Disney Days: Lady and the Tramp

Why the dog movie is no B picture

Despite there only being a two year gap between it and their previous animated feature, 1953’s Peter Pan, it’s easy to say that the Walt Disney Company who made that and the Walt Disney Company who made Lady and the Tramp aren’t the same. It’s arguably even easier to start a blog with stating this, but bare with me here.

In the two years since Pan’s release, much had changed for Disney. Factor in these four elements:

1) The company had their distribution deal with RKO Productions lapse, and formed their own distributor, Buena Vista Distribution. This meant that no one would ever own the studio or be in charge of their releases besides themselves again.

2) The studio’s production for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from the previous year resulted in a major box-office success and two Academy Awards. While the studio had always tinkered with live-action, as far back as the Alice comedies and in recent successes such as 1950’s Treasure Island, this felt different, bigger. Not being shot in the UK for tax purposes helped. The film in no time became among the studio’s most iconic productions of its era, and its influence still lingers to this day.

3) That same year, ABC aired the first season of Disneyland, the studio’s first fully formed television series. The program became an instant hit, bringing some of Walt and his company’s magic to the screen weekly. Besides some original concepts and screenings of the studio’s iconic films, the program introduced instant smash hit Davy Crockett, and teased the reveal of

4) Disneyland Park, the company’s first theme park, which many considered to be Walt’s craziest idea. With no time though, he would have the last laugh as the park, and the others that form a perfect dozen, would continue to bring millions from all over the world in… or would before COVID-19 happened.

Regardless of anything else, Lady and the Tramp was meant to suggest either the start of a new era, or possibly the end of a prior one. Or maybe it’s merely part of a transitional period, with the bulk of its production being made during the long cycle of Sleeping Beauty’s extensive production.

Granted, we’re only talking production as in animation, voice, and music work here, as the film had been toyed around in concept as far back as 1937, right when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had completed production and was ready for the world to fall in love with it. The gestation came from Walt’s desire to make a film inspired by his English Springer Spaniel, Lady.

The concept was further expanded by a reading of Ward Greene’s “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog” in Cosmopolitan, about a stray who’s been around the block, which Walt thought would make for a strong contrast with his pampered pup. That said… there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on when this story was published. Some sources claim this was found as easily as 1937, others in 1943, and some as far as 1945. Taschen’s wonderful Walt Disney Film Archives book, which I’m using as a resource, doesn’t give a date, but implies that it was published in 37, for instance.

Legendary story artist Joe Grant further expanded the in 1944 story by writing a story for the Walt Disney’s Surprise Package storybook, by focusing on Lady’s struggle of watching the house and protecting her owner’s newborn from a visiting mother-in-law’s treacherous Siamese cats. Earlier drafts had featured feline troublemakers as supporting characters, while this finds a purpose for them and some essential action for the later story.

The concept was toyed with throughout the 40’s, eventually decided to make this an off the tracks romance, and agreeing to turn the timeline to 1915 as opposed to the war-based present day. This allowed for Walt and his crew to delve into nostalgia while still being based closer to the present than had been previously embraced in their previous films. Gramophones, concerts in the park, “Little Boy Blue”, just little things that would remind the studio and viewers of simpler times. By the film’s release in 1955, 1915 was as far away as 1980 is as of my writing. Wild, right?

No movie is made and released 100% as planned, especially for Walt Disney’s Animation Studios. One of the more intense changes this film went through was Walt’s decision to have the film animated and scaled to fit into CinemaScope, which was formatted to a far larger, widescreen friendly 2:66:1 ratio, practically double the Academy format’s 1:37:1. It was a noble endeavor to keep the film as relevant as possible, but also risky as not every theater in the country, let alone the world, was capable of handling CinemaScope. This lead for a second version to be released in the traditional Academy ratio, requiring some parts of the film needing to be fully re-animated to fit for the smaller ratio. The version primarily rereleased over the years (including your home video copies and on Disney+) is closer to CinemaScope, formatted to 2:55:1.

But enough of the history lesson, how do I feel about the film? Well, I see criticism come for Lady and the Tramp that it’s not one of the studio’s more exciting features. I can certainly understand this, coming in between unforgettable adventures in Neverland and a hero slaying a dragon. Seeing a couple of dogs go through vintage suburbia doesn’t sound all that enticing, does it?

I think that’s where the strength in Lady comes from, however. I can’t think of a better example of taking the audience into the eyes of an animal. While I could easily conceive that One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a stronger film, that juxtaposes our narrative structure from Pongo’s eyes to a more neutral look at the human world in a manner that isn’t entirely as effective as in Lady’s, where the camera subtlety and gently lays low into the viewpoint of a dog’s. Human dialogue may still be a little too clear and the colors too closer to how us humans can view the world, but I’ll take the compromise in exchange for little moments like Lady’s sense of wonderment in “What is a Baby”.

In terms of artistry, the film is generally quite stunning to look at. There is a hint of compromise in terms of design and coloring as compared to the studio’s first five blowouts (Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi), but that has been evident for a while in their features. The character design is slightly closer to MGM’s animated works from a few years earlier, while thankfully staying far away from UPA’s current impact, ie slightly less refined yet still above the pack.

Mary Blair only contributed some concept art to the film, but her influence can still be felt in the final product. Pastels are present throughout, primarily in the baby’s room. Again, I come back to the “What is a Baby” sequence, which shows gorgeous color work all over from the hallway into the nursery, with delicate lighting extenuating every detail we’re meant to focus on.

