Film Review: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

Cast

Bill Baucom – Trusty

Mel Blanc – Stray dogs (I was surprised to learn he was in this!)

Verna Felton – Aunt Sarah

Stan Freberg – Beaver

George Givot – Tony

Peggy Lee – Darling, Si, Am and Peg

Barbara Luddy – Lady

Dal (Dallas) McKennon – Toughy, Professor at Zoo, Pedro and the Hyena

The Mellomen – Dogs singing voices

Lee Millar – Jim Dear and Dog Catcher

Alan Reed – Boris

Larry Roberts – Tramp

Bill Thompson – Jock, Bull the Bull Terrier, Policeman at Zoo, Dachsie the Daschund and Joe

Sources of InspirationHappy Dan, The Whistling Dog, an American short story by Ward Greene, 1924

Release Dates

June 16th, 1955 in Chicago, USA (premiere)

June 22nd, 1955 in USA (general release)

Run-time – 75 minutes

Directors – Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske

Composers – Oliver Wallace (Peggy Lee also assisted with the score, but for some reason isn’t listed as one of the film’s composers… hmmm…)

Worldwide Gross – $93 million

Accolades – 1 win and 2 nominations


1955 in History

Marian Anderson becomes the first African-American singer to perform at the Met in New York City

The first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, is launched from Connecticut

US President Dwight D. Eisenhower sends the first US advisors to South Vietnam

Ngô Đình Diệm proclaims himself the president of Vietnam (which he claims is a republic) and forms the Army of the Republic of Vietnam

The Vietnam War, between North and South Vietnam, begins

Jim Henson creates the first version of Kermit the Frog

Nine months before Rosa Parks does the same thing, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refuses to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama – Rosa Parks becomes a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, mainly because she’s older

Rosa’s defiance and arrest in December lead to the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott

Winston Churchill resigns from his post as UK Prime Minister at the age of 80

The Salk polio vaccine is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration

The Bandung Conference, involving 29 countries, is held in Indonesia, marking an important step towards the Non-Aligned Movement

West Germany becomes recognised as a country – shortly after this, the Warsaw Pact is formed

The 1955 Le Mans Disaster becomes the worst accident in motorsport history, with 83 spectator deaths and one driver, Pierre Levegh

Ruth Ellis is hanged for murder, becoming the last person to be executed in the UK

The original Disneyland theme park opens in Anaheim, California; the Mickey Mouse Club show also debuts this year

The first Sudanese Civil War begins – South Sudan eventually becomes a separate country in 2011

The first edition of the Guiness Book of Records is published in London

Popular young actor James Dean is killed in a car crash at the age of just 24

The Cocos Islands of the Indian Ocean are transferred from British to Australian authority

American cytogeneticist Joe Hin Tjio discovers the correct number of human chromosomes, forty-six

Births of Rowan Atkinson, J. K. Simmons, Kevin Costner, Kelsey Grammer, Steve Jobs, Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Bruce Willis, Bill Paxton, Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, Kris Jenner, Maria Shriver, Roland Emmerich and Whoopi Goldberg


 

It’s 1955 everyone! That means we’ve reached Disney’s fifteenth classic, Lady and the Tramp. The idea for this one started back in 1937, when Disney story man Joe Grant noticed how his springer spaniel (named Lady) was being “shoved aside” by the arrival of his new baby. He wanted to create a story based on the dog’s experience, so he created some sketches of her and took them to Walt. Walt liked them enough to allow Grant to begin story development on a potential feature, which at that point was simply known as Lady. Throughout the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, Grant and the other studio artists continued to work on the idea, but Walt was starting to lose interest in the project as he claimed there was not enough action in it and that Lady herself was too “sweet.”

Around this time, Walt then discovered a short story called Happy Dan, The Whistling Dog by Ward Greene, published in that still-surprising source, Cosmopolitan magazine. He enjoyed this immensely and read it to Joe Grant, believing that his story would be improved by the addition of a more cynical dog like the one in Greene’s piece which Lady could then fall in love with. Grant evidently agreed, so Walt bought the rights to the story.

Unfortunately, in 1949, Grant left the studio, but luckily his idea had advanced far enough by then that the Disney story men didn’t want to give up on it – they were still pulling Grant’s work off the shelves to tinker with and the project was close to blossoming into a full production. The final story began to take shape in 1953, incorporating both Grant’s storyboards and Greene’s short story; by this point, Tramp was part of the feature too. Greene created a novelization of the film that year at the insistence of Walt, as the latter wanted the public to become familiar with the story before the film’s release. Grant didn’t originally receive any credit for his story work, but later on animation director Eric Goldberg rectified this by explaining Grant’s role in a behind-the-scenes piece for the Platinum Edition of the DVD in 2006.

