Lady and the Tramp Review

Lady and the Tramp (1955) Review

What do I know about the film?

Way back in 1937 when ‘Snow White’ was released, Joe Grant sketched a dog. He happened to have a springer spaniel named Lady who he noticed was severely put out when he and his wife produced an infant. ‘Hey!’ he thought ‘There is a story is this!’ Now a lot of people make observations about their lives that end in a delusional statement like this. But there is a difference between Joe Grant and your typical ‘they should make a film about my life’ person. Joe Grant was an artist and writer for the Walt Disney Company.

Pitching to Walt was no easy task though. He preferred his stories to have a tested source material and was not sure that Lady would have mass appeal. He presumably pointed this out while commissioning the very expensive flop that was ‘Fantasia.’ You remember. The film with lots of classical music and no cohesive plot. But sure thing Walt, people hate dogs.

But then inspiration hit the old fascist in the early 40’s when he read Ward Greene’s short story ‘Happy Dan, The Whistling Dog’ He realised that what Lady needed what a canine foil. So before you could say spaghetti, Walter was rummaging through Grant’s drawings looking for Lady. Grant had left the studio at this point (although he would return later and continue to work on Disney films till his death) but this didn’t stop the House of Mouse creating his idea and giving him no credit whatsoever. Why would it? Disney did credit Greene though and commissioned his to write the novelization of Lady and the Tramp 2 years before the film was released so people would know the story.

Luckily everyone had apparently rushed out to buy the novella about dogs and had been patiently waiting for the movie version they didn’t know was coming because ‘Lady and the Tramp’ was a smash hit and the most financially successful Disney film since ‘Snow White.’ Critics did not love it, criticising the quality of the art work and saying the dogs had the dimensions of hippos…Seriously?


Pictured: Not hippos.

Maybe their eyes needed testing but in their defence Lady and the Tramp was the first Disney film, hell the first ANIMATED film full stop, to be filmed in Cinemascope. Don’t know what that means? Don’t worry. It is essentially just really, really wide. Some cinemas didn’t have the means to support a film made for the big screen, talk about not being able to organise a piss up in a brewery, and so Disney animators had to hastily adjust the finished product to stop characters being out of shot. Walt sent out two versions to various cinemas: One filmed for Cinemascope and the other one for the cinemas that couldn’t handle it. He liked breaking new ground in animation but only if he could have his cake and eat it too.

Critics have grown kinder towards it over the years, and ‘Lady and the Tramp’ is considered quite ground breaking cinema: It is regularly voted one of the most memorable love stories period and was arguably the first animated film to hire a big star to boost audiences. Both of these things deserve quite a bit of attention in this review but first of all…

Did I see it as a child? 

Yes. A VHS of it resided in my Grandparents house and whenever I visited I would attempt to bypass the boring old people and head for the cupboard where it lived. To this day I can close my eyes and hear the sound the cupboard made as it opened, with its distinctive creak…

I vividly remember relating to Lady’s confusion as to why her owners suddenly changed and not getting that it was due to pregnancy and the impending birth of their child. Watching the film as an adult it is hilarious how unsubtle all the hints are (and that the Father wants a boy so he can attend an Ivy League school and the Mother wants a daughter so she can give her a super girly double barrelled name) and yet I NEVER saw the baby coming…even after I had seen the film many, many times.

Oh dear Young Me. You were not the brightest.

I also remember loving the opening scene when Lady is a puppy and manages to manipulate the humans into letting her sleep on their bed. I used to proper wince when Jim Dear shouted at her. For some reason I found it disconcerting and was always relieved when Lady was victorious.

But I am getting ahead of myself…What is a Lady and what is a Tramp?

Synopsis:

An affluent apparently faceless couple get a puppy named Lady who quickly becomes the light of their lives. They make a point of saying how NOTHING could ever take her place…nothing…nope…not a thing…nothing means more to us than our dog…nopety nope…Oh wait it turns out we like our baby better. Easily. Babies > Dogs. Although the internet would beg to differ.

