Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Greatest Social Contract in Siam

Now that we’ve had a chance to examine the critical dance sequence in the Walter Lantz cartoon, The Greatest Man in Siam, let’s take a look at the whole thing. As I remarked earlier, the cartoon seems to be a simple one in which everything is obvious. Nothing to puzzle over.

But it’s simple and obvious only because the moves and memes are familiar, because it’s built on tropes that have been circulating for a long time. As I explained previously, the story is simple: King Size is giving away his daughter’s hand in marriage. Four men compete. One wins. End with a party. It’s that simple.

* * * * *

When I set out to analyze the cartoon I was curious about one thing: Why’d the trumpet player win? What is it that he did right that the others did wrong?

Let’s not go there just yet. Let’s start at the beginning. Roughly the first two minutes or so are devoted to establishing this exotic world, one based on standard clichés about the Middle East. The opening shot tells us where we are – notice the domes, the minarets, and the color scheme:

siam 1 cityscape

Now we move around and see some gags, such as:

siam 2 marketplace

A little rotund fellow bounces out of a big car – most likely the king – and pastes something to a wall. It’s a proclamation about the competition for the royal princess. Notice the familiar language, which comes, not from the Middle East, but from contemporary America:

siam 3 announce

Then we see a marquee on over the door to the palace, a double bill with a distinctly working class under-title, a bowling contest:

siam 3B marquee

Then a herald comes through an enormous door:

siam 3C trumpeter

Some functionary unrolls a long runner down the stairs just off the right of that frame and, when it all runs out, the roly-poly king comes flying out:

siam 3D size appears

The King manages to land upright on the throne. As he settles himself we hear that snake charmer song which is ubiquitous in cartoons. A different melody starts up and the king begins to sing of the contest (the material in brackets is spoken as an aside):
I’m the ruler of this country,
I’m the king of all the land.
[That’s me, believe me.]
And today I give away my daughter’s hand.
[Absolutely free, no charge, no tax.]
We’ll hear this melody repeated over and over as each contestant sings his own words. The king finishes his singing and introduces his daughter, who’s standing on a low pedestal:

siam 3E daughter

She alights from the pedestal and sashays around. She’s spotted by some men, who give us this utterly obvious gag:

siam 3F howlone

siam 3G howltwo

Yes, one shouldn't do such things. Notice, however, that it's the men who become animals momentarily, not the woman who's the object of their lust. And . . .  why all of a sudden the green background?

The focus shifts back to the king, who once again sings:
Now the greatest man in all Siam
My daughter weds today. [ha ha ha ha]
Let the competition start without delay,
[without delay, without delay, without delay]
Now things get interesting. Each time he sings/says “without delay,” he consults a different timepiece. Here we see the second and the fourth ones:

siam 4 without delay

siam 5 without delay big clock

The last one is worth a moment’s consideration. Its position and shape suggest a giant phallus. If so, what’s it doing here? The king’s not getting married; his daughter is. The phallus is for the benefit of the suitors. It’s a symbol of the king’s power, to which they are subject. He may be a little roly-poly guy, but he IS the king, and he has a king’s powers.

Enter, the first contestant:

siam 6 smartest

He sings that he’s the smartest man in Siam. But he quite obviously is not smart at all. He sings that “When the draft board calls for me, I’ll have water on the knee. I’m the smartest man in Siam, yes I am.”

siam 6B water knee

That is to say, he’s smart in the sense that he’s got a plan to dodge the draft. An official identified as the head of the draft board will have none of and ships The Smartest off to the navy.

What just happened? This cartoon came out in 1943, during World War II. The draft was very much on people’s minds. Many thought of dodging it, and some did. To dodge the draft is to defy the authority of the state. And in this cartoon, the state is King Size. That’s why The Smartest is banished, for defying the King’s authority.

The next man up proclaims himself to be the richest man in Siam:

siam 7 richest

His jewels are so dazzling they hurt the king’s eyes. Not a good thing to do. In the course of listing his riches, The Richest reveals that he’s dealing in ration books, which is, of course, illegal:

siam 7B ration books

Once again World War II intrudes into the cartoon. The king calls for the Royal Tax Collector, who strips The Richest of all his riches. Two down.

