Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp

Lady and the Tramp (1955))

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

It wasn’t my intention to double-up on the Disney posts but with it being Valentine’s weekend why not take a look at one of Disney’s most famous love stories?  It’s kind of funny that arguably Disney’s best stab at a love story involves two dogs considering all of the prince and princess relationships they’ve produced over the years.  There’s something special and endearing about the romance of Lady the cocker-spaniel and that loveable Tramp.  I think it has a lot to do with the fact that most people like dogs and this movie was clearly worked on by such people.  It gives the story a genuine feeling.  There’s often a feeling of audience manipulation with these Disney tales be it the need to be a good boy found in Pinocchio or the importance of growing up in Peter Pan.  Lady and the Tramp isn’t so obvious with its message, if it has one.  It’s one of the simpler tales produced during Disney’s prime years, along with Dumbo, and some of that is likely due to it not being based on a popular tale of old.  Lady and the Tramp is just a nice piece of entertainment, and one of my favorite Disney movies to date.

Incidentally, the fact that Lady and the Tramp wasn’t based on a well known story made Walt Disney nervous.  He felt that audiences would be less interested in the film as a result so he made sure a novelization was released before the film.  There was also a Disneyland TV special that aired before the movie premiered and basically went over the entire plot (this is included on the DVD and Blu Ray release, for those interested) scene for scene.  I don’t know why Disney felt that way, but it does seem odd to me.  I’ve also considered it one of the film’s strengths that it’s not a retelling of a popular fairy tale.  Those stories are well and good, but there’s little surprise for even younger viewers.  Also surprising is that the film was not well received initially.  Audiences gobbled it up but critics hated it, even panning the artwork.  Such a notion seems shocking to me when I watch it today and it seems like all of the critics that hated it either changed their mind or are dead.

If the puppy Lady sequence doesn't warm your heart then you simply have no soul.

If the puppy Lady sequence doesn’t warm your heart then you simply have no soul.

Visually, Lady and the Tramp is a remarkable picture.  Disney artists have become famous for their attention to detail when it comes to drawing animals.   Look up the making of pretty much any such picture from them and you’ll find the artists drawing from real life as they observe their subjects.  They’ve been doing it for years and it becomes clear why when watching any such film because the animals move and react in fantastic ways.  The common and expected movements of walking, sitting, begging, running, and so on are spot on for the canines in this film.  The subtler ones are also perfect such as when Lady is confused or is trying to get her beloved Jim Dear’s attention.  The animators also clearly want the audience to experience this world as the dogs do.  Every scene is from a dog’s point of view as Lady’s home is always displayed at floor level.  It’s rare to see a human’s face and often the people in the background are still paintings.  The animators want you to focus on the dogs, the humans are just ancillary.  Lady and the Tramp is also noteworthy for being the first animated feature to be shot in wide-screen Cinemascope.  This is a plus as it gives us even more artwork to take in!  Whether it’s the dogs themselves or the lovingly painted scenery, this film is a feast for the eyes.

These cats are jerks.

These cats are jerks.

Disney films are often as famous for their visuals as they are their songs.  Lady and the Tramp is more subtle in its use of music but is fantastic in its execution.  The music all works within the narrative and even after immediately watching it I have to think hard to remember when the film breaks into song.  That’s because it’s used so effectively and works with the picture as opposed to being an in-film music video.  One of the more popular spots for song is the introduction of the siamese cats (“We are siamese if you please,”) which is short and effective and sure to stick with you.  The most famous song though is easily “Bella Notte,” the song sung to Lady and Tramp by the italian restaurant owners during their iconic scene.  I’m not sure if there’s a more famous scene in any other Disney feature than the one where Tramp and Lady share their famous plate of spaghetti.  Describing the scene to someone who has never seen it is futile.  It sounds cute but utterly ridiculous.  The scene was shot and animated with such care though that it works.  It will charm you the first time you see it just as much as the fiftieth.

The animators had no trouble getting these dogs to display a wide range of facial expressions.

The animators had no trouble getting these dogs to display a wide range of facial expressions.

The film looks great, the film sounds great, but it wouldn’t be anything without a good plot.  Lady and the Tramp was a combination of storyman Joe Grant’s own tales about his English Springer-Spaniel and a short story Disney himself enjoyed called “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog.”  It’s a tale about two worlds colliding as the upscale Lady falls in with the lowborn Tramp.  Tramp is a tramp of his own choosing apparently and rather enjoys his carefree lifestyle where as Lady can’t imagine life without her masters, Jim Dear and Darling (if Lady is aware of what their real names are she doesn’t let on).  Lady is introduced in the film’s first scene as Jim presents his wife with a Christmas present containing her.  The sequence that follows is perhaps the film’s best as we see the young couple get introduced to life with a puppy.  Jim wants to be stern with Lady on her first night and establish a nightly pattern where as Lady just wants to sleep with her new mom and dad.  Lady, of course, wins out and gets accustomed to life as the center of attention in the household.  It’s not until Jim Dear and Darling are expecting their first child that she gets a peak at what life could be like as second fiddle.  This is how Tramp is able to work his way in initially, and when Aunt Clara comes to babysit and views Lady as a nuisance, Tramp is there to seal the deal.  Lady gets a taste of what life is like for Tramp, the good parts and the bad, and our budding lovers are forced to confront their differences and Tramp is shown he needs to change if he wants to win the heart of his Lady.

Some Disney stories are scary and some are even sad, but Lady and the Tramp shuns most of these conceptions and remains a mostly fun picture with a very warm and happy outcome.  There are some scenes featuring action and suspense that may be a little frightening for young children, but this one is pretty tame by any standard.  Dog lovers will especially fall in love with this picture as it’s practically a love letter to our canine compadres and really only presents them in a favorable light.  Maybe those who do not have much affection for dogs will find this one harder to enjoy than others, but for my money this is one of Disney’s most watchable films and belongs in any movie collection.

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