Anyways, because the script says so Lady runs away and ends up hanging out with a happy go lucky bachelor dog named…err…The Tramp. Attraction ensues and a weirdly adult representation of a wrong side of the tracks romance begins to develop…

What Works:

The idea to tell the story almost exclusively from the perspective of the dogs gives ‘Lady and the Tramp’ a unique look and sound compared to other Disney films but it is not played in a way that is too gimmicky. Lady refers to her owners as ‘Jim Dear and Darling’ and it is clear these are their pet names for one another but we are not hit over the head with the fact that Lady has misunderstood this. Watching Lady dance around their feet without ever really showing us what the humans look like feels authentic and it is cool that the sound bites she overhears inform the audience but not her what is happening at any given moment. We understand what is going on even as we appreciate why it would make no sense from the perspective of a dog.

After the baby is born there is a shot of Lady watching the sterilization equipment sparkling in the sunlight on the window sill and she gradually makes her way up the stairs, pontificating inwardly as to what a baby could possibly be and what on Earth could be causing all this fuss. She is none the wiser after her conversation with her neighbours: Fellow dogs Trusty and Jock who smugly impart their wisdom that eventually all humans have babies (Yep. All of them.) but they can’t adequately explain what a baby actually is. Despite not seeing the child she is aware of how it has already impacted her comfortable existence and even though she grows to love him and appreciate the new normal, the build up to what she feels sure will be her doom is actually quite suspenseful because she does not know what is coming.

It kind of reminds me of the Rugrats and how the babies were often creating adventures out of the mundane but it never felt boring because we understood their limited view of the world. With Lady, it is clear that she is hurt when a worried Jim Dear refers to her as ‘That Dog’ and she takes Tramp’s words to heart when he cruelly informs her she will end up sleeping outside and eating left over baby food. It is easy to be worried on her behalf.

The stylistic choices feel natural, look great and enhance the story that is being told. Boxes are being ticked all over the place. But what of the script? I loved how smoothly they set things up that get paid off later. For one example let us refer to The Tramp’s excellent introduction. Rather than having him being another generic Disney Prince, we get to see a day in his life before he becomes any part of Lady’s. Almost all what he does tells us something about the character and his world: we see him getting breakfast from a small Italian restaurant, freeing some dogs from the back of vehicle before it departs for the Pound and generally annoying people. The Pound, the Dogs, the Dog Catcher and the restaurant all return later in the story.

There are so many examples of tight story telling here…Why does Lady chase a rat earlier in the story? It shows up as a third act catalyst. Why are we told that Trusty has no sense of smell during a scene where he fruitlessly stalks a grateful caterpillar? It returns later in a surprisingly emotional moment. Even the running joke about Trusty always repeating the same story about Ol’ Reliable shows up as the final slightly melancholy punchline to the story. The script is possibly the easiest flowing of all the films so far (quite a claim that I may regret in retrospect but it feels true right now) nothing seems forced despite it being obvious what is going to happen at times and it is generally very easy viewing. Any film that seems this easy must have been hard work to put together.

Easily the most famous scene in ‘Lady and the Tramp,’ and indeed one of the most distinctive in all of film history, is the spaghetti scene. You are picturing it right now aren’t you? Even if you have not seen the film you know the scene. A sign that a film’s scene is bigger than the movie it came from is when you remember several parody versions just as well as the original. So, just in case you are actually 11 hours old and therefore have no idea what I am on about, first of all: Welcome to the world! Secondly, Tramp takes Lady to get some food at one of his favourite restaurants, the one that was set up earlier in the story. They are given some spaghetti and meatballs and end up sharing a kiss after they fail to realise they are both chowing down on the same piece of pasta. It is sweeter than it sounds and indeed sweeter than it could ever be in real life. If you have ever tried to Lady and the Tramp it up with a piece of food and a loved one it just…isn’t sexy. I have tried it. It was funny sure, but not romantic. But in the film it works. In that one moment, an iconic image is born.

But…here is the question not enough people ask…Why were the two dogs given a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in the first place? Both me and my viewing buddies were really struck by the surreality of the scene when you really consider where our main characters actually are. For those of you have not watched it for a while, here is what happens, give or take a few Italian accents:

Italian Stereotype One: Hi pooch! Wow you have a girlfriend! What a special night for us all!

Italian Stereotype Two: Here are some left over bones…

ISO: (Genuinely irate) I am going to break-a your face! (actual line. He threatens to break his face.) Bones!? What kind of date night food is that?! Go get him and his woman some proper food NOW!

IST: (confused and upset) Um…But…Seriously? Times are hard Boss and it is not like they can pay for…

ISO (ignoring him) Let’s make it nice and romantic for them too! A table! A candle! The dogs say they want spaghetti and meatballs!