This is only the first of Disney’s five famous dog-themed stories, the others being One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Fox and the Hound (1981), Oliver & Company (1988) and Bolt (2008). Going into this review, I got the impression that while the film does stand atop an excellent reputation, it’s one of those classics which few people today have actually seen – I myself had only seen it about twice before. Honestly, this is a real shame, as it’s one of Disney’s more artistic and “serious” films and deserves a lot more attention. I hope this review will convince you to give this gem a chance – let’s take a look.

 

Characters and Vocal Performances

The use of animals for a dramatic love story like this was, in this case, kind of liberating, because they were able to get away with showing several scenes which they probably couldn’t have if the characters had been people. Just think – pre-marital sex (if only implied) in the 1950s! The stray dogs’ attack on Lady also has a disturbing feel to it, echoing a potential rape scene, as they chase her down an alley. What’s most impressive is the skillful way that the animators were able to blend the mannerisms of both people and dogs to create believable, sympathetic canine characters.

Our heroine, an American cocker spaniel named Lady, makes for a strong protagonist. As well as Joe Grant’s spaniel, she was also partially based on another one owned by Hamilton Luske, which was named Blondie – no doubt both dogs came in useful for the animators in studying the movements of the breed. Lady’s story is tracked from her “childhood” as a puppy all the way up to her “marriage” and the birth of her own puppies, giving us a lot more growth and development than we typically see for Disney heroines, whose stories tend to span just a few days. As a puppy she has no lines and is at her most animalistic, filled with energy and afraid of being alone – anybody who’s ever had a dog can recognize her persistence as she gamely escapes her lonely sleeping area in the kitchen and follows her masters upstairs. These early appearances are endearing and establish her loyal and loving personality, which we see in more detail as she gets older.

Once she reaches young adulthood (after an amusingly brief six months – I love how “dog years” work), she gains a voice, and we see that she has become a gracious and polite young lady, although she is also naïve and curious about the world around her. The choice to show her confusion during Darling’s pregnancy was a great one, as it mirrors the reactions of a real dog struggling to understand the complexities of human pregnancy, culminating in her happy rush of understanding once she meets the little mite. Once Tramp enters the picture, Lady demonstrates more gumption than you’d expect of such a well-bred pet; she doesn’t immediately demand he take her home or anything like that, instead going with him to the zoo (where she knows dogs are forbidden) to try and get her muzzle off. When Tramp starts his infomercial routine on the beaver she catches on quickly, adding that the muzzle is the beaver’s “free sample” to the obvious delight of Tramp. Yet for all of her genteel upbringing, Lady has an admirable self-respect and dignity in the way she conducts herself; when Tramp’s recklessness gets her into trouble, she doesn’t hesitate to throw the book at him, giving him a well-deserved dressing-down for leading her into danger and making sure he regrets his actions. She’s no doormat! I also appreciate the fact that, in addition to standing up for herself, she’s also capable of protecting her family – fiercely, if necessary. She is eager to join Tramp in the rescue of the baby near the end, fighting tooth and nail to break her chain and dashing straight to the child’s aid. Truly a lady through and through, Lady is a very engaging character.

Lady during Bella Notte

Her beau, Tramp, was also based on a real dog who lived out the rest of his days happy on Disneyland’s pony farm. His name was actually almost Homer, Rags or Bozo – can you imagine watching “Lady and the Bozo?” Yeesh, they really dodged a bullet there. Tramp is a mutt of indeterminate breed, and his personality is set up perfectly with his bright-eyed morning routine and the following playful interactions he shares with a pet shop puppy. He’s a typical “drifter” which you see so often in these stories, filled with optimism and a brash self-assurance which makes it difficult not to like him. (For other examples, think of Jack from Titanic, Rocky from Chicken Run, or Romeo from Romeo & Juliet). In contrast to Lady’s comfortable loyalty, living as she does with one family, Tramp has a much more casual, carefree attitude towards humans, spending his time with a different family for every day of the week. He’s very American in both voice and personality, filled with wit and always ready with an answer to any situation – in fact, the one time he’s left speechless is when he’s been given his first proper telling-off by Lady. During the beaver scene, we see that he is quite inventive and resourceful, if a little dishonest, as he uses a sort of “used-car salesman” persona to charm to beaver into biting off Lady’s muzzle; this tendency to “disguise” himself is also shown off to great comedic effect in the scene where he explains his lifestyle to Lady, switching seamlessly between various stereotypical accents as he describes each family he visits.

