunate thing has been the spectre of "political correctness": one of the slogans for Asian-American activists was "No more Suzie Wongs!" i.e. no more roles for Asian women as prostitutes. And that taint has been with THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG for at least three decades now.)

joe baltake said...

Daryl! Thanks for the terrific post - quite informative, as always. Thought you (and others) might find this tidbit from Nancy Kwan's Wikipedia page interesting:

French actress France Nuyen played the stage version of the role and had been called a "businessman's delight" by a number of reviewers. Stark disliked this characterization, as well as "happy harlot" characters such as Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday. Stark wanted an Asian actress because slanting the eyes of a white actress would merely look artificial. He also praised Kwan's features: an "acceptable face" and "being alluringly leggy [and] perfectly formed."

-J

Charlotte said...

Ray Stark was a real piece of work but I assume he was not unlike most movie producers. Still, given that this was his first movie, I am also surprised that a Paramount executive didn't step in to protect Nuyen since the studio saw her as inseparable from the material.

Brian Lucas said...

What really impresses me is that, despite the horrible situation, it did not stymie France Nuyen's movie career. As Daryl points out, she made "In Love and War" right before "Suzy Wong," and when she lost the film role, she immediately segued into "The Last Time I Saw Archie," "Diamond Head," "A Girl Named Tomiko," "Man in the Middle" and, as you say, "Satan Never Sleeps." I can think of other careers that ended when a role was lost in such a public way.

joe baltake said...

Brian- Glad you brought up "A Girl Named Tomiko," which leads to other "connections." Nuyen's co-stars in the film were Michael Wilding, with whom she appeared briefly in the "Suzie Wong" movie" and Miyoshi Umeki, who of course appeared with Nancy Kwan in "Flower Drum Song."

Sheila said...

Sounds to me like Stark offered the role to Nancy Kwan even after the studio had signed France Nuyen. There was no way that this was going to end without drama.

Vanessa said...

I don't know if France and Nancy ever felt that they were pitted against one another by a powerful man, but there's no doubt that Hollywood in particularly was sorely in need of the #metoo movement.