IST: Dogs can’t talk Tony…I am really worried about…

ISO: God damn it, I am not going to tell you again they barked and I understood it so just…ok???

IST: (figuring if he can’t beat him he may as well join him) Cool! Let’s serenade the dogs with these instruments we brought to work as they enjoy their gourmet meal!

{Meanwhile we must assume the scene inside was something like this…}

Customer One: God damn it, I’ve been waiting for my ricotta for nearly 40 minutes…

Waiter: I’m so sorry the Head Chef had to step out for…just a moment…

Customer Two: And what about the rest of the kitchen staff?

Waiter: Him too. I think it must be an emergency they have been gone for a while…

Customer One: Disgraceful service…

Customer Two: Wait, can you hear that?

{The restaurant grows silent as the sound of two grown men improvising a love ballad for the sake of some dogs they don’t own carries through from the back alley to the main dining room…}

Basically, what we witness is not only a beautifully crafted piece of musical romance but a struggling business owner having a complete mental breakdown and dragging his colleague along on the crazy train. And I don’t know if this is a sign that I am now an adult but I don’t think I will ever watch the scene in the same way again. Instead of seeing it as the moment Lady and the Tramp fall for each other good and proper, I will always think of the ignored and irate customers going hungry on the other side of the wall. I mean…what are those men doing? I mean seriously…What are they actually doing???


‘I’m…I’m so lost’ ~ Tony, the Italian Stereotype

Despite us laughing all the way through it till tears poured down our faces, this is a sweet moment and quite a beautiful song. The romance between Lady and the Tramp may be whirlwind but it feels real. I am not sure why it took a couple of dogs for Disney to really give us a convincing and believable romance without over egging the whole love-is-a-dream-and-a-wish-and-being-part-of-a-pair-is-the-ultimate-goal. They don’t just meet and fall in love. She does not even look at him that way initially because they are not equals in her eyes. He mocks her and winds her up and she sticks her nose in the air at the mere sight of him. Then he proves to be quick thinking and resourceful. And she is pretty and needs him. Not the most original dynamic ever put on film but it was a Disney first. Plus, it is played out in a way I find convincing.

There is a moment when Tramp tricks a Beaver in a Zoo into biting off Lady’s muzzle (come on, it is a Disney film they need at least a million supporting characters, just go with it) and Lady makes a joke. The camera makes sure and captures The Tramp’s delight when he realises Lady has a sense of humour but it is a blink and you’ll miss it moment, he doesn’t say to himself: ‘Say maybe this lippy broad ain’t so bad after all!’ You just see him enjoy it for a second. By the time he is pushing the last meatball across the plate with his nose to demonstrate she can have it and she is looking up at him with stars in her eyes…you know it is on.

The morning after the night before they have a frank and surprisingly accurate conversation where both of them make the case for their personal lifestyle: Neither is wrong and they both realise it probably won’t work. Tramp likes being free and Lady wants to go home. But then Lady is caught by the Dog Catcher and while at the Pound learns that Tramp has a past. A past with the ladies. Hence his name. Yeah. Disney went there.

This revelation causes a fight that, again, feels real. There is no contrived misunderstanding or a reveal that he has been misrepresenting his status: She is humiliated about spending time in Doggy Jail and he shows up all cheerful and ‘that was a laugh today wasn’t it?’ missing the obvious clues that she feels completely let down. Not to mention she has been, err, educated about his past. Again, she has not been lied to and he doesn’t try and protest. She is not his first girlfriend and she was naive to assume otherwise. He wasn’t coming to proclaim his love or with promises to change: He liked her and wanted to keep hanging out but she is looking for someone who is ready to step up.

There is no need for one of them to scream: ‘We are from two different worlds!’ There is no major tragedy just hurt feelings and badly timed jokes. Almost like, whadayaknow, a real argument. Seriously Disney. It took dogs before you felt you could explore a genuine romantic dynamic?

And I like how the fight is forgotten when the stakes are raised: Still believable, still like real life. The rat with the scary face does not get any lines but his face says it all as he smirks at a trapped Lady before slipping into the baby’s room…Ick. Tramp returns to save the day when he hears Lady barking in distress but is very matter of fact about it: The baby is in danger of being bitten by a yucky rodent so their fight has to be pushed to one side.

