The Greatest Man in Siam is nominally set in a place called “Siam.” “Siam” is an older name for Thailand, which is in Southeast Asia, of course, not the Middle East. But this cartoon is not about Thailand, or anyplace in the Middle East for that matter, in any substantial sense.
We can, and I suppose we should, critique the cartoon for its standard-issue cultural misappropriation and Orientalism. At the moment, that acknowledgment is all I’m going to do. But, as these tropes aren’t being used to comment about some other culture, just why are they being used? Why the exoticism?
Most likely because it provides a plausible ‘cover’ for the central motif of the cartoon, the contest for the bride. That’s not the sort of thing that’s done in America, is it? So we’ve got to locate the story is some place where this sort of thing is the norm. A mythical Siam is as good a locus as any.
What we really need to know, of course, is what this bride contest is doing in the cartoon. It’s a device, for what purpose? But let’s set that aside for a minute and ask another question: Where’d this device come from?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I don’t think it was invented in 1943 in the Walter Lantz studios. There is, for example, Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, who asked her suitors to string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through 12 ax heads. But here Penelope is setting the terms of the contest, not her father.
A few minutes on Google turned up two things. The Wikipedia lists, without citation (so who knows about the accuracy) an ancient Indian custom, Swayamvara:
In this practice, the girl's father decides to conduct the Swayamvara of the daughter at an auspicious time and venue, and broadcasts the news of this to the outside world. Kings typically used to send messengers to outside lands, whereas commoners arranged to spread the news within the local community.
On the appointed day and venue, a list of suitors arrive at the girl's home and ask for her hand. The girl and her family get to choose among the suitors, sometimes through evaluating the completion of various tasks assigned. [italics mine, BB] When the girl identifies the husband of her choice, she garlands him and a marriage ceremony is held immediately.
A bit closer to home, an article in tvtropes indicates that a shooting contest plays such a role in Der Freischütz, an early 19th century opera by Carl Maria von Weber.
So, the idea’s been around the cultural block a few times. And that in itself is a matter of no small significance. For whatever reason, it's an attractive and compelling bit of cultural flim-flammery.
But that in itself doesn't tell us what it's doing in this mid-20th century American cartoon. And what, if anything, does it have to do homefront conditions during wartime? Judging from the evidence I’ve laid out in my previous post it authority is one thing in play. The king has the authority to declare the contest and to dispatch the first two suitors, The Smartest and The Richest. The third suitor, The Fastest, is dismissed by a lightening bolt dispatched by some unnamed Higher Authority (or perhaps its merely fortuitous) – a detail worth attending to.
But what happens to the king’s authority when The Hottest shows up and starts dancing with the princess? She, presumably, chooses to dance with him. Thus, in some way, she does choose the man she is to marry. She’s not entirely deprived of agency. Surely that must be noted.
And when that dance gives way to King Size and his wife, she bounces the King around on the dance floor. In that context, whatever it is, his kingly authority is no longer in play. And then everyone gets lost in the carnivalesque crowd. What’s that all about? And how do we balance all this against the joy in the dance and the music?
It’s all well and good to say it’s standard issue cultural flim-flammery, which it is. But what’s the flim, and how’s the flam work?
Or perhaps not.
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Here's a raft of framegrabs, in order, over at Classic Cartoons. Some are similar to those I have in the other posts, but there are many I didn't catch. You can find a model sheet for the princess over here.