September 10, 2013
One of the big steps we take in becoming adults is learning to accommodate our nostalgia for the things we loved as a child. We shouldn't deliberately disown the films, TV shows and other cultural icons of our youth; they played a crucial part in making us who are we, for better ... or worse, and in some way they continue to shape our cultural choices as adults. But we mustn't let ourselves be governed by a rose-tinted view of the past; it is a dangerous blinker on the critical mind, and most attempts to recapture said past result in failure.
Of course, it's very easy for me to say all this when I'm referring to things which did not affect me personally. I brought up this line of argument in my review of the fourth Indiana Jones film, since that series did not really impact me until I was a teenager; by then I already liked adventure stories, and they merely helped to cement this love. Lady and the Tramp, on the other hand, is one of the first films I can remember seeing, both in my home and in the cinema. Part of me regrets that it doesn't hold up quite as well in 2013 as it did in the early-1990s, but the rest of me can take comfort in the moments that make it a nice little charmer.
Like many Disney films released in the 1950s, Lady and the Tramp had a long gestation period, partly as a result of the delays caused by World War II. The original concept, involving Lady being replaced by the new-born baby, was first floated in 1937, but Disney dismissed it as being too sweet and not having enough action. The Tramp was added in the early-1940s, though he was originally known as Homer, Rags or Bozo. The animators worried that 'Tramp' would be too sexual for a children's story, pointing to the jazz standard 'The Lady Is A Tramp' which satirised New York polite society through the character of a socially wayward woman.
Over the next few years characters' names changed and various scenes were added or removed as Disney searched for the perfect story arc. In this time the only aspects of the film that remained constant were the two main characters and the dog's-level perspective on the human world (more on that later). It wasn't until 1953, around the release of Peter Pan, that Disney had the story anywhere near its finished shape, and even then changes were made right up to the release. The now-iconic spaghetti scene was almost cut by Disney, who felt that it was too silly; fortunately his animator Frank Thomas convinced him otherwise.
Lady and the Tramp is significant for being the first full-length Disney feature to be based on contemporary sources - namely Joe Grant's original pitch about Lady and Ward Greene's short story 'Happy Dan, The Whistling Dog' which created the Tramp. This is a little misleading, however, since the film is still essentially a period piece, judging by its fashions, transport and modes of address. The film has a contemporary spirit and a very 1950s view of the past, but it doesn't have the same flaws which hampered later modern-day efforts like The Rescuers or Oliver & Company.
The film is stylistically interesting in the lack of space given to human characters or faces. This idea is not without precedent - many Tom and Jerry cartoons featured just the hands, legs or voices of the humans. But what is interesting, at least artistically, is how much faith Disney puts in his audience being able to emote with animals as much as they would with people. He is so confident in the characters and (beautiful) animation that he deliberately reduces the humans' screen time, and gives very little that could explain the relationship between humans and animals, even in terms of scale.
In the past Disney stories centred around animals had always set up a balance between humans and animals in terms of screen time, and the boundaries in which the two could interact. Dumbo may be driven by its title character, but the ringmaster is shown at the same level or perspective as the elephant. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad may have a lot of animal characters, but a human villain is inserted on their level to humanise them. In Lady and the Tramp, everything is seen from the diminished view of a dog; the film deliberately resists giving out details about the human world, leaving Lady as the only way in.
Like Dumbo or Bambi, there isn't really a lot of story in Lady & the Tramp. None of these stories have the great sweep or classic beats of the fairy tales adapted by the company: their charm is more slight and simple, playing on innocence and childlike curiosity about the world rather than exploring more complex tropes and ideas. Ultimately its staying power is not that great, since it's not as visually rich or narratively substantial as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. But it does have a number of memorable moments, some of which have become icons of the Disney canon as a whole.
The visuals of Lady and the Tramp are very inviting. It begins modestly enough, opening like one of the package films of the 1940s with the shots of suburbia, falling snow and the heavenly choir. It's very close in fact to the Once Upon A Wintertime segment of Melody Time, right down to the slightly strange movements of the horses. But once Lady is introduced, the colour palette opens up and the rich summery colours begin to fill the screen and warm us up. The film is the first that Disney made in Cinemascope, and the widescreen format compliments the dog's-eye-view aesthetic.
The music is pretty nice too, even though none of the songs are as catchy as 'Heigh-Ho' or 'Baby Mine'. 'He's A Tramp' is one of the highlights, sung memorably by Peggy Lee and accompanied by great character animation. The film's use of barbershop in the dogs' howling is a nice touch, taking something relatively dissonant and shaping it to fit the character dynamics in the pound. Standouts elsewhere include 'What Is A Baby?' (also sung by Lee) and 'Bella Notte', with the resounding tenor complimenting the Italian chefs. 'The Siamese Cat Song' would also be memorable, were it not for the un-PC characterisation of the cats themselves, much like their counterparts in The Aristocats.
Like many Disney efforts of the time, Lady and the Tramp is at its best when it allows darker elements to encroach upon its sunny, chocolate-box world. The scene of Lady being chased by the dogs and the Tramp fighting them off is pretty tense; if we think of it in terms of human interaction, it's downright creepy. Likewise the scenes with the rat are quite threatening, like something had escaped from the dark woods in Snow White and the film was struggling to get rid of it by any means possible.
For the most part, however, the film is light, cheery and relatively stake-free. It's not as overtly schmaltzy as Bambi (which some may count as a mercy), but it's still a story driven by character interaction rather than reaction to other circumstances, and that in itself is no bad thing. We know pretty much from the outside where the story is going to go, and the film doesn't really deviate from the tried-and-tested beats of a class-driven romance. But the two main players are charming and convincing, with Barbara Luddy on fine form as Lady and Larry Roberts giving the Tramp a real swagger.
The supporting cast are well-voiced and generally solid. Verna Felton does a very good job as the highly strung Aunt Sarah, a complete departure from her graceful turn as Cinderella's fairy godmother. Bill Thompson is good as Jock, but he and Trusty don't have much to do other than stand around explaining the plot to Lady. Stan Freberg makes a nice little cameo as the Beaver, stretching out a single joke as far as it will possibly go. And the Mellowmen sing well for the dogs' barbershop quartet, even if their speaking accents are completely off-kiltre.
Lady and the Tramp is a good, solid, charming slice of fun which deserves some of its status as a Disney classic. It has none of the depth or staying power of the company's fairy tale ventures, and is hardly the most ambitious or ground-breaking love story committed to film. But its aesthetic departures and warm characters are enough to keep it both historically interesting and an enjoyable watch - especially with spaghetti.