Welcome to Revisiting Disney! Today, we’re looking at that film that is short, sweet, and makes you want to get a puppy, Lady and the Tramp! I’ve labeled each category, so if you want to skip to the parts that interest you most, feel free. And, of course, if you have any thoughts, burning or otherwise, please share in the comments!
Lady and the Tramp was released on June 22nd, 1955 and it holds a special place in the hearts of many fans. Oddly enough, this film is one that seems to be forgotten in the official line-up; it was released after Peter Pan and before Sleeping Beauty, so this was between two of the Disney studio’s most beloved films. At the same time, it’s also one of the most endearing films that Disney ever made, mainly because it is such a sweet story.
Lady and the Tramp has been called a Disney film that sets a more casual feel and tone for the studio; it has more in common with Dumbo and Bambi than with other Disney films. The film is great, because it takes something that we all know, the life of various dogs, and gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at their lives.
There are lots of fun examples of this. Lady thinks that her owners’ names are Jim-Dear and Darling, because that’s what they call each other. Additionally, the audience rarely sees the faces of the human characters, keeping the camera focused on the level that the dogs inhabit. We see things through the eyes of the dogs, who are often puzzled by the behavior of their human.
The dogs also communicate to each other by speaking, but they communicate with their humans by barking. My favorite touch is that when the dogs call to each other, the unique bark that each breed exhibits can be heard. I loved this, because it was an added bit of realism and made the film more fun (to me, at least).
The music in this film is fantastic. The songs are very catchy. The score is by Oliver Wallace, who had done the music for Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Cinderella and Dumbo. Additionally, several songs are present in the film. All the songs but “Home Sweet Home,” as howled by the dogs in the pound, were written by Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke. Additionally, almost all of them are sung by Peggy Lee (except for Verna Felton’s Aunt Sarah singing part of “Rock-a-Bye Baby” and the famous “Bella Note”).
The casting of Peggy Lee is regarded as the first time a superstar was hired to work on an animated film. Although she later sued Disney for a breach of contract, during the film’s production and its run in theaters, she worked to promote the film, performing in behind-the-scenes specials. Check out this one below; it’s behind the scenes footage from “He’s a Tramp.”
Peggy Lee not only voiced Darling, she also voiced Peg, the street-smart female mutt Lady meets in the pound, and Aunt Sarah’s Siamese cats, Si and Am. This means that Peggy Lee sang most of the songs that will be in your head for the rest of the day (you are welcome), including “He’s a Tramp” and “We Are Siamese.”
“We Are Siamese” is one of those songs that we look at today as very offensive (and honestly, the very Italian restaurant employees could also be seen as offensive), but they are in line with the culturally accepted behaviors of the day (not that that makes it okay, it just sheds a little light on the rationale behind those choices).
Peggy Lee was an amazing performer who has been described as “elegant,” “sultry,” and “a class act.” By all accounts, her childhood was very troubled and abusive. She used music as an escape and was extremely talented in both singing and songwriting. Lee died in 2002 of a heart attack.
Of the Nine Old Men, only Marc Davis did not have a role in Lady and the Tramp. The film was the first animated film that Disney had made using the Cinemascope format and Finch points to Lady and the Tramp as proof that the Disney studio could make successful films that were not based on fairy tales.
Adrian Bailey has nothing but positive things to say about the animation in this film; in fact, he really has mostly positive things to say about the film in general. He says that the film struck a great balance between “pathos and sentimentality,” and calls the animation “brilliant” (Bailey 1982: 215). From the accurate portrayal of the dogs and their actions, relating to humans, other dogs, and the environment, one can guess that a lot of time was spent watching real dogs and their interactions with the world around them (animator Frank Thomas confirms this in other sources).
Finch mentions that the humor is understated in the film, which works out for the best. In Lady and the Tramp, the stakes are real; there are some frightening moments in the film that are animated both beautifully and realistically. This is a challenge, but something that I think pays off in the end.
Thomas quotes animator Frank Thomas as saying that “Lady and the Tramp was tough to animate because the dogs were like the deer in Bambi: you had to do a realistic, believable animal. You had to have the joints in the right place in the leg…and you had to keep the right distance from the front leg to the back leg” (Thomas 1992: 103-4).