For all his qualities, though, he certainly has his flaws, too. His chief fault is his irresponsibility, something which Lady calls him out on (in more ways than one), as she yells at him for not only leading her willingly into danger, but also for not being honest with her about his rather scandalous lady-killer past (Lulu, Trixie, Fifi, Rosita… seriously, how many girls has this guy been with?). He is also very cynical about humans, with a more realistic view of them as flawed, complex beings, which contrasts sharply with Lady and her friends’ romanticised vision of them as near-demigods. As our second protagonist, Tramp gets plenty of development and changes quite a bit over the course of the film, learning the meaning of loyalty and love before ultimately choosing to give up his wandering ways and settle down with one family. This distinct arc he has makes a nice change from the cookie-cutter princes or generic cyphers we’ve seen as the male leads in most of the previous films; in the words of Peg, he may be a tramp, but he’s a good one!

Lady and the Tramp's Tramp

Two of the most significant supporting characters are Lady’s neighbours, Jock, a Scottish terrier, and Trusty, a bloodhound. The dynamic between these three is an unusual one; how many other films can you think of where the young heroine’s two best friends are a pair of elderly gentlemen? Yet, surprisingly, it works really well here – it’s almost as though they’ve adopted her as a surrogate granddaughter, taking her under their wings and trying to help and protect her. Jock (whose full name is revealed to be “Heather Lad O’Glencairn”) is established as a bit of a rascal in his first scene, trying guiltily to hide his stash of bones from Lady as she is showing off her new collar, but he’s also very warm and likeable as a character. His best moments are when he’s snapping at Tramp in his funny, feisty way, trying to protect Lady from what he thinks is a filthy womaniser (to be fair, he’s not far wrong). Trusty, who seems to be the elder of the two, is presented as a kind of dignified Southern gentleman with a thick, lilting voice straight off an old plantation. Like Jock, he is also very protective of Lady, but in a calmer, more respectable way, coldly indicating that he wants Tramp gone by asking Lady if she’d like him to remove the scoundrel from the premises. Of course, the main thing that makes Trusty so endearing to the audience is his rather scatty memory, which gives him the air of a favourite grandfather as he keeps slipping into half-forgotten reminiscences. Trusty also gets a fantastic scene near the climax where he is largely responsible for rescuing Tramp from the dreaded Pound by stopping the cart he’s trapped in, almost losing his life in the attempt. Together, Jock and Trusty add a lot of heart to the film act as an emotional rock for Lady to turn to when she’s in need, so I’m very glad they were included.

Jock and Trusty together
Jock on the left, Trusty on the right

The other dogs in the film are the ones we meet during Lady’s brief incarceration in the Pound. Peggy Lee’s Peg is the clear favourite here, but all of the dogs have a certain charm to them. Peggy Lee is sometimes cited as the first example of a superstar being hired to voice a character in an animated film, which is probably true, although Disney had used a few other big names like Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby in their earlier films. Peg, a rather weather-beaten Pekingese, acts like an older sister towards Lady, bringing her up to speed on how things work and stopping the boys from teasing her about her fancy pedigree. It’s interesting how everybody in the film seems to like to protect Lady when they meet her – she’s very sweet, but she can take care of herself, too! Boris, a doleful-looking Russian wolfhound, is also a highlight in the scene, offering some words of wisdom, but the rest of the pack don’t really get enough time to distinguish themselves. The other dogs featured are Toughy (a mutt, rather like Tramp in design), Bull (an inventively-named bulldog), Dachsie (a dachshund, of course) and Pedro (what else could he be but a Chihuahua); taken together, they reminded me of the dogs in Oliver & Company (1988) in both design and sometimes in their voices (Pedro seriously looks like he could be Tito’s great-grandfather). There’s not too much you can say about them really, as they only get the one scene, but it’s still nice for Lady that they don’t ostracise her too much while she’s there.

