The Great Disney Blogathon: Lady and the Tramp (1955)
|July 28, 2014||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Lady and the Tramp is my favorite of the classic era Disney movies. There’s something really homey and gentle about it; it’s one of the smallest-scale Disney movies, with a limited geographical scope and fairly low stakes. But every piece of this domestic little adventure fits exactly where it should, with nothing missing or extraneous, and the tone and characterization are superb. Aside from one glaring flaw – and I bet you already know what that is – it’s perfect.
As with most of the Disney films we’ve covered so far, Lady and the Tramp spent many years percolating before actually entering production – since 1936, according to one source. However, it’s unique among its full-length predecessors in that it was not based on a previous story. It was, admittedly, cobbled together from a few sources, primarily story man Joe Grant’s anecdotes about his dog Lady, which he shared with Walt along with some sketches, and a later short story by Ward Greene, “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog,” but at its heart, Lady and the Tramp is a Disney original.1 Most adorably, the opening scene, where Jim Dear gives Darling a puppy in a hatbox, was based on something Walt himself did, when he’d missed a dinner date with his wife and needed to make up for it in a hurry.
It was also the first Disney movie made in CinemaScope. By 1955, the movie studios were in a serious sweat over the popularity of television.2 Ultra-wide CinemaScope was one of their attempts to pull people back to the theaters by offering them something they couldn’t get on a tiny television screen: Cowboys riding over endless plains! Hundreds of chorus girls all spread out in a line! Cartoon dogs talking to each other from very far away! No, seriously, the film uses its ultra-horizontal canvas very effectively, especially in the climactic chase scene, but it does lend Lady and the Tramp a more realistic air than previous films.3 Because of its width, frequent cutting for closeups and the like looks weird in CinemaScope; instead, the characters are moved through the scenery while the camera remains largely stationery. Critics then (and animation buffs today) took the film to task for this, calling it unimaginative – but then, they said that about Bambi, too. (Someone should maybe have told those critics that animals don’t talk.) Audiences loved the movie anyway, and it ironically got an additional boost from Peggy Lee appearing on Walt’s TV show with the Mellomen to sing some of the songs from the movie. Here, have possibly the most delightful behind-the-scenes Disney clip of all time:
Anyway. As far as I’m concerned, the thing that makes Lady and the Tramp work as well as it does is the perfect balance the movie hits between making its canine characters human, and making them, you know, dogs. These critters are quite a bit more anthropomorphized than, say, the animals in Bambi, largely because they’re so domesticated (yes, even you, Tramp). And I hardly need to point out that anthropomorphization makes us care about the characters; giving human characteristics to non-human things has been animation’s jam from the start of the artform all the way up through the umpteenth dreadful Cars sequel. Some of the best scenes in Lady and the Tramp come when these human affectations are mined for humor, like Lady and Tramp’s date, or the scene where Jock and Trusty offer to marry Lady after she’s been, uh, “compromised.”4 The entire pound sequence is a steady stream of darkly humorous prison jokes, and that’s very much what makes it work.
Yet the dog characters always remain, at their core, dogs. This is subtly helped by things like the low camera angles, naming Lady’s owners “Jim Dear” and “Darling” (as she only knows them by what they call each other), and making all of the dogs pretty unclear on what exactly a baby is. It comes through in the body language: Tramp’s rolling on the ground when he laughs, every inch a happy, playful dog; Lady’s wonderfully inquisitive head tilts and stubby little tail wags; absolutely everything about feisty little Jock. (There were, of course, live models for the dogs. Lady was based on animator Hamilton Luske’s cocker. And you will no doubt be happy to know that the model for Tramp retired to doggy serenity on Disneyland’s pony farm.)
But it’s also something that’s bone5-deep in them, built into their very natures in a really likable and organic way. One of my very favorite lines in the movie is when Tramp asks Lady to come away with him and live off the leash. She’s tempted, but: “Who would watch over the baby?” And even Tramp, who is very anti-human, accepts that as a completely reasonable argument. Humans know that a dog, particularly a pampered little cocker spaniel, is not actually necessary for child-rearing, but Lady believes, with every fiber of her loyal canine bones,6 that it’s her job to watch over the baby. And that’s adorable.
It’s also what makes Lady such an effective heroine, albeit not a flashy one. She’s a sheltered upper class romantic, for sure – but she’s also such a good dog. She gets the paper! She chases the rats away! She does tricks! You never have to worry about her wandering off or hurting the baby; she’s the kind of dog you’d want your children to grow up with. (I should note at this point that I spent my entire childhood longing for a cocker spaniel that I planned to name Lady. So.) Who’s a good dog? Who’s a good dog? LADY IS.
