Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Hottest Man in Siam

Michael Barrier’s recent post about life at the Walter Lantz studio prompted me to review what is (currently) my favorite Lantz cartoon, one of the Swing Symphonies: The Greatest Man in Siam. It’s got slammin’ music on the soundtrack, composed and directed by Darrell Calker, and featuring some ferocious playing by an uncredited trumpet player. It was directed by James Culhane and animated by Pat Matthews and Emery Hawkins.

The cartoon’s story is simple. King Size of Siam decides it’s time for his daughter to wed. So he has a competition for her hand. Four men compete in succession and the last one wins. The cartoons ends with lots of dancing.

I figured I’d take a dozen or twenty screen shots and write up a post. There’s nothing tricky or complicated about this cartoon, nothing like the brilliant oddities of Porky in Wackeyland. “It’ll be easy,” I told myself. “Snap the screenshots, say something about the brilliant trumpet playing and the dance animation, and you’re done.”

Wrong. It’s not that it turned out to be tricky in an unanticipated way. It’s just that once I started stepping through the dance sequence it got more and more interesting. I decided it just wouldn’t do to take two or three of four screen shots of it and let it go at that. No, that animation merits a closer look.

So that’s what I’m going to do in this post, take a close look at the dance sequence. Though not close enough, for you really need to step through it frame by frame to appreciate it and to watch it several times over. But at least I can point out some things to pay attention to. I’ll look at the rest of the cartoon in a later post.

Dance, Dance, Dance

The dance sequence starts a bit over five minutes into the cartoon. The smartest, richest, and fastest men in Siam have all failed in their quest for the king’s daughter. Just after the fastest failed, King Size turns to his daughter and remarks, with a chuckle, that “he burned himself out.”

siam 11 burned himself out

Then we hear a hot lick on unaccompanied trumpet. King Size and his daughter are startled, and look one another in the eye:

siam 12 the look

They look up and see a trumpeter on high:

siam 13 the trumpeter

He finishes blowing his lick and floats down to the floor where Size and daughter are located. As the trumpeter floats down he begins singing about how he’s the hottest man in Siam. When he lands he continues singing even as he does a sensuous dance directed at the daughter and observed by the king:

siam 14 the performer

Notice how she’s looking directly at him while the king is looking, well, a bit startled. The song concludes with these lyrics: “With my trumpet I blow blues, I play so hot I blow a fuse, I’m the hottest man in Siam, yes I am.” Not one for modesty, our trumpeter, but then a contest for the king’s daughter is not a context that calls for modesty.

We move to a close-up of the trumpeter’s face. His eyes become fuses. The face disappears and the fuses spark:

siam 16 fuse eyes

siam 17A electricity

Then the trumpeter goes flying through the void – in ecstasy? – and becomes an orange outline. Now we hear the ferocious uncredited trumpeter launch into a ride solo that will drive the next 20 seconds of the soundtrack.

siam 17B ecstasy

siam 17C ecstasy

siam 18 outline horn

First we just see the trumpeter playing against a black background (notice the horn spitting flames):

siam 19 solo

siam 20 flame horn

Then the throne room returns and milady enters from the right while our trumpeter plays to her and for her from the left. They become involved in one another’s moves, one another’s space:

siam 21 milady enters

siam 22 he follows

siam 23 follow round

Now they join hands. Pay attention to the audacious poses. I don’t know who’s responsible for that work, Matthews or Hawkins, but it’s brilliant:

siam 24 join hands

siam 25 swing together

siam 26 swing together

siam 27 swing together

Now they’re facing one another and they’ll continue circling. Where we’d been staring at her buttocks just a few frames ago, now we’ll see his, though not so audaciously close. Notice her facial expressions:

siam 28 swing together

siam 29 swing together

siam 30 swing together

siam 31 swing together

siam 32 swing together

Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy

Now she’ll do an elegant little shimmy, her head and shoulders staying level while her hips and waist move from side to side while. She shimmies and he plays to the moon and the stars and all the planets. Very elegant. Very classy.

siam 33 separate

siam 34 slinky dink

She breaks from the shimmy and they go into an astounding wind-up  that allows for some more virtuoso perspective drawing:

siam 35 wind-up

siam 36 wind-up

siam 37 wind-up

siam 38 wind-up

They’re face-to-face. He’s pointing his horn to the sky and she’s thrusting her hips into his trunk. Put on your Freudian thinking caps and make of it what you will. Whatever you make of it, however, know that this sequence is pure joy on the screen:

siam 39 release

Now they grasp one another and continue on around. Again, look at her face.

siam 40 release

siam 41 release

siam 42 cross over

siam 43 cross over

siam 44 cross over

Look closely at that last pose. Imagine what’s going to come next. Got it fixed in your mind? Well, here it is, the very next frame:

siam 45 switch

The trumpet solo’s over. That’s King Size on the left and, presumably, his wife on the right, though she’s never identified as such. We’ll watch them dance for a sequence, and then there’ll be a crowd sequence. And so more after that, just to finish things off. But I’ll leave that to a later post.

The important thing is that we have this quick change from a pair of young people lost in dance to their elders. That switch surely establishes a continuity between the young people and the older; we all like to dance. Beyond that, what?

Do You Wanna Dance?

I’ll leave that to a later post as well. My object in this post was simply to show you something of what’s going on in that dance sequence. Look at the poses, the facial expressions, the symmetries and angularities, the composition and the flow. It’s all important, for that’s how the art works.

This sequence is as powerful an expression of outrageous joy as I’ve seen in a film, short or feature-length, animated or live-action. Not bad for a mere cartoon. Not bad at all.

I wish I knew who that trumpeter was.

* * * * *

Further posts in this series:

2. The Greatest Social Contract in Siam.
3. Why Siam?
4. The Phallus in the Palace.
5. Siamese Eyes, Electricity, and a Contest.

Edit: Just in! the dance sequence itself:

Addendum: I wonder if the lightening-eyes gag is modified from a similar gag in the Pink Elephants sequence from Dumbo:

pink elephants 34 electricity


  1. What a weird notion of "Siam"! That's Orientalism for ya.

  2. Yep, it has nothing whatever to do with Siam. I'm guessing the name was chosen for lyrical reasons. It rhymes with "I am," a phrase that turns up rather often in the song that's sung throughout over half of the cartoon.

    Note even sure this rises to Orientalism.

  3. Music cheesy as f**k but not a bad dance sequence. The "harem slut sodomy meme" could have been a bit more fleshed out.

    A bit deeper than like the usual valve or crooked timber wank off tho.