L-r: Bull, Toughie, Pedro, Boris and Dachsie (I wish I hadn’t had to include a separate image for him; he never stands with the others)

Other animals include the beaver, the infamous Siamese cats, and the rat. The beaver is quite an enjoyable cameo role which was effectively recycled as the Gopher from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh a few decades later, with a distinctive whistling lisp to his voice which is sure to entertain young children. He’s presented as a country bumpkin type, easily misled by the streetwise city-slicker Tramp into freeing Lady from her muzzle. The Siamese cats are perhaps the closest we get in this film to true villains, but they’re not really evil, just mischievous and arrogant. What with them and Lucifer in Cinderella (1950), you get the feeling the Disney artists weren’t cat people – although Walt did insist to some of the more indignant fans that he did, in fact, have cats himself. Si and Am (more “creative” naming there, definitely one of the film’s few weak points) were originally going to be called Nip and Tuck, for some reason, but thankfully they dropped that idea. They’re most notable for getting one of the film’s more famous songs, as well as for inadvertently kicking off Lady’s romantic subplot with Tramp after her confrontation with them leads to her getting muzzled and lost in the city. As for the rat (who was almost named Herman, of all things), he functions less as a character and more as a plot device to provide some major conflict for the film’s big finale. He’s introduced briefly in an early scene as foreshadowing, but Lady is unchained at that point and able to see him off in no uncertain terms. His return features some great cinematography (see below), and this coupled with the horror stories (even today) of real rats attacking young babies make him an effective threat without ever needing to give him lines or a personality.

The Lady and the Tramp rat

This leaves us with the human characters, the main ones being Lady’s owners, who she knows as “Jim Dear” and “Darling” based on what she hears them call one another (a clever touch). The couple were originally going to be named Jim Brown and Elizabeth, but this was changed to fit in with the “dog’s point-of-view” approach that the filmmakers took. The faces of the pair are rarely seen and their personalities are viewed through the filter of Lady’s perspective, so that we never really learn that much about them. Jim appears to be some sort of banker or businessman, judging from his fancy suits and even fancier house, while his wife Darling comes across as a stereotypical 1950s housewife (despite the 1910 setting). They fit into very traditional gender roles, with Jim as the sterner “disciplinarian” who tries in vain to make Lady sleep in the kitchen as a puppy, but although Darling is more of a softie, she can be strict too, giving Lady a little whack later when the dog disrupts her knitting. Darling’s best scene is probably the La La Lu one, where she sings the lullaby tenderly to her baby (she was also voiced by Peggy Lee) as Lady creeps in to meet him for the first time. The owners fit the tone very well – the roles may be minor, but they’re a vital part of the film.

Jim Dear and Darling
This is seriously one of the clearest shots we get of their faces!

We also have Aunt Sarah, who is perhaps the least likeable character in the whole thing. Voiced by Disney stalwart Verna Felton (who funnily enough was the mother of Lee Millar, the voice of Jim Dear), she is a supposedly well-meaning matron of a woman who turns up to babysit when the young couple are forced to leave for some reason early on. She is quite clearly marked as a cat person but one with absolutely no understanding of dogs, viewing them with great mistrust as vicious beasts (even the family pet, Lady). It is her general incompetence and bad attitude to dogs which causes many of Lady’s problems, making her a distinctly irritating presence in the film.

In direct contrast to her are the two wonderful cameo parts of Tony and Joe, the restaurant proprietor and chef, respectively, who feature in the beloved spaghetti scene. They’re real one-scene wonders – especially Tony – with tons of personality packed in, making them some of the film’s most cherished characters despite their limited screen time. Tony is something like a “nice” version of Stromboli from Pinocchio, a big roly-poly Italian bloke complete with all the stereotypical mannerisms and flourishes you’d expect of such a character. He’s shown to be warm-hearted and generous, as well as a bit of a dreamer, getting really invested in the idea of treating Lady and Tramp to a romantic supper – it’s this investment on his part which really helps to sell the mood of the scene, especially when he busts out an accordion and launches into a lovely rendition of Bella Notte with Joe!  I’m so glad these two were added in, as they add a great deal of emotional impact to their big scene and I can’t imagine the film without them.

Other characters include the professor and the policeman outside the zoo, who are used cleverly by Tramp as he tangles them up in some silly argument by posing as the professor’s pet, which then allows him and Lady to sneak in past the policeman. There’s also Scamp, the most well-known of the puppies from the final scene (mainly because of the sequel), who demonstrates a lot of spunk in his one scene, pulling apart Jock’s sweater – and of course there’s the baby, who we see as a young child very reminiscent of Michael from Peter Pan (1953) at the end. All of these characters manage to get a smile or a chuckle out of you in just a few minutes of screen time, demonstrating this film’s knack for making the most of everyone in it. The Disney artists were pros at creating lively character animation by this point, not wasting a single moment of the film’s run-time on pointless filler.

