The World of Suzie Wong

Submitted by Andrew Suddaby on Wed, 11/27/2019 - 17:29


Suzie Wong film shoot b.
Suzie Wong film shoot b., by Andrew Suddaby
Suzie Wong film shoot a.
Suzie Wong film shoot a., by Andrew Suddaby

These two original photographs were taken in very early 1960 by a member of the Royal Air Force when he came across a film unit filming at Aberdeen harbour, and they recently appeared for sale on eBay.  Recognising the face of William Holden, the male actor who appeared in 'The World of Suzie Wong', I was intrigued that the actress playing Suzie Wong was not Nancy Kwan but was Frances Nuyen, who had starred in the Broadway play and who was originally cast as Suzie for the film.  Before its completion she was replaced by Nancy Kwan and much of the original footage filmed in Hong Kong and the studio had to be re-shot with Nancy Kwan. The two photographs show several film crew at work.  I bought both images and donated them to Gwulo.

There cannot be many other photographs that show Frances Nuyen as Suzie - unless anyone knows otherwise?  Andrew Suddaby

There is an article in the SCMP from 2017. Here some details are given why France Nuyen was replaced by Nancy Kwan.

And another amazing fact: In the Broadway musical France Nuyen played together with William Shatner, later playing (becoming) Captain Kirk of the Enterprise.

Thank you Klaus and Moddsey for your excellent detective work and for adding more information about what happened concerning the stage and screen versions of the story.  I hadn't known that the Broadway show was such an initial flop.  If it hadn't been allowed to continue (the telling point is about advance ticket sales!) I suspect that it would never have gone on to London. It would almost certainly never have been turned into the film, and all those iconic images of old Hong Kong would have been lost for ever.  Regardless of the story, it is those scenes that now provide us with such a vivid  look into a Hong Kong that has gone forever.  I found it interesting to read the two conflicting - but perhaps complementary versions of why Frances Nuyen left the production.  The producer was faced with the difficult problem of finding a new female lead, and the very expensive re-shooting of the scenes on location would have been unwelcome. I hadn't known that William Shatner (later Cpt. Kirk) was the male lead in the American stage show, and I wonder how the film would have been received with him in it rather than William Holden.  Regardless of that, I suspect that it was Nancy Kwan rather than William Holden who was the reason for the film's box office success!   Andrew

Hi Andrew,

Well done for spotting the significance of these photos. When I first saw them I just thought they were typical tourists' photos of a visit to a floating restaurant.

And thank you very much for sending the originals to me too - much appreciated!

Regards, David

Indeed Nancy was the better choice as she was much taller and a better match for Holden. She learned how to dance in UK which came in handy in the movie. Being an Eurasian Nancy appealed to both local and European tastes. It was said Frances put on weight after being snubbed by Marlon Brando, and that affected her image in a cheongsam, true?

It's hard to get to the truth about France Nuyen. I read somewhere that she had put too much weight on between the London studio filming and the HK location filming, but looking at her few images captured at that time I doubt it (some more here). Additionally, she made an appearance in the first epsiode of Rod Taylor's Hong Kong series just a few months later (Ep: Clear for Action).

The linked article mentions that she suffered a throat infection and collapsed on set in January 1960. The AFI website mentions that there were clashes between her and the producer (Ray Stark) that led her to being sacked. The latter makes more sense to me because the production was delayed unti May before reshooting began and that would have been plenty of time for her to recover and resume the role. The original director, Jean Negulesco, also leff due to differences between him and Stark. He was replaced by Richard Quine.

Thanks for the detailed reply, although from what I read Frances was nuts about Brando but the feeling was not mutual. She was upset at the rejection and began stuffing her face till she could barely fit into her dresses. Naturally she flubbed her lines on the set and it was a matter of time before she got canned. We'll never know for sure. Not even Bill Holden is around to tell us today. ( BTW was her name France or Frances?)

Thank you and Phil for the additional interesting information about the early filming of 'The World of Suzie Wong'.  I han't realised that there was so much publicity about the problems faced in early 1960, or how much interest was shown by many people in Hong Kong.  According to her profile on the Internet Ms Nuyen's first name is France, which is more likely as she was born in France, her mother was French and her father Vietnamese. I have also seen 'Frances', in several places, which was until recent years not an uncommon name in England, where it is the female version of Francis.  I suspect that she was replaced as Suzie Wong for a variety of reasons that all culminated in the expensive decision to find a new female lead.  Whatever, it was a good decision for the box office and for film goers.  I can understand some early reservations about a possible unfavourable impact on the developing tourist market in 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong, but the film still remains one of the best authentically visual depictions of the relatively old Hong Kong.

There you have it. Ms Nuyen was French/Vietnamese and thus had little to do with portraying a Chinese girl in HK where virtually no French is spoken. At least Nancy was originally from HK and spoke fluent English, The end product would have flopped had France stayed on and her lines dubbed. However you may wish to try, no one goes around with a country for a name like France on the marquee. Just plain dumb. HK managed to easily sell itself in those days,not like the present cold, glitzy concrete and glass megalopolis.

perhaps should clear up a few 60+yr old conspiracy theories - and these are from the actress herself...

Yes she (and Jean) were removed - part of a small movement to install Nancy after pressure from studio to promote "their" prefered contract player.

Jean got kicked for refusing to agree to this change.

As for photos - there are 2-3 others she still has in her personal collection. But indeed, not many photos exist.

So there you go - the wonderful world of movie studios manipulating careers and planting malicious stories to distract from the real situation of events. Thankfully Robert Mitchem was wise (and powerful enough) to support her into Man in the Middle and career didnt get totally shut down.

Theres a darker side to what actually happened - but atleast this helps put some records straight...

thanks for the clarification BDFUK123. My understanding of the filming timeline and events certainly didn't support the story about an emotional breakdown and a throat infection is certainly not enough to warrant a complete recast. But I do wonder why the studio preferred to risk it all on a then unknown in the form of Nancy Kwan. I guess the truth will out eventually.