The Persistence of Disney, Part 15: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

| October 16, 2016


“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.”

– Josh Billings

Lady and the Tramp opens with this lovely statement and thankfully never backs away from it.  This is a movie in love with dogs.  It loves the way they move, the way they howl, the way they beg, the way they sleep, the way they love us and most curiously the way in which they observe us.  Here is a movie so in love with the canine world that you can imagine the animators crawling around on the floor for inspiration.

Apart from any other studio dealing in animation – which at the time included Warner Brothers and the Fleisher studios – the animators at Disney were not about going after the obvious jokes.  Yes, there are a thousand jokes to be made about the typical habits of the domesticated dog but there was something more intimate in Disney’s presentation.  We understand their body language, but here is a movie that wants us to get inside their heads.  The movie closely observes not only their movements but also their attitudes regarding the world around them, a world in which the master is the center of all things and the curiosities of the world don’t extend much further than treats, mischief, nap-time and the ever-present net of the dog catcher.

The movie opens with a scene that has every dog lover nodding with recognition.  It opens when Lady is just a puppy and the owners want to keep her in a basket in the basement.  She persistently sits at the door and howls and cries until she gets their attention.  Upset at her persistence, the master of the house pushes a chair against the basement door.  Undaunted, Lady pushes at the door until she has enough room to get out.  Then she climbs the stairs and begs to sleep on their bed.  Finally, the owners relent and let her sleep in their bed, but “Just for tonight.”  As Lady settles in we see the passage of time and realize that one night of sleeping on their bed has turned into a lifelong commitment.  Watching that scene I almost don’t even have the watch the rest of the movie.  It’s a wonderful short film in and of itself.  It tells a story that has a perfect punchline, and is probably one of the most perfect pieces of animation ever put together by Disney.

That scene is done almost without dialogue and that adds a nice natural touch to the moment.  However, the rest of the movie does give dialogue to the dogs and it’s nice that it doesn’t mar the effect (for an example of how it could go wrong I refer you to 2000’s Dinosaur).  In presenting the world of dogs, the writers walked a very fine line between observing canine behavior and giving them human sensibilities.  When in the presence of a human, Lady and Tramp bark and wag their tails like real dogs but away from the human world they speak English and even philosophize.  Careful observations of behavior are then given to human-like pleasantries.

Yet, when the dogs do speak, it’s not a lot of Sesame Street treacle.  It observes their world in the cute adorable way that we might expect.  It’s childlike but surprisingly mature – or mature enoughLady and the Tramp is far more “adult” then any of the other 14 features that preceded it, and that sounds like an odd observation given the fact that the movie sees the adult world through a dog’s eyes in much the same way that a child might see their parents.  They are loved and spoiled but become part of a rigid routine that they often find themselves rejecting.  The dilemma for Lady is that she feels that she is being pushed out of the way by her owners Jim Dear and Darling (that’s what they call each other so she assumes these are their names) in response to the onslaught of a life changing event that lessens her station in their lives with the coming of a new baby.  The full-on attention that she once received suddenly takes a backseat to the care and feeding of this tiny new creature who has stolen their undivided attention.  Lady heartbroken as she goes from sleeping on the bed to sleeping outside.  This is much the same way that a first born might feel upon the arrival of a brother or sister.  What’s interesting is that its all a mystery to her as she wonders what she could have done wrong.

In observing the world of a dog, the animators also did away with the fantasy settings that, up to this point, had become the Disney trademark.  The previous films of the decade, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, occupy the same time frame (the early 20th century) but only in so far at the framework was concerned –the central core of their stories were the fantasy worlds of Wonderland and Neverland respectively.  Here the landscape is, more or less, the real world.  It takes place in New England sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th at a time between the horse-drawn coach and the advent of the motorcar.

Walt Disney was born and raised in this time period, he was born in Chicago in 1901 but famously grew up in Missouri.  This is a time and place that he might have recognized, the sterile world of the early 20th century before World War I.  The motorcars, the broad class distinctions and the landscape dotted with newly arrived immigrants make this setting uniquely American.  Disney’s previous films were fuzzy on their locales whether it be Snow White that takes place somewhere in western Europe; Pinocchio that takes place somewhere in Italy; Bambi that takes place somewhere in . . . God knows where!  Canada?  Wyoming?  Washington state?   Lady and the Tramp takes place in New England.  We can see that.  It is most obvious in the settings, the world of privilege and even in the scene in which Jim Dear nails a Yale banner to wall in the baby’s room.  High on the hill of this lush setting, Lady lives in the posh New England landscape of wealth and privilege.  Cast out into the world, she ends up on the wrong side of the tracks were we see the lower end of the social spectrum, a world of back alley’s, store fronts, and laundry strung between the tenement buildings.

This early American working class setting is fitting for the early years of the century as we are introduced to a vast tableau of immigrants.  Yes, there are the Italian-a chefs who who serve-a da spaghetti.  But also the vast array of dogs who are bound by their country of origin – The Russian Wolfhound is Russian;  the Scottish Terrier is Scottish; the Dachshund is German, etc.

This world is presented most especially by the presence of Tramp, a free spirited mutt who isn’t bound by the master’s leash.  He’s something new to Lady who has only understood the comforts of treats and the morning walk.  Lady and the Tramp is one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made, and not by way of any kind of cliche.  Its genuine.  When Lady and Tramp meet, it’s not love at first sight, in fact their first scene together has him laying out all of the horrors that await her domestic tranquility in the wake of the new baby.  His disservice to her suffering is only put forth by the fact that, as a homeless dog, he himself will never have to deal with such things as masters and their new babies.  Yet something connects between them as he shows her the ways of chasing chickens and back alley meals.

That meal, by the way, is movie folklore and one of the greatest romantic expressions ever put to film.  Fed spaghetti and meatballs behind the Italian restaurant, the immigrant cook and waiter Joey and Tony serenade the canine couple with the lovely “Bella Notte.”  We all know how it goes.  Tramp noses the meatball in her direction before they both take a bite of the spaghetti strand unaware that they are munching on the same noodle.  They come together and accidentally have their first kiss.  Then the focus falls on Lady who, just as the song reaches “Look at the skies, they have stars in their eyes,” we see stars in Lady’s eyes as the camera pulls up to the full moon.  The moment is almost Chaplin-esque in it’s simplicity.  Where some films meander and philosophize about love and romance, here is a movie that draws it in broad strokes and the effect is simply beautiful.

That simplicity is the movie’s masterstroke.  Lady and the Tramp deals with, more or less, adult issues but in a way that a child could identify.  It sees their world in microcosm with adult human being the far distant mystery and romance being an even greater mystery.  Grown-ups are seen in fleeting glances and their conversations are only as half-understood as their intentions.  That the movie allows children to see the adult world through the eyes of a dog is another great element.  It allows us to understand why we feel so close to our childhood pets.  Why and how they are as baffled by the world as we are is one great mystery that the moment muses over.  Its why we connect with our pets.  The love is pure and uncomplicated.  All it takes is the wag of a tail.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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