Lady and the Tramp, 1955, 75 minutes
Right from the beginning, Disney’s Lady and the Tramp nails the atmosphere it is going for. The opening scene shows Darling receiving Lady, her dear cocker spaniel, and from that moment forward, the movie is entirely told from the perspective of a dog. The people look huge, the house seems cavernous at times, and you feel how Lady sees herself as the center of the world to the people. It is a flawless intro, as beautiful as the beginning of any Disney movie up to this point.
The animation is simply gorgeous, easily boasting the studio’s best character animation since Bambi. The film is clearly a change in direction for the studio, as this is Disney’s first feature in widescreen, in a beautiful frame of 2.35:1, meaning the picture is more than twice as wide as it is tall. Sleeping Beauty would take this one step further, but in terms of it being Disney’s first wide-frame picture, it looks amazing. They use the space extremely well, with wide shots, close-ups, and beautiful sweeping shots through the nondescript Americana suburbs all being interesting and lively. Apparently, the city in the movie is loosely based on Marceline, Missouri, but it could be any Midwestern suburb, really.
Lady’s friends are introduced next, the dogs belonging to the neighbors. The old bloodhound Trusty, and the Scottish terrier Jacques, are both equally charming in their own way. Shortly after, we see our second namesake, the Tramp. He is a beautifully drawn character, much like Lady, and even though he’s from the proverbial (And literal) wrong side of the tracks, we are endeared to him immediately.
Lady’s conflict arises when she realizes the reason she’s been neglected by her humans lately: Darling is expecting a child, and the humans are much more concerned with their son-to-be than their dog-to-is. Her two old friends, and her new one, try to give her a primer on what to expect when your owners are expecting, and they paint a pretty grim picture: She will be ignored, and eventually, thrown out of the house.
We then get to a pretty bad song as Lady sings a horrifying nightmare-dirge once the baby is born, and while it is supposed to give us insight into her character, we have more than enough of that, and this terrifying What is a Baby song is quite unsettling. Immediately afterwards, Lady sees Darling singing La La Lu to the newborn, and it is already clear that the family is going to spend time with the baby than with their trusty dog.
Compared to Cinderella, Alice, and Peter Pan, it is clear we are back to the company’s prestige pictures, with smoother, more elaborate animation, better music production, and most importantly, more involvement from the big man himself. Walt took a more special interest in this film after being a bit more passive during the production of Alice and Peter, and it showed. While those movies are still beautiful, at least visually, there is a certain emotive energy missing in those movies, an inability to attach ourselves to the protagonists. I think that Lady and the Tramp recaptures that feeling beautifully, making the audience feel for Lady almost immediately. This immediate attachment allows us to feel a palpable chemistry between our two main mutts as they eat their spaghetti in the film’s most famous scene. Bella Notte is one of my favorite Disney songs, and it is the best animated romantic scene Disney has made even to this day.
Lady’s about to get sucked in to Tramp’s fantasy of living out on the streets, before she snaps out and realize she should get back to Jim and Darling’s. Just then, Tramp convinces her to chase some chickens, and the couple hits their first roadblock. She feels abandoned and lied to because Tramp’s behavior lands her in the slammer. This is not just her being dramtic: the emotions she feels are real, and complex. She loses trust in the boy that broke her out of her boring, stuffy mansion. The pound is a cold, scary place, and the dogs even see one of their own get put out of his misery. Her cellmate Peg (Played by Peggy Lee) lets Lady know the truth about her new man: he’s kind of a tramp. At this point, Lady feels even more betrayed by him, hearing Peg’s wonderfully revealing song, but then is brought back home by Aunt Sarah, where she is wallowing in self-pity.
While the film is funny throughout, its emotional scenes are in no way played for laughs. When Jacques and Trusty realize how sad Lady is without the Tramp around, they mutually decide that the honorable thing to do would be to let Lady decide which is more desirable, and marry her. It is a misguided, though noble attempt to right someone else’s wrongs, but the scene is played as emotionally vulnerable rather than funny, and it is truly affecting to see how much Lady’s neighbors care for her. The boys are angry at the tramp and have a sudden change of heart when they find that the Tramp was trying to save, rather than hurt, the baby. It is one of the most touching scenes in the film, as their heroic rescue effort results in the apparent death of our dear bloodhound Trusty (Don’t worry, he’s fine.)