As the king is laughing at the comeuppance of The Richest we hear what sounds like an air raid siren, and then flying planes – more allusions to the war. We see a blurr whizzing around, which turns out to the third contestant, the fastest man in Siam:

siam 9 fastest

He manages a stunt in which he shoots an arrow to the left, then runs to the left, grows a tree, plucks an apple from the tree, and puts the apple on his head where the arrow turns it into apple sauce. He then casually tosses the apple sauce away and it lands on the king’s head:

siam 9B Shoots apple

siam 9C applesauce

The king is not happy. The Fastest ends his song: “Lightening don’t scare me a bit, ‘cause I can dodge before I’m hit, I’m the fastest man in Siam, yes I am.” Lightening strikes him in the buttocks while he’s taking a bow. He's reduced to smoke:

siam 10 lightening

Three down. As the smoke clears, King Size turns to his daughter and observes that “he burned himself out.”

This is where we started our investigations in the previous post. King and daughter hear a trumpet riffing and lock eyes in mutual acknowledgment of the outrageous music:

siam 12 the look

They hear The Hottest and they’re intrigued. He comes floating down, singing that he’s the hottest man in Siam. That is to say, he brings himself down to their level:

siam 13B floating down

Once again a boastful contestant. But that in itself is not a problem. The contest requires such bravado. What’s important is that The Hottest doesn’t challenge the King’s authority or insult him in any way and he addresses his attentions primarily to the daughter, not to the king. He wants the princess to like him; none of the others paid any attention to her. This is both obvious and important. The deal is set-up as a marriage arranged by the king, but it comes down to his daughter’s choice. She signals her approval of The Hottest by making eyes at him:

siam 14B she makes eyes

Again with the eyes. A few frames later we’ll get a close-up on The Hottest’s eyes and, as we saw previously, they’ll become fuses. And the fuses will spark electricity:

siam 17A electricity

It’s a simple gag, but we would be remiss to think of it as just that, a simple and clever gag. In a sense the whole cartoon up to this point ‘disappears’ into those sparks and the rest of the cartoon emerges from them. This is the point of ritual transformation. Before, one world, after, a different one.

The Hottest comes floating out of those sparks as he launches into his solo:

siam 17C ecstasy

As the solo becomes established, the background reappears, and The Hottest now plays to and dances with The Princess. That goes on and emerges in another transformation:

siam 44 cross over

siam 45 switch

Now King Size is dancing with his wife. The joy spans two generations. Notice that she’s considerably larger than he is. She tosses him around on the dance floor like he’s a toy:

siam 46 king toss

siam 47 underwear

She grabs his garment and spins him out until he’s standing there in his underwear, a most undignified situation for a king. He's no longer the King of All the World, or, at any rate, of Siam. He's just some woman's husband. She reels him back and the scene gives way to general dancing:

siam 48 carnivale

We get another duo-dance from The Hottest and The Princess. They merge with everyone else in a cross dissolve which reveals him to be wearing a top hat. She’s now got flowers in her hair. The wedding’s taken place and we’re dancing at the reception:

siam 49 cross dissolve

siam 50 wedding

siam 51 all jump and jive

Notice the composition in that last frame. We’ve got dark figures in close-up pushing off the edge of the frame and we see the happy couple behind them in the middle.

King Size is tossed into the fountain for one last humiliation:

siam 52 king's all wet

In effect, this highest has now become the lowest, a standard ritual move. The hierarchical world before the dancing has given way to a world in which all participate on level terms. Except, of course, for the king. He does ritual duty as the butt of all jokes. The cosmic ring toss.

The social contract. That’s what’s going on in those exchanges of eyes. The social contract is being forged/reaffirmed. We’re all eye-to-eye.

siam 53 happily ever after

siam 54 kick those cans

* * * * *
It’s a remarkable performance. That marriage is the foundation of society is a commonplace, a cliché. It may also been something of a truth, when properly argued and demonstrated. Sociologists and anthropologists are wont to make such demonstrations. But so do cartoonists, as the Walter Lantz studio has done in The Greatest Man in Siam.

* * * * *

The cartoon on YouTube:

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