The film was also a challenge because of the use of Cinemascope, which meant that the film has a wider screen. This changed the way the movie was filmed and meant that the layout designers had to deal with a major change in the way they worked. More characters could be used in a shot, but each shot had to be fuller, otherwise there were patches that came out less than pristine. Thomas says that the result was “greater realism but fewer close-ups,” a fact that didn’t really seem to faze audiences (Thomas 1992: 104).
Lady and the Tramp starts one Christmas when Jim-Dear gives his wife Darling a little puppy whom she names Lady. Lady and her humans live an ideal life for at least six months, during which we see their daily routine and meet Lady’s friends, Jock the Scottie and Trusty the Bloodhound (who has lost his sense of smell).
The story picks up when Jim-Dear and Darling begin acting strangely. As it turns out, they are just going to have a baby. Jock and Trusty try to explain this to our heroine, but the three are joined by a new dog, Tramp, who spins a tale of the horror of babies and the way they ruin the lives of dogs.
Tramp is a dog from the other side of the tracks that has a string of different families and spends his time avoiding the dogcatcher. He appears at this point in the story, makes an impression on the three suburb-dwelling dogs, and then disappears for a while.
When the baby is born, Lady feels very protective of him, particularly when Jim-Dear and Darling go on vacation. When the babysitting Aunt Sarah’s cats try to take advantage and steal milk from him, Lady tries to defend her house and small person and ends up muzzled.
Frightened, she runs away and finds herself saved from a pack of stray dogs by Tramp, who fights the three bullies away easily. He then helps her get the muzzle off and takes her out to dinner. Here we have the famous “Belle Note” number, with the infamous spaghetti scene and the kindling of romance between Lady and Tramp (though it is hinted that he’s a bit of a ladies’ man, he seems to really like her).
Tramp tries to convince Lady to run away with him, but she loves her people too much (particularly the baby). As he is bringing her home, she is captured by the dogcatcher and brought to the pound. Luckily, she has a collar with her license number on it. Unluckily for Tramp, his impounded friends spill the beans about his past girlfriends.
Lady, at this point, has had a rough few days. She’s been pushed around by cats, bullied by a human that’s not hers, prevented from doing her job, muzzled, chased by strays, impounded and has discovered that the dog she had feelings for is actually a womanizer. She’s mad and tells Tramp so when he comes to visit her.
The action later picks up again in the last ten minutes or so with the rat. It’s a creepily large rat that takes advantage of the fact that Lady is chained to her doghouse to get into the baby’s room. Lady’s barking is heard by Tramp, who rushes to the rescue. He manages to defeat the rat, Lady calms the baby, Tramp is forgiven by Lady, and Aunt Sarah calls the dogcatcher because she assumes that the dogs attacked the baby.
Jim-Dear and Darling arrive home and discover the dead rat while Jock and Trusty (who, it turns out, hasn’t lost his sense of smell!) track the dogcatcher to save Tramp. These two scenes, the fight with the rat and the chasing of the dogcatcher, are both brilliant. Both are in the dark and dim, and both rely on shapes, the color of the eyes and shadows rather than bright hues. Also, both have high stakes; the baby is at risk in the first and in the second, it’s not just Tramp, but also Jock and Trusty who are in danger.
In the end, Tramp is adopted, Lady and Tramp have a litter of precocious puppies, Jim-Dear and Darling are wonderful pet owners and Jock and Trusty have become honorary uncles. The story ends on another Christmas, but we’re not sure what the time-frame is. The holiday of Christmas frames the story nicely, however, and I love it.
I read a theory that the reason Lady was chased by the strays was because she was in heat (as a kid, I thought she was just trespassing by mistake). With that is the idea that she and Tramp were not just stargazing, and that when Jock and Trusty offer to marry her, it’s not because she had to go to the pound and is being mistreated by Aunt Sarah (and they’re trying to help her escape that woman), it’s to help her save face in the dog community because she’s pregnant out of wedlock.
I’m all for adding context and subtext to Disney movies, so I guess I can see it, but it is a kids movie. Also, there are two problems here. First, all the things I mentioned above make a bit more sense. Second, dogs carry their puppies for 63 days. The “Belle Note” number takes place in the spring, with the relatively new puppies first appearing on Christmas, so the timeline doesn’t seem to add up here.