One of the more intriguing things about the film is the unique way its villains are used. As far as humans go, there is no true “villain” in the movie, instead it frames the humans in such a way that they seem evil to the dogs, but are in fact doing things that are standard operating procedure. The dog catcher is merely doing his job, and while he is not shown as a kind man, most of his frustrations are at our mangy Tramp, who, as far as we can tell from Peg’s song, has been roaming the streets of this anonymous suburb for years. So, even though he is rude to our heroes, his actions perfectly fit into his societal role, and he is in no way evil. The same goes for Aunt Sarah, whose unenviable job is to watch after her niece’s newborn baby overnight, freaks out — with good reason — that a strange dog is in her grand-nephew’s bedroom. I’d say that calling animal control is a reasonable response to that situation. While Sarah is very rude, her actions are still defensible, she is just trying to do what is best on behalf of her family. Even Jim and Darling can hardly be blamed for paying more attention to their baby than their dog, that is how I hope people would act with a newborn around. The film’s villains are all circumstantial, rather than absolute, and this makes the film much more like real life than any of the Disney films we’ve seen thus far. The Siamese Cats are really the only villains, but they’re in like three minutes of the movie, and most of that time is awful. We’ll get to that later.
Arguably, the most fascinating thing about this film as a whole is how human it is. While the film is about dogs, and shows us what dogs must feel about the human world, the movie is arguably Disney’s most human. The relationships ring true, the problems are just like real-life. The emotions certainly feel make our dogs feel like humans, with their relationship feeling so real. The animation in the dogs’ movement, how smooth it is, but also how emotional and vulnerable their faces are, show more humanity than any of Disney’s actual humans yet, their voices expressing more feeling and pathos.
Musically, the film is not as strong as Pinocchio, but there is still a lot here. La La Lu is a beautiful, but short lullaby that Darling sings to the newborn right after he is born. It is a fleeting moment, and I wish the song was longer. He’s a Tramp is sort of a stuck-in-time song about the male suitor. It is a charming song that tells a lot of the story, and helps sell the fact that the Tramp has been around the block, something we did not totally have a feel for yet. I’ve already said what I wanted to about Bella Notte, which is absolutely lovely, but we have one more song to get to. We Are Siamese brings a bit of that signature Disney racism. The movie has a few other characters — mostly in the dogpound — with stereotypical accents, but their English is proficient, and the accents are at least pretty accurate. This, like most 1950s imitations of Chinese people, is just terrible. In addition to being in awful taste, it’s just an awful song. At least What Makes the Red Man Red, for all of its problems, is a clever song, but We Are Siamese is simply awful. It brings nothing to the story, except that cats are evil, which we already knew, I mean this is a dog movie after all. The cats and their dumb, faux-Asian melody just take up two precious minutes of this otherwise wonderful film. We Are Siamese is an annoying, racist, unremarkable, frustrating, terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad song. Despite this, the score throughout is perhaps Disney’s best yet, having a wonderful, bouncy quality, that is evocative of Midwest America, being exciting and fresh, yet familiar.
The film, as I’ve said, is beautiful. The wide frame, coupled with the extremely detailed, smooth animation of the dogs, makes it absolute eye candy. Seriously, it has not been since Bambi that a Disney movie has looked this good. Every frame shows a new, beautiful sequence, from the introduction of Lady coming out of the gift box, to the exciting conclusion of Jacques and Trusty saving the Tramp, each scene in the film is fresh, with a unique mood in each scene. Take, for example, the scene in which the Tramp is chasing the rat in Junior’s room. Much like the fight scene in Bambi, this scene completely changes the color palette, and the scene looks nothing like anything else around it. The film also brings back Disney’s signature storytelling efficiency. Working again at the 75-minute timeframe, pretty much every scene is important, and, except for We Are Siamese, there’s not a minute wasted of the brief runtime.
Lady and the Tramp is one of Disney’s best films, certainly the best since Bambi. Its visual style is impeccable, and musically, it is as strong as anything the company has made at this point. The film’s widescreen frame gives the animation new life, with the ability to frame more interesting, filmic shots. The characters and the drama that they share feel more human than anything Snow White, Cinderella, or Alice go through, and it contains the best relationship a cartoon couple have had this side of Homer and Marge Simpson. Take out the Siamese Cat scene and we have a true masterpiece. Instead, we’ll have to settle for excellent
Lady and the Tramp, A-
Up next is Sleeping Beauty, a doozy.