 

Animation

Easily the most famous scene of the film is the spaghetti-eating one, but it might surprise you to find out that this scene was nearly cut! Walt didn’t see the appeal in the idea on paper, imagining that a pair of dogs chowing down on a plate of messy pasta would come across as more disgusting than romantic. No doubt with real dogs that would be the case, but he underestimated the talents of his animators – Frank Thomas, who desperately wanted the scene included, animated the whole thing himself in secret without any layouts and then showed it to Walt, who was very impressed by the tasteful way Thomas had handled it, deciding to keep it in after all. Apparently, on viewing the first take of the scene, the animators felt that the action needed to be slower, so they hired an apprentice trainee to create “half numbers” in between many of the original frames.

The spaghetti scene

As with previous productions, the artists used live-action props to aid them. The background artist for the film, Claude Coats, made models of the interiors of Jim Dear and Darling’s house to help with the staging of scenes, and he shot photos and filmed at a low perspective to get an idea of how to present things from Lady’s point-of-view. The artist Eyvind Earle (who we’ll be seeing much, much more of in the next film) also did some work for the film, contributing almost fifty miniature concept sketches for the Bella Notte sequence.

Just like they did on Bambi (1942), the animators studied real animals to help them capture the movement and personality of various breeds of dogs. The animation in the film is fluid and realistic, capturing the essence of a typical dog very well, but this is no surprise – by this point, Disney had long since perfected the art of animal animation. Wolfgang Reitherman was in charge of the fight scenes, and he kept a cage of rats next to his desk so that he could study their actions. He also employed some more subtle techniques to heighten the effect of the final fight between the rat and Tramp, such as animating it from the perspective of the loser (the rat) and then attempting to avoid that outcome. It is distinctly different from the earlier fight between Tramp and the strays who are attacking Lady; that one is presented more like a schoolyard scuffle, which Tramp doesn’t need to take seriously. The climactic fight is far more serious, a battle to the death, resulting in injury on Tramp’s part (in the earlier fight he is untouched and simply gives a snort after his opponents as they run off).

Lady and the Tramp fight scene

There’s really not much to say about the animation here that I haven’t already said in my reviews of the earlier 1950s features – all of them feature the same high standard of crisp, bright animation which was developed from the artists’ many years of experience. The fight scenes are definitely among the standouts with lots of complicated, fast-moving imagery, but the overturning of the carriage by Jock and Trusty near the end certainly shouldn’t be overlooked, either. If you want to see what the pinnacle of realistic animal animation looks like, look no further than Lady and the Tramp.

 

Plot

Walt considered this a “fun film” to make, similar to Dumbo, because it hadn’t got the restrictions of a fixed plot like his earlier adaptations of fairy tales and other literary classics. The story of the film is kept tight and simple and is well-handled, with little of the usual Disney slapstick and some great emotional heart to it. Naturally, a few changes were made throughout production, but this was much easier to do here than with earlier films, so there are no glaring plot holes or pacing inconsistencies.

At one point, there was going to be a love triangle between Lady, Tramp and Boris, the Russian wolfhound from the Pound, but I think we can all agree that this would have really put a damper on the romantic elements, so I’m glad that they dropped this one. A dream sequence involving Tramp where giant dogs walked their owners instead of the other way around was also scrapped after some negative reactions from a test audience (this reminded me of The Iron Giant {1999}, which also originally featured a dream sequence that was later cut, but was then animated for the 2016 rerelease). Perhaps the most significant change was in the climax, where Trusty was originally going to be killed off after being hit by the carriage – this is why he doesn’t move when Jock is trying to awaken him. Walt was shocked upon viewing the scene and ultimately decided to change it, as he didn’t want a repeat of the traumatic scene from Bambi, so he pushed the animators to include Trusty in the Christmas scene at the end to reassure people that he wasn’t dead. I have to admit, I think I agree with the decision – while a genuine death can add significant emotional weight to a film if done correctly, killing off Trusty so late in the film would have come across as gratuitous and unnecessarily cruel, spoiling Lady’s happy ending. Imagine if Snow White had ended with the funeral scene! Sometimes it’s better to keep the character alive, if their death won’t add anything to the plot.

Trusty under the carriage

The film’s opening scene involving Jim Dear gifting Lady to his wife is said to have been inspired by a real incident between Walt and his own wife, Lillian. After forgetting a dinner date and knowing he’d be in the doghouse (pun intended haha), Walt decided to buy her a Chow puppy and presented it to her in a hatbox; this worked and he was quickly forgiven. Whether or not it’s true, I like this anecdote, as it’s clear that the writers had more fun with the creative leeway this film allowed them. They could incorporate more of their own experiences as dog lovers because they weren’t chained to a strict plotline, chopping and changing things at will without risking the wrath of literary critics.