For my money Lady and the Tramp are the first romantic couple in Disney history to earn their domestic bliss…even though I suspect Tramp will have a midlife crisis and be out shagging again soon…You shouldn’t try and change them Lady, love…

Most of the characters work well and are easy to cheer on. Eerily I find myself relating to a lot of the grown up chat between the human characters more than I used to. Also, Aunt Sarah is an often overlooked Disney villain who is infuriatingly short sighted when it comes to Lady and is the cause of most of the damage in the film. While not everyone appreciates Jock and Trusty I find them enjoyable characters as they try and be wise when they are both a bit clueless in their own way and while neither Lady or the Tramp are remarkable creations on their own I am clearly very invested in their relationship to the point that, God save me, I can relate to it.

Meeting the Pound dogs is a highlight of an already joy filled film. Ok, so initially it is fucking dark with crying dogs as far as the eye can see:

WTF Disney!?! Why???

And the news that Nutsy is away for a ‘long walk,’ a rather laboured metaphor that nonetheless went over my head as a child, is pretty grim. But there is some good banter to be had anyway and then there is Peg, played by phenomenal jazz singer Peggy Lee. Hearing that voice come out of a dog is pretty funny and then there is her big solo number ‘He’s a Tramp’ which is both a plot point (she drops the bomb that the Tramp is in fact a Tramp…Who saw that coming?) and an excuse for Lee to do what she does best. And man, does she sell it. Work that doggy strut Peggy! My only complaint is that it is over far too quickly.

I could go on. Are you getting yet how much I enjoyed the way this film was paced, scored, shot, scripted and structured? It really works for me. So what could possibly ruin this home run of a movie?

Oh you know it…

(Every. Damn. Time.)

What Doesn’t Work:

I am getting sick of saying it but it shouldn’t really go unsaid: Disney was not afraid to go broad, stereotypical and incredibly offensive with their supporting characters. And in ‘Lady and the Tramp’ I lost count of the number of regions that take a pummelling. I will give it a go though: There is a Scottie dog with a terrible Scottish accent, the aforementioned Italian Stereotypes, a red haired Irish police man, A philosophical Russian dog, a fast talking Spanish chihuahua, a ‘cor blimey’ cockney bulldog, and…who am I missing? Hang on let me think…Wait for it…

I am already anticipating the mail I may never actually get about this: YES the film was made a long time ago, YES the Siamese cats are nuisances with very little bearing on the plot, YES it is just a sweet cartoon…But what are the zillions of well supported commentators on Youtube and beyond defending? I enjoyed this film and I don’t consider myself a hater of Asian people. But I can still see that Disney was affected by an unfortunate case of Yellow Peril.

Ah yes Yellow Peril. Basically, it is easy to shit on Asians in American pop culture. It is extremely rare for Asian Americans to have a substantial role in a TV or film where they are not playing a stereotype. For some reason, they are fair game. But at this point in history it went slightly further than just failing to provide any possible role models for young Asian kids growing up in America. Since the late nineteenth century there has been an unfortunate expression known as Yellow Peril referring to the somewhat irrational belief that because Asians outnumber a lot of the world they would eventually try and take over.

This is a gross over simplification but I am talking about some cartoon cats so I will try and get to the point: If you add the context that Pearl Harbour was something of a game changer for the relationship between Americans and Asians in the 40’s, Americans really didn’t want Asian people ‘invading’ their land. Did you know that there was an influx of Asian immigrants around the time this film was brought out? Well Disney sure did. The cats were originally called Nip and Tuck but sometime through the years they became ‘Si’ and ‘Am’ So the choice to make the Siamese cats somewhat menacing, thoughtless and indisputably Asian stereotypes is direct commentary on the xenophobia that was rife in America in the 50’s. Lady does not want these cats invading her space but they are going to do it anyway. And they are going to do it while ‘traditional’ Asian music plays.

So while it may have been intended as social satire, and I am sceptical of this defence, fundamentally the cats are assholes and Lady hates them, so the message impressionable children gets kind of condones the ‘Asian people are going to mess with our stuff’ mentality that permeated in the US post Word War Two.

My point is this: the film is filled with stereotypes and it is the poorer for it. That bloody scene with the cats is awful. I watched it with a few others and one of our party had not seen the film before and was properly horrified when they showed up. I felt embarrassed for making him watch it. In the original script they had a role in the finale. Thank fuck those story boards never saw the light of day.

