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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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~Stefanie Powers and William Holden
~Playbill for "The World of Suzie Wong"
~Joshua Logan, William Shatner and France Nuyen rehearsing the stage production of "The World of Suzie Wong"
~Poster art for the play "Flower Drum Song"
~France Nuyen and William Holden in a publicity shot for "The World of Suzie Wong"
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1960©
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©