Lady’s confusion during the pregnancy is one of my favourite parts from a story perspective – I greatly enjoyed the whole sequence, with Darling’s weird cravings driving Jim out into a blizzard in the middle of the night, and then the hilariously gender-specific approach to the two halves of the baby shower. The sequence reminds us that Lady is, after all, a dog, who doesn’t always understand everything her human owners are doing – once again, it is another shining example of the film’s expert use of perspective to convey character.

Thematically, the story has been compared to Romeo & Juliet, and it’s not hard to see why: there are some definite undercurrents of class tension at times, especially in the scene with Lady at the Pound, where she is teasingly referred to as “Miss Park Avenue.” Tramp also describes Lady and her friends as the “Kennel Club Set” before he gets to know them, a play on “country club set.” The real parallels, though, are in the somewhat “forbidden” nature of Lady and Tramp’s relationship, with her as the sheltered upper-class girl and him as the free-spirited, worldly poor boy – it’s similar to the relationship between Jasmine and Aladdin years later. Although the plot of Lady and the Tramp is not entirely original, it’s certainly closer to being so than almost anything else Disney had produced up to this point, so from a plot angle it’s quite a refreshing addition to the canon.

 

Cinematography

The cinematography of Lady and the Tramp is truly some of the best we’ve seen yet. The film is a strong one generally, but its visuals are perhaps its greatest achievement. The film was originally planned to be made in the usual full frame aspect ratio, but during the 1950s a trend for widescreen films had developed, so Disney decided to use the new CinemaScope process for Lady and the Tramp – making it the first animated feature to be presented this way. It was an inventive but problematic idea, causing the animators no end of trouble; the wide expanses of space may have added to the realism, but they also allowed for fewer close-ups and necessitated longer shots, as too many jump cuts would have looked too busy. Layout artists were used to moving the backgrounds along behind the characters, but now they suddenly found themselves being asked to move the characters about instead, to make use of all the new space available to them. Luckily, the animators lived up to the task and often made it work to their advantage in many scenes, such as the fight with the rat.

The decision to film the piece in CinemaScope was made after the film had entered production, so many of the background paintings had to be extended to fit the format – overlays were added to cover the seams of the extensions and you really can’t tell. As the film’s premiere drew nearer, Walt then received the discomforting news that many theatres around the country weren’t equipped to show wide-screen features, so an alternate version of the film had to be created alongside the main one in the usual Academy ratio. This involved many sessions with the layout artists to discuss the new placement of characters in scenes where they would be at the edge of the screen.

Lady and the Tramp scenery #1Lady and the Tramp scenery #2Lady and the Tramp scenery #3Lady and the Tramp scenery #4Lady and the Tramp scenery #5Lady and the Tramp scenery #6

Just look at some of the artwork in this film! The opening panorama of the town is lovely, the interiors are gorgeous, and the backgrounds are perhaps some of the most stunningly beautiful in the entire Disney canon (including future films). Everything is rich, sumptuous and loaded with nostalgia; you can really feel the passion put into the design. Mary Blair was originally set to be the background artist and had already prepared some inspirational sketches for the film, but she then decided to leave Disney to become a children’s book illustrator in 1953. (Much as I enjoyed her earlier work, I have to admit that I’m glad her spare, simplistic style wasn’t used here). In the end, Claude Coats was appointed the key background artist and he really did a magnificent job.

Artistically, the setting was inspired at least in part by the town of Marceline, Missouri, Walt’s nostalgic boyhood home of five years in the early twentieth century. Another possible inspiration, however, is the film Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) – although this has never been confirmed, the two films do share a certain stylistic similarity in their setting; the town Lady lives in even looks a little like turn-of-the-century St. Louis. The animal paintings of Edwin Henry Landseer may also have been an inspiration, too, as they were on Bambi, while Tramp’s name was likely taken from the Charlie Chaplin character of the same name.

Lady and the Tramp scenery #7Lady and the Tramp scenery #8Lady and the Tramp scenery #9

The film opens on a Josh Billings quote: “In the whole history of the world there is but one thing that money cannot buy… to wit the wag of a dog’s tail.” As well as being a nice American touch, I also always find it interesting when older films like this use written text on the screen, as there was clearly no problem back then expecting an audience to read something. This is rarely done in newer films, which some have argued is due to decreasing attention spans or lower literacy rates, but I don’t think it’s as heavy as all that; it’s just changes in taste. A quiet, gentle film like Lady and the Tramp would probably not be greenlit by a major studio today, seen as too risky in the current world of action-packed blockbusters. The last Disney film to be done in a remotely similar style was probably Winnie the Pooh (2011) and that, sadly, failed at the box office.