Having said that, there is very little else I personally dislike about ‘Lady and the Tramp.’ I have some nitpicks: Like the fact that Tramp’s affectionate nickname for Lady, Pidge, short for Pigeon, sounds quite a bit like Bitch. Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it. Which is unfortunate.

After Lady returns from the Pound her friends Jock and Trusty come to visit discussing how they are both going to…propose to her? When it actually comes to it, they just ask if she wants to live with one of them rather than stay with the horrible Aunt Sarah but it certainly seemed like they were suggesting an engagement in the conversation which is…odd and a bit out of nowhere. Are we suppose to infer this or I am reading too much into it? Either way it is weird. Aunt Sarah is a pretty good antagonist but to the point that her scenes did annoy me quite a lot. Apart from the two bitchin’ tunes mentioned, most of the other songs are a bit unnecessary.

Also the final chase scene, while good, has some odd choices. Like, would there really be a sign on the road directing pedestrians and traffic towards the Pound? It is somewhat dramatically convenient because I really don’t feel a local Dog Pound is a typical city landmark.

Then there is the moment where Trusty bravely takes on the Dog Catcher cart.  The way it was written and when they animated it, he was supposed to pay with his life hence his body being crushed under the vehicle as a devastated Jock howls in grief…Only…there he is in the final scene. With nothing more than a broken leg for his trouble.

It wouldn’t be so odd if they hadn’t shown him clearly dead in the previous sequence. Watching the film, you feel sad, you feel the loss and then it is like: ‘Gotcha! He was fine! See here he is lagging behind Jock and ready for Christmas dinner…Odd that the humans let them in without their owners but if those poor Italian chefs can be crazy so can they…’ It is not like I wanted him to die just for the sake of having someone die but I would rather they cut that shot altogether if they were just going to have him be fine.

Conclusion: 

I am happy to report that ‘Lady and the Tramp’ holds up brilliantly. Creative, weirdly believable, and highly watchable it has been a happy highlight in this strange trip down memory lane. Now if only Disney could stop being racist for 5 minutes…

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 3

The sodding cats, the crying pound pups and the horrible smiling rat

Best Song: 

Bella Notte is a close second but I just love me some Peggy Lee:

Next Time: A demonic fairy takes umbrage at being left off a guest list and spends the remainder of her life pursuing vengeance…Sleeping Beauty (1959)

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4 Comments

Filed under Disney Reviews

4 responses to “Lady and the Tramp Review

  1. NOTE: I actually did some research for this one! Always important to cite your sources…http://blogs.uoregon.edu/j320finalproject/2013/03/13/siamese-cats-in-lady-and-the-tramp/

  2. Ah, I can explain the scene with the proposal to it…you just have to put it in the right frame. Imagine Lady was a young woman of “good breeding” who ignored all rules of society and spend a night with some tramp. Now she is “damaged goods” (she is even pregnant! after all, at Christmas the puppies are already there). Around the time the movie is set, Lady would be dishonoured and shunned from society as soon as her misstep becomes public knowledge. So he older friends offer her to step up and “rescue her honour”. As a general rule, one should always look at this movie and imagine that Lady and Tramp are humans, just too get how ballsy Disney actually was with this one.

    I still think that if there are stereotypes attached to animals, it says a lot about us if we recognize them. In this particular case I don’t mind at all, because it is equal opportunity stereotyping.

    • Interesting…That is why I think Lady and the Tramp were the most adult Disney couple to date. There were some pretty grown up dilemmas played out.

      I see your aforementioned point about reconsigning stereotypes in animals but you’d have to be ignorant not to acknowledge that these characters are anthropomorphised creations and just because someone views them in a different way to you doesn’t make your viewpoint by default superior or more worthy.

      • I know, I just like to point out that Disney uses all kinds of stereotypes. Everyone complains about the cats, but nobody (usually) mentions all the other stereotypes. The hyenas of the Lion King are somehow cast as offensive stereotypes (I honestly don’t see it), but Lumiere being a French one is totally okay. It is the double standard which gets to me. Are the Siamese cats (which for me as a child were simply cats…I didn’t see the stereotype at all before I saw my first episodes of Bonanza) really that threatening? I honestly see them more in the same category as the crocodile or Aunt Clara or the dog catcher…characters who are not necessarily evil, but act as antagonists for one reason or another. The cats act like cats. The crocodile naturally acts like a crocodile and wants to bite up Lady’s head. The dog catcher is actually very nice to lady, he is only after dogs who don’t have an owner because it is his job. Aso.

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