Tramp, too, is an immensely successful character, with the kind of self-assured cool that makes you go, “…Wait. Do I have a crush on that cartoon dog? Naaaah. But maybe? NO, JESS, BE COOL.”7 His cleverness and selflessness are delivered elegantly within minutes of his arrival onscreen, and it’s easy to see how he’s gotten by so long on wit and charm. And yet, though he’s clearly a happy dog (WHO’S A GOOD DOG? WHO’S A GOOD DOG?), there’s a streak of pathos and bitterness to him that makes you wonder what’s happened in his past. His warning to Lady about being ousted from her humans’ hearts by a baby doesn’t seem to merely theoretical, and his derision at Trusty’s proclamation that “a dog’s best friend is his human” is clearly from experience. Someone was very cruel to this doggy once (NOOO HE’S SUCH A GOOD DOG).
The other character with a bit of a murky past is Peg, the least doglike of all the dogs. This is probably because there’s no canine equivalent to “hooker with a heart of gold.” (“Showgirl,” uh-huh, yeah right, Disney. YOU CAN’T FOOL ME.) She is still a fantastic character, though, warm and funny, and her song is the best one in the film. And can we talk about Peggy Lee’s tremendous contributions to this movie? Not only did she voice Peg (and was delighted to let Disney name the character after her8), she also voiced Darling and the Siamese cats Si and Am, which…Si and Am are racist caricatures, for sure, but that’s also a really wide range. It also means that Lee sang three9 of the five songs in the movie, all of which she also co-wrote! That is a huge creative presence from one lady. I genuinely can’t think of any other female songwriters in Disney history until, uh, Jeanine Tesori’s contributions to The Little Mermaid III?.10 Way to go, Peggy Lee.
And, since I’ve touched on it, let’s talk about Si and Am. Although, really, I don’t know what there is to say about them other than they are viciously racist stereotypes, and unlike Peter Pan, it’s not mitigated by having them be basically good guys. It’s much easier to simply skip them entirely, at least? And yes, you can argue that they are a product of their time, and certainly racism against Asians was at a zenith in the post-war era, but Disney has completely and utterly failed to take responsibility for it, or similar elements in other movies. They put warnings about the non-PC nature of the content ahead of some of their Disney Treasures collections of shorts, why can’t they do that for the much more widely-viewed feature films? What I find truly disgusting, though, is that they’re still making Si and Am merchandise, mostly in pin form. (Disney pin trading is a massive and insane subculture and Disney makes boatloads of money off of it.) Not only are they apparently unashamed of these racist characters, they’re perfectly willing to continue profiting off of them. That’s gross, Disney.
Anyway, not to end on a down note, but that’s the House of Mouse for you! A lovely, warm, beautiful movie about love and family, marred by one nasty chunk of racism. In this as in everything else, Lady and the Tramp is quintessentially, quietly Disney. It’s still my favorite classic film, and I still want a dog like Lady of my very own. But I’d also like Disney to own and make amends for the harm this movie has done.
- Walt asked Greene to write a novelization that was released prior to the film to drum up publicity, which is why the movie is often said to be based on Greene’s novel, but as you can see that’s not exactly the case. Additionally, Spanish writer María Lejárraga sent several screenplays to Disney, which were sent back to her; later, she found many similarities between her feline heroine and Lady. I can’t find any studio response to this claim, though. It’s not that I don’t believe Disney would steal an idea, because of course they totally would; it’s just if Lady’s name and her reaction to the baby came from Grant and the idea of her falling for a mutt from the wrong side of the tracks came from Greene, I’m not sure what elements were allegedly lifted from Lejárraga. ↩
- I talked a bit about this in my Bye Bye Birdie post ages ago. BBB is also in CinemaScope, though it doesn’t use it as effectively as LatT does. ↩
- It had a very different, very cool effect on the next film, Sleeping Beauty, but we’ll get to that in a couple of posts. ↩
- Wow did I not get that scene when I was a kid. Also? The scene where Jim Dear is going out for watermelon and chop suey because Darling has pregnancy cravings. I was as confused as Lady. ↩
- Dog pun! ↩
- Another dog pun! ↩
- Have I said too much? ↩
- HILARIOUS FUN FACT: Peg’s name was originally “Mame” but this was changed because they worried it would be offensive to First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. LOVE IT. ↩
- Possibly four? I’ve seen her credited for “What Is a Baby?” as well, but that’s always sounded like Lady’s voice actress (Barbara Luddy) to me. ↩
- I’m sure they exist, I just can’t think of them off the top of my head. They certainly don’t get the press your Alan Menkens and your Elton Johns get, though. ↩