I like the camera angles used in this film, particularly those perspective shots which prevent us getting a clear look at Lady’s owners, simulating her view of her world. The animators really knew how to show off the spectacular scenery (both indoors and out) of this film, giving us several long, lingering panoramic shots of the cityscape and Lady’s neighbourhood. There’s a fun shot early on where we briefly switch to Jim Dear’s perspective as he looks at Lady through the hole she’s chewed in his newspaper, and the passage of time is handled creatively, such as when the image of puppy Lady on the bed dissolves into a near-identical one of her as an adult in the same position, or the classic “turning-calendar pages” technique during the pregnancy. The first look we get at the baby in his crib is a bit strange though; he almost looks too realistic, as though they inserted a photograph of an actual baby into the film – they didn’t, of course, but it’s still a bit jarring seeing such a lifelike head right beside his mother’s very animated hand (it actually looks like he’s part of the drawn background, as he doesn’t move).

The spaghetti scene is a cinematography triumph, with the music, the animation of the dogs’ expressions and the lead-in to the lovely romantic scene in the park all working perfectly to convey just the right emotions. The other main highlight (as I’ve said a few times already) is the big fight between Tramp and the rat, where lighting, shadows and sharp editing are used with great panache to really up the drama of the scene – Tramp’s entry into a stranger’s house is particularly haunting, as his silhouette at the bottom of the stairs is illuminated by a brief flash of lightning. This excellent lighting continues into the scene where Jock and Trusty try to track down the Pound carriage, with the two dogs running down rain-soaked, gas-lit streets shining like mirrors, and the usually bright colour palette washed out and bleak in a very film noir style.

To put it bluntly, this film looks incredible – if you happen to be a student of film studies, this is a great one to watch for its cinematography alone.

 

Soundtrack

Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke were responsible for writing all of the songs in the film, and Lee also assisted with the composition of the score (although for some strange reason, she isn’t credited by most sources alongside Oliver Wallace as one of the film’s composers). In November of 1988, about a year after the first VHS release of the film, Lee sued the Walt Disney Company for breach of contract because, according to her, since she retained the rights to the transcriptions of the music, it was illegal for Disney to distribute videotapes featuring it, since these counted as transcriptions. After a lengthy legal battle she won her case, and was awarded $2.3 million in 1991 – in 1989 and 1990 her example was followed by fellow Disney actresses Mary Costa and Ilene Woods, respectively, but I’m not clear as to whether they won their lawsuits.

That rather unpleasant note aside, let’s take a look at the music itself. The film opens with a lovely choral version of Bella Notte, which could be considered the film’s theme – it’s lush, charming and romantic, setting the tone of the film as a love story and making for a strong start to the soundtrack (this is my favourite “opening song” out of the Disney films I’ve reviewed so far).

Further into the film, we get What is a Baby?, which is a melancholic little number halfway between a song and a monologue and segues into La La Lu, a lullaby being sung to the new baby by Darling. Both of these pieces are pretty underrated; they might not be as full as Bella Notte or as catchy as He’s a Tramp but they work beautifully in the scenes they’re a part of. The first expresses Lady’s thoughts and feelings about the new arrival to the family in a hesitant, confused way that is sure to sound familiar to anyone who’s had to introduce their dog to their baby, while the second rivals Baby Mine from Dumbo as one of the best Disney lullabies, very soothing and sweet but without the tearful melancholy.

The Siamese Cat Song is… just a tad racist, it has to be said, with its awkward use of broken “Engrish,” but to be fair, it’s nothing compared to the outrageously racist What Made the Red Man Red? from the last film. It’s actually very catchy and features some “Asian” percussion such as gongs and chimes under the main rhythm. There’s no point dwelling on the decision to portray the cats as “mischievous Orientals” (as they were described in the original trailer), because thankfully, Disney has learned their lesson since then and don’t portray “ethnic” characters in such caricatured ways any longer. I suppose it was sort of a clever pun to make the cats literally Siamese (Siam being the old name for what is now Thailand), but all I can say is that I’m glad the cats don’t have any further appearances in the film, as they’re one of its weakest spots.

