Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson
In 1909, “Jim Dear” gives his wife, “Darling”, a Christmas gift of a cocker spaniel puppy. Given the name Lady, she enjoys being doted on by her upper-middle-class owners, and her friendship with the local dogs Jock and Trusty. Soon Darling becomes pregnant, and Lady appoints herself guardian of the infant.
When her owners leave on a vacation, Jim Dear’s aunt Sarah comes to look after the house and the baby. She brings with her two Siamese cats, who proceed to destroy most of the furnishings and blame it on Lady. Aunt Sarah attempts to get Lady muzzled, but she runs away and is saved from a group of stray dogs by the Tramp, a mutt who lives off of restaurant scraps. He shows her his lifestyle, including a candlelit Italian dinner, and she begins to fall for him.
While chasing chickens with the Tramp, Lady is caught by the dogcatcher and taken to the pound. There she discovers that the Tramp is a serial womanizer with a laundry list of exes. Once she is claimed by Aunt Sarah and released, she rejects the Tramp’s advances, as she feels he’s responsible for her being chained up in the back yard. He leaves, but comes rushing back when Lady sees a rat sneaking into the baby’s room. The Tramp successfully kills the rat, but is taken to the pound to be put down. Jock and Trusty manage to free him, though Trusty is seriously injured in the process. One year later, the Tramp has been adopted by Lady’s family, and they have a litter of puppies of their own.
While Snow White was in production, Disney animator Joe Grant came up with the idea for a story based on his pet dog Lady, and her relationship with their new baby. Disney liked the idea enough to send it to the script stage, but they were never able to come up with something that met his approval.
In 1945, writer Ward Greene published a short story in Cosmopolitan called “Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog.” Disney saw the opportunity to find the missing piece to finish Grant’s story, and purchased the film rights to the short story. Unfortunately, Grant left the company in 1949, long before production began. His storyboards remained, however, and they eventually put together a decent story in the early 1950s. Since this was effectively an original plot, and all of their previous full-length features (barring the package films) had been adaptations, Disney hired Greene to write a novelization of the script. It was published a full two years before the movie was finished.
As wide-screen movies were the big new technological fad of the mid-50s, this was Disney’s first movie in Cinemascope. The animators, and especially layout artists, pretty much had to relearn everything from scratch to adapt to the increased room in the frame. Upon release, the movie was panned by critics, who felt that the aspect ratio hurt the animation and that it didn’t have the spark of earlier Disney movies. Audiences greatly differed, however, and it ended up becoming Disney’s most profitable movie since Snow White.
This movie is quite charming, in a safe, nostalgic way. It’s pretty much a straight up romance, something that Disney actually hadn’t done to this point. Yes, there had been love interests in previous Disney movies, but the princes in both Snow White and Cinderella are pretty much nonentities who get the girl by default at the end. I guess Bambi comes closest, but that’s mostly limited to a single extended sequence. No, I’d say that this is the first Disney movie to actually feature a romance as the core of the film.
And it’s a pretty decent one at that. You have the upper-class girl from the gated community, who has to learn to survive from the streetwise, lower-class guy. In turn, she instills in him a sense of responsibility, so that he doesn’t abandon her at the end and risks his life to help her and her family. The “Bella Notte” sequence, with the indelible image of the two dogs eating the same piece of spaghetti until they accidentally kiss, is the most iconic and memorable moment in the movie, and is probably the single most romantic scene in a Disney movie pre-“Kiss the Girl”.
Speaking of “Bella Notte”, this movie is, like all of the Disney movies since Cinderella, a musical. This one’s little more hit-or-miss than the latter film, and is about on par with Alice in Wonderland for its musical offerings. There are three songs that really stand out to me. Besides “Bella Notte,” the other highlight is “He’s a Tramp”, sung by Peg, one of the Tramp’s ex-girlfriends that Lady meets in the pound. Performed in a cabaret style by jazz singer Peggy Lee (who also wrote all the songs), it’s a fun sequence that seems ahead of its time in some ways, like it belongs in one of Disney’s 1970s-80s movies and not in one from the mid-50s.
Of course, not everything in this movie can be pleasantly romantic and enjoyable. Like Peter Pan, there’s some very obvious racism that dates the movie considerably. I’m mainly referring to the third of the memorable songs that I mentioned earlier, the “Siamese Cat Song.” I don’t have a problem with the scene in concept. Housecats are frequently assholes, and it makes sense for two cats introduced to a new environment that smells of dog to wreck the place. Even the actual lyrics of the songs are more about the shit that they’re getting up to. No, the problem I have is with the performer’s (who I was surprised to learn was also Peggy Lee) affectation of a stereotypical sing-song “Asian” accent, along with the animators’ decision to lean further into the Asian stereotype by giving the cats squinty eyes and buck teeth. It’s only a couple of steps removed from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Racism aside, my strongest feeling about this movie is “pleasant.” Being a romance, there isn’t a huge amount of action, unlike Disney’s previous two movies. The character and background designs are all great, if a little awkward due to the change in aspect ratio. It’s definitely far from the worst movie I’ve seen in this re-watch, but there’s also nothing about it that’s really a home-run.
Animation: A- (The animators might have had a problem with the widescreen, but you can’t tell it from the results, which are beautiful)
Main Characters: B- (Lady is a little underwhelming, and the Tramp is a fairly one-dimensional “streetwise” character)
Supporting Characters: B (I Jock and Trusty are fine, but most of the other dogs don’t really get enough screen time to leave an impression)
Villains: D+ (This is really a movie without a true villain, and the most prominent antagonists are racist caricatures)
Music: B (The “Siamese Cat Song” nonwithstanding, this has pretty decent music overall)