Lady and the Tramp was based on a story that was created by Joe Grant during the production of Snow White. He presented Walt with his sketches, based on his own dog, a Springer spaniel. Walt liked the sketches but wasn’t enamored with the storyboard that Grant presented to him. Despite the fact that the story as we know it was based on Grant’s work, he wasn’t acknowledged until later DVD releases in 2006.
There was also a short story by Ward Greene called “Happy Dan the Whistling Dog,” though my sources have a different idea about that short story. Some say that it was published in Cosmopolitan in the mid-40s and Disney purchased the rights to it; while others say the story was based on Joe Grant’s art from the get go. Finally, Thomas says that Walt bought the unpublished short story from Ward Greene and adapted it. This last theory could fit in with the Cosmopolitan theory, depending on your definition of “published.”
The story was said to have appealed to Walt because it was about dogs and set in small-town America in 1910. It’s different than the last few Disney films, mostly because it is an original story that, as Thomas said, Disney could really take and shape however he wanted to. IMDB says that Lady and the Tramp is the first film that Disney officially claims as “self-penned” since Dumbo.
This section might be a little short, so I’m sorry about that, but here goes. Lady and the Tramp was set in the 1910s in the suburbs, a setting that was familiar in the 1950s. The traditional gender roles are also adhered to in Lady and the Tramp, both for the animals and the humans. The combination of the two makes the story applicable to the 1950s audiences while still allowing the viewers to feel nostalgia for the 1910s in the same way that the ’70s would later be nostalgic for the 1950s.
One lesson from Lady and the Tramp that I got was that you can’t make assumptions about people based on their past or where they live. Jock and Trusty assume that Tramp attacked the baby because he’s not from their area or social class. The dogs in the pound make assumptions about Lady because she has a collar, and Aunt Sarah, being a cat person, assumes that all dogs are vicious.
Despite that, Lady risks her life to save the baby and gives up a chance at happiness to protect her humans. Tramp risks everything to save a baby he doesn’t even like because it’s important to Lady. And, of course, Jock and Trusty go to save Tramp from the dogcatcher when they learn the truth. Even though the main characters are dogs, they all have personalities and motivations that are not always clear to the other characters, and that translates to humans as well.
The other lesson that I think can be seen is the importance of taking care of your pets. When Tramp is talking about humans kicking out or ignoring the dog when the baby is born, and says that he is the voice of experience, it can be assumed that he was neglected after a baby was born to his humans.
Tramp’s experience contrasts with Lady’s; Jim-Dear and Darling obviously trust her around the baby and value her as a member of the family. Without reading too much into it (though I think that that ship has sailed, with regards to me reading too much into Disney films), I think that the human-dog relationship is being promoted.
It also emphasized, to me, the importance of adopting dogs and making sure that your pet was properly licensed. All the unlicensed dogs that were caught ended up at the pound, and those dogs were basically all killed. I’m assuming that there was an adoption period, but still. I think the image of the crying dogs sitting scared at the pound was an effective way to convince people to maybe take a dog or three home before he took the Long Walk. This movie, without fail, reminds me that I want a puppy.
DOES IT HOLD UP?
Lady and the Tramp was a film that the Disney studio had a lot of fun making, and it was well worth the effort. Not only is it a fun story that has both some truly sweet and some action-filled moments, it was the highest grossing Disney full-length feature since Snow White. The realistic setting also felt a bit like it was revealing the secret lives of dogs added another level to the already enchanting story.
For next week: Sleeping Beauty
If you enjoyed this post and the others in the Revisiting Disney series, and have found yourself wishing that you could find them all in one convenient and bound book with eight extra essays, there is an option for you! Check out A Journey Through Disney: My Look Back Through Disney Canon, now available on Amazon as both a Kindle book ($4.99) and a paperback ($11.99).
Bailey, Adrian. Walt Disney’s World of Fantasy. Everest House Publishers. New York, New York. 1982.
Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, New York. 1975.
Kitch, Carolyn. The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media. University of North Caroline Press. Chapel Hill and London. 2001.
Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA, 1978.
Tatar, Maria. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. W.W. Norton and Company. New York and London, 2002.
Thomas, Bob. Disney’s Art of Animation From Mickey Mouse to Hercules. Hyperion. New York, New York. 1992.
Wright, Gordon. The Ordeal of Total War: 1939-1945. Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row. New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, and London, 1968.