The Siamese Cats #2

Tony and Joe deliver a richer, more theatrical version of Bella Notte during the spaghetti scene, and it works wonderfully well – somehow, they make it even more romantic than the choir’s version with their passionate delivery of the lyrics. Their version blends into the gentler choral version as the scene progresses, which better fits the quieter, moonlit tone of the scenes in the park.

The dogs in the Pound demonstrate a delicious dark irony as we see them howling away to the tune of Home Sweet Home, a song originally from a forgotten 1823 opera and now well-known by modern Americans. It’s kind of heartening to see that these poor mutts don’t let their impending fate get them down, but then it’s also rather depressing to think that most of them probably never escaped from the Pound – the film never actually tells us what happens to them, but since they don’t make a reappearance in the final scene, it can be assumed that they might have met their makers… I really hope Peg got away, at least! As a minor side note, hearing this song always reminds me of Gretchen Grundler’s rendition of it in an episode of Recess (1997-2001); it was amusing to picture her howling away to the song with the dogs!

Just after this, we get into Peg’s delightful swing-inspired number He’s a Tramp, which is many peoples’ favourite song. They certainly have good reason to choose it, as it’s the easiest piece to sing along to and has a great, toe-tapping beat to it. The lyrics are delivered in a perfect, sassy, saucy way by Peggy Lee, who’s clearly having a great time with it – after all those sexy fish in the earlier Disney films, it’s interesting to see Disney’s take on a sexy dog. Peg oozes with a lazy confidence and you can’t help wondering why Tramp apparently wasn’t interested in her, as they would seem to be a good match! Then again, they do say opposites attract.

Lady and the Tramp's Peg

The rest of the score is nicely used, too, with some more of Disney’s signature jaunty motifs for the individual characters. The dialogue is often quite funny – one scene which always makes me laugh is the baby shower where Lady is wending about between the skirts of the ladies in confusion, and there’s one woman who seems to have only one adjective in her vocabulary. She insistently describes Darling as “radiant” over and over, to the point where it seems like the artists were parodying gossipy women repeating themselves in their eagerness to find something to talk about. The speech of the dogs (especially Jock) also sometimes simulates the barks and growls of a dog; some great delivery by the actors in those moments. My one criticism of the sound in the film is actually to do with the rat – during the climactic fight, I noticed it kept letting out a bizarrely cute squeaking sound when Tramp bit it, making it sound like a toy! It lessened the impact of the scene slightly for me and I think leaving it silent might have worked better, but that’s only a very minor criticism.

 

Final Verdict

Lady and the Tramp was released just a month before Walt’s new Disneyland theme park opened in Anaheim, which left it in danger of being overshadowed by that hugely anticipated event. As it turned out, it actually made more money than any Disney film except Snow White up to that point, making it a huge financial success – the studio was truly back on form by now. Still, amazing as it sounds now, some of the critics at the time didn’t like it, complaining about the “overly detailed” artwork and lack of action; clearly, some people are just never happy. Much like Peter Pan, it was met with generally more favourable reviews from the public and received rereleases in 1962, 1972, 1980 and 1986 (as well as a limited release in 2013).

It got its first VHS and Laserdisc release in 1987 (followed shortly by Peggy Lee’s lawsuit) and then a DVD release in late 1999, with several more following in subsequent years. In 2001, it also had the misfortune to be given a direct-to-video sequel called Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure – yikes, what a mouthful. I’ve not seen this one and I probably never will, but it doesn’t sound like it was one of Disney’s finer moments.

Despite this, in 2002, the film was named as the ninety-fifth best romantic film by AFI on their list of the “100 Greatest Love Stories of All Time” in their 100 Years… 100 Passions special, making it one of only two animated films on the list (the other was also a Disney film, Beauty and the Beast, which was at number thirty-four). Then, in June 2011, TIME magazine named it one of their twenty-five best animated films of all time.

It’s an honour which it most definitely deserves; a delight to look at, Lady and the Tramp has been one of the more enjoyable viewings I’ve had so far during this series. It has great characters, catchy music, lush visuals and a tight story – what more can you ask for? There are a handful of minor flaws (like the Siamese cats), but nothing that seriously detracts from the viewing experience. I highly recommend this one, so please do check it out as soon as you can! You won’t be disappointed.

 

My Rating – 5/5

 

References

I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

The World History of Animation (2011) by Stephen Cavalier

The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch

Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2320960 – credit for the poster

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_and_the_Tramp – wiki page

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048280/  – IMDB profile

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2 Replies to “Film Review: Lady and the Tramp (1955)”

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