Also brought over by Blair, although not entirely, would be the film’s command of night. Much of the work I’ve seen of hers for the film takes place in the evening, which feature subtle shades of darker colors and expert shadowing throughout. But most of what we see in the final film comes from legendary background artist Eyvind Earle’s concept. Much of the nighttime stroll sequence in “Bella Notte'“, for instance, is all his, which translated into some of the film’s most gentle and recognizable moments.

And Claude Coats, who took the role over from Blair following her departure in 1953, cannot be understated for his involvement. One trick of genius came from his decision to make models of the house Jim Dear, Darling, and Lady live in, where animators could take photos and draw the characters.

The character animation is also excellent throughout. Keeping the humans away from full view as much as possible was a good call, as humans can traditionally be trickier to animate, and keeping Jim Dear, Darling, Aunt Sarah, and others at an angle for the majority of the time gives room for experimentation. It’s really the work from the dogs that matters, as each have their own unique movements. Tramp in particular gets a terrific introduction when we see him wakes up, stretches himself, grabs a drink, and shakes his wet fur off. Incredible posing throughout.

But I’ve only been talking about the animation and art design. Story wise, there isn’t much left to say, is there? The artists and animators helped to bring us into Lady and Tramp’s world so much that everything else is simply gravy. Mostly, anyway. I can’t abide to the film’s writing of ethnic characters, in that many of the bit parts are played by some form of stereotype. Some are indeed more harmful than others- Irish cops were passé even by 1955 standards, while Si and Am are simply uncomfortable, and bring the film to a halt when they arrive. While their song is otherwise considered a classic, it’s undeniably cringy by today’s standards. The film makes it clear that they are antagonists solely because they are cats, but not everything translates as well as intended as time goes on.

What does work is the film’s romance. Despite his rough exterior, Tramp is a perfect gentleman and follows Lady’s decisions when she puts her foot down, especially when she realizes that she’s meant to go home to Jim Dear, Darling, and the baby. However, when the opportunity arises, he shows her excitement and merriment that she previously couldn’t comprehend, like a lovely spaghetti dinner and a hen hunt. Meanwhile, while Lady is initially skeptical, she is clearly excited by Tramp’s carefree worldview, and falls for him quickly. Entirely on her own terms, but she’s clearly smitten and takes his cues. Romance tends to be one of the weaker elements of Disney’s features, but the perfect balance is found here.

The character writing is similarly strong, Lady and Tramp are both well-defined, the former a young, excitable dog learning that there’s more to life than what she’s experienced at home thus far, while the latter has been shown the ropes and hints towards a long history of struggling to connect before finding Lady. Jock and Trusty are strong supporting characters themselves, with Jock being an equally excitable good boy with a heart of gold and a quick temper that seldom crosses a line. Trusty, meanwhile, is the best, even if his memory and sense of smell aren’t what it used to be. The two have an adorable odd couple pairing going together, and it would be fair to assume that they were partners if their awkward proposal sequence wasn’t added in. But yeah, I guess Trusty’s nose was good enough to detect that Lady was in heat.

The humans… are there. Jim Dear and Darling don’t get much opportunity to shine as characters, although the hints we get from their time together show a happy couple. Seeing Jim Dear get so flustered when Darling is delivering is a notable highlight. Aunt Sarah is rough and skeptical, at least to the eyes of a dog who can tell that she doesn’t have much use for her kind. She works for the narrative but is hardly among the likes of Lady Tremaine.

The pound gang don’t have a whole lot to do beyond their one scene- it seems that in earlier drafts, they had more of a role before being cut out- but they’re a likable scrap heap with a memorable song in “He’s a Tramp”. Peg in particular gets to show off Peggy Lee’s sultry voice in the number, who of course helped to write many of the film’s iconic songs. Their sequence helps to add conflict between Lady and Tramp before the climax, which I could see be edited out. However, I think it does serve a purpose, as Tramp’s defense of the baby from the rat is needed to prove his worth to the characters. We know why he needs to prove himself a worthy addition to the family for the humans, and that he needs to show his good nature to Jock and Trusty. Giving him a chance to prove that his loyalty to Lady and her family comes above and beyond any other dog is the extra step needed, which the “He’s a Tramp” sequence helps to lead towards.

Overall, sure, I can see how Lady and the Tramp wouldn’t resonate to Disney fans who prefer more fantastical adventures. I like most of the fairy tale stuff, myself. But as something more slice of life, I think the film totally succeeds, and it’s one I come back to often. It’s easily my favorite from Disney’s silver age, give or take Sleeping Beauty, and a nice film to return to when I need the pick up.

But I know I’m not alone. One memory that always sticks out for me is when I went to buy the Diamond Edition Blu-Ray back in 2012. I went to Best Buy, which was selling miniature plushes of Lady and Tramp along with the film. There was an older man in front of me asking if he could buy one of the plushes separately, since it’s his wife’s favorite film and she would want both. I thought it was sweet, and shows how it still resonates so far removed from its time. It also makes me wonder how many people adopted Cocker Spaniel puppies just to name them Lady… even if they’re a boy.

Talking about this film almost makes me wish I was at Magic Kingdom and can eat at Tony’s Town Square. Almost. It’s pretty mediocre Italian, but at least the lobby plays the movie all day, and you can get pawprints from Lady and Tramp for your autograph book. Not quite a Bella Notte, but it’ll do.

As a lifelong fan of Disney, I want to specify that I admire the works of the studio, and not the company itself. Love the player, hate the game, maybe? My Disney Day series intends to look over some of the company’s most noteworthy features, from all eras and formats, and contextualize why they endure to me and many others. Part history lesson, part overview, I hope to celebrate the good the company can do, even if I can’t ignore their failures.