Thursday, March 31, 2011

Siamese Eyes, Electricity, and a Contest

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Walter Lantz cartoon, The Greatest Man in Siam. I've listed the other posts at the end of this one. YouTube has the cartoon.
I’ve mentioned eyes several times in our on-going examination of The Greatest Man in Siam. People have eyes and so any depiction of people must necessarily show us those eyes. But this cartoon deals calls our attention to eyes in specific ways, ways that lead to deep issues.

I See You

Eyes first come into prominence when the princess is presented to us for our viewing pleasure. We see an unidentified group of men, located who knows where against a green background, ogling her:

siam 3F howlone

The first contestant, The Smartest, turns out to be cross-eyed:

siam 6 smartest

If you follow the king’s reaction closely, you’ll see that he has trouble establishing visual contact with the contestant. His eyes blink fidget around.

There’s nothing wrong with the eyes of The Richest, the second contestant. But his jewels are so bright that the light glinting off them hurts the king’s eyes.

Siam S7

Siam S8

The situation’s the same with The Fastest, the third contestant. There’s nothing odd about his eyes – though most of the time he’s moving so fast we can’t see them – but the king uses binoculars to follow him in after he’s first entered the palace. And when he’s completed his archery shot, he tosses a bowl of applesauce that lands on the king’s head and flows over the his face, forcing him to wipe his eyes clear:

siam 9C applesauce

Then, after The Fastest’s been hit by lightening and gone up in smoke, the king and his daughter hear The Hottest. Before they even look for him, they look directly into one another’s eyes:

siam 12 the look

Then and only then do look up at him. He floats down in his parachute, and starts his dance in front of them. During that dance we have a close-up on her face as she coyly draws a veil across her lower face and bats her eyes at him:

siam 14B she makes eyes

It’s quite a striking sequence. It’s not simply that we’re getting a close look at her, but that her face is fully shaded and richly colored. And the close-up is held for 5 or 6 seconds, which is a long time in a 7-minute cartoon. The camera cuts immediately from her face to a close-up of his face:

Siam S18

And his eyes give way to a pair of fuses. But let’s stop just as the substitution is taking place:

Siam S19

Visual Communication

Let’s think a bit. The eyes, of course, are organs of vision. But they’re also very important organs of communication. We signal attitudes and intentions with our eyes.

When those men ogle the princess, followed by howling like wolves, they do something very simple and basic that it easily escapes our attention. They establish her sexual desirability within the cartoon itself. That desirability is obvious as soon as we see her; we can see her form and aspect, we know the cultural codes. But, as I said, when the crowd goes bug-eyed, that fact is established within the world of the cartoon.

And her sexual desirability is independent of the fact that she’s the king’s daughter. Someone who marries her would, by that fact, gain access to the king’s wealth and power. Surely that’s part of what makes this contest so interesting and compelling to the populace at large. That she’s also a great beauty, well, that has nothing to do with wealth and power. But it’s what this cartoon focuses on and we know that as soon as those men go wild.

The various ocular failings of the first three contestants signify failures of communication. The first can’t look you in the eye and the other two make it difficult for the king to see. Beyond that, none of them pay any attention to the princess.

It’s only the third contestant, The Hottest, who who pays any attention to the princess. When, upon hearing the trumpeter, Size and his daughter share that glance, Size is, in effect, giving her permission to accept the trumpeter’s courtship. So, she gives him the eye and he, in turn, blows his electric blues.


His eyes become fuses – as he sings “With my trumpet I blow blues, I play so hot I blow a fuse” – and then those fuses spark:

siam 16 fuse eyes

siam 17A electricity

On the one hand, this is a perfectly obvious visual gag. “Blowing a fuse” is a common metaphor for emotional heat and electric sparking is a common metaphor for a sexual connection between people. But there’s something else going on here. That sparking is just a bit like the lightening strikes summoned by The Fastest, one of which ultimately destroyed him:

Siam S13B

Lightening is a form of electricity. Fuses conduct electricity; when they blow, it’s electricity that blows them. The Fastest had said that he could dodge lightening, and he demonstrated that. But he was also destroyed by it. The Hottest has the ability to channel roughly the same energy.

And that energy is outside the scope of the king’s authority. Size used his officials to eliminate the first two contestants, but not our third one. The first two would likely not have been physically desirable for the princess: The Smartest because he’s uncoordinated, The Richest because he’s old. The Fastest is apparently young. He’s also broad shouldered, narrow-hipped and certainly physically fit. But he’s defied the electric energy and so was destroyed by it.

By contrast, The Hottest isn’t much of a physical specimen; he’s narrow shouldered, bottom heavy and round-faced. But he’s got moves. While he’s singing his song he does a suave shimmy that’s comparable to the one the princess will do just a bit later. And of course he can blow a hot blues. He and he alone has the power that the ladies love.

The point is not simply that The Fastest and The Hottest are different, but that that difference is being staged in a specific way, one associated with electrical energy, and that energy is outside the king’s powers. Beyond this, whereas The Smartest and The Richest are visible on screen before they start singing their songs, we hear The Fastest and The Hottest before we see them and before they sing their own praises. What we hear is very different, the threatening sound of an air raid siren vs. the exciting sound of the trumpet.

Upon hearing the siren sound, King Size turns around and looks down into the courtyard where he spots The Fastest:

Siam S10

In contrast, the king and his daughter look up to see The Hottest, who then comes down to them.

The Contest

Contests are strange. You set up a contest, and then the winner is determined, perhaps by the skill of the contestants, but perhaps by fate, or the gods. It all depends on how the contest is framed and conducted.

This particular contest is has been decreed by the king as a means of choosing a husband for his daughter. He’s not going to pick a husband, nor is she. The contest itself is. And just how does the contest do that?

There are no declared rules other than the stipulation that the contest is not open to “employees of the royal palace and their families,” as stated on the announcement early in the cartoon. The contestants don’t compete against one another in any specific task or tasks. They just come on stage and strut their stuff.

Acting through his functionaries, the king himself rejects the first two. The third is zapped by lightening while the fourth, and the winner, ushers in a party through his musical lightening. The cartoon ends with a lot of dancing, not only between the trumpeter and the daughter, involving many others as well. Among them, King Size and his wife, who clearly dominates him on the dance floor.

At the beginning, then, we’re in an arena where the king is dominant. At the end we’re in an arena where he’s but one person among others. In between we’re in a situation that was set-up by the king, the contest, but which then moves beyond his power.

This cartoon, then, this fable about the greatest man in Siam, is the stuff of mythology. There is not, in fact, anything particularly odd about that, as mythological characters show up often enough in cartoons. But all too easily with think of cartoons as, well, pop fluff, kid’s stuff of no particular cultural significance except, perhaps, as a sign of this or that pathology.

Every culture that talks of kings, has stories about what kings cannot do, no matter what they wish or how hard they try. The Greatest Man in Siam is one such story. A simple one perhaps, but such a story nonetheless. It is presented with great visual and musical skill, skill that, in itself, is a delight. Surely it is worthy of our attention and respect.

* * * * *

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the Walter Lantz cartoon, The Greatest Man in Siam. Here are the earlier ones:

1. The Hottest Man in Siam.
2. The Greatest Social Contract in Siam.
3. Why Siam?
4. The Phallus in the Palace.

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