Disney Review: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

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Year of release: 1955
Running time: 75 minutes
Inspired by: “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog” by Ward Greene
Availability: last released on DVD in 2006
Sequels/spin-offs: Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure (2001)

Plot: Lady, a young cocker spaniel, lives comfortably in the house of her owners, Darling and Jim Dear. Her life is turned upside-down by the arrival of a baby and, driven out of the house by the misguided Aunt Sarah, she falls in love with Tramp, an adventurous and heroic stray dog. After Lady is caught by the dog-catcher and discovers Tramp’s long (and famed) romantic past, she and her friends send him away, but he ultimately proves himself when he rescues the baby from a rat. Tramp is adopted by Lady’s owners and they are shown with four young puppies the following Christmas.

The Heroes
The film opens on Christmas Day, with Jim Dear giving Lady to Darling as a present. This short introduction to Lady as a puppy is not only unimaginably cute but also shows how much love she has been shown throughout her life, being allowed to sleep on the bed and always knowing that her owners will have time to play with her. This makes it almost heartbreaking when we see Lady seemingly being replaced as the number one subject of her owners’ attention. These opening sequences of the film also establish that despite this loving upbringing, she is not pampered, and still behaves like a normal dog, chasing rats away from the house and burying bones in the garden. Although Lady is not very streetwise once outside of the protection of her owners, it would be wrong to call her naive or weak. She stands up to Tramp when she learns about his infamous string of romantic encounters, rather than running straight back into his arms, making her a lot more independent and headstrong than other female Disney characters from the same era.

While Tramp is technically a pest and at the top of the dog-catcher’s most-wanted list, he is also very easy to love and is still portrayed as very heroic. Tramp is almost worshipped by the other strays at the pound: it is clear that all the dogs either want to be him or be with him. He also knows exactly how to get the most out of the humans, bragging about his many “families” who keep him fed on different days of the week. But despite his confidence and unrivalled record as the most uncatchable dog in the neighbourhood, the dogs at the pound know of his biggest weakness: girls.

It is revealed (after the love montage) that Lady is just the latest in a long string of ex-girlfriends that seemingly every dog on the street knows all about (exactly what became of those girls is not mentioned). I think the only thing that bothers me about Tramp’s character is that he never really apologises for this: once Lady calls him out on it he simply leaves, only returning when he hears Lady’s distress at a rat entering the house. It’s never really spelled out that Tramp considers Lady to be someone special, though the fact he “settled down” with her and her owners would imply it (plus, this being a Disney film, it’s safe to assume that the two protagonists are experiencing “true love” rather than just another hook-up).

Lady’s neighbours, Jock and Trusty, want only what is best for Lady and are very mistrusting of Tramp at first. Jock – a Scottish Terrier – is full of energy and bravery, never flinching when standing up to Tramp, despite his short height. Trusty is an old bloodhound who is very forgetful and has (apparently) lost his sense of smell. However, Trusty has his moment of triumph at the climax of the film when he successfully tracks the dog-catcher’s carriage (through the rain!) and almost loses his life bringing the carriage to a halt. As side-characters-in-Disney-films go, Jock and Trusty are enjoyable but ultimately mostly forgettable.

The Villains
This film is an unusual example of a Disney film with no primary villain. Although there are characters who present themselves as obstacles to the heroes (Aunt Sarah and her Siamese cats, the rat, the dog-catchers) these characters never have enough screen-time to leave a lasting impression and are rarely acting in a way to specifically cause harm to Lady or Tramp. They’re either misguided or misinformed (Aunt Sarah), have ulterior motives (the cats), just doing their jobs (the dog-catchers) or are simply dumb, faceless animals (the rat).

Instead, the real antagonist of this film is the “class system” that appears in the canine world between house dogs and street dogs. While never really pointed out explicitly, it is clear that Lady and Tramp’s romance is considered unusual by the pound dogs and those same dogs repeatedly comment that Lady doesn’t belong in a place like the pound due to her status as a house dog. Lady and Tramp managing to make their romance work (albeit with a lucky coincidence forcing Tramp to heroically save a baby) is the biggest victory in the film.

The Story
Lady and the Tramp is an interesting film when studied closely. In particular, if you imagine the film being about humans rather than dogs, it becomes quite an adult story: a rebellious, upper-class, young lady who falls in love with an egotistic, lower-class man who sleeps around. Throw in the fact that the film seems to imply that Lady and Tramp did a lot more than just snuggling on that hillside (see below) and there’s a lot of interesting subtext to this otherwise family-friendly film. I also really like the depiction of Lady’s home life and the way in which Darling’s pregnancy is portrayed, complete with odd cravings (watermelon and chop suey??). You can genuinely feel the love when Lady and her owners are together, which makes it all the more jarring when their attention is stolen away by the baby or when Aunt Sarah is looking after Lady.

If I had one complaint to make about this film’s story it would be that the passage of time is never portrayed very well. The events of the film happen over at least a couple of years (from Lady’s unwrapping at Christmas to the ending where we see Lady and Tramp’s puppies) but Tramp seems to instantly recognise Lady when they meet for the second time, despite the fact that their (brief) first meeting happened during Darling’s early pregnancy, about a year beforehand. Throw in the fact that Lady never seems to change in appearance from the start of Darling’s pregnancy right through to having puppies of her own, and you can be forgiven for thinking that the film had a much shorter timespan.

The Music
The soundtrack for this film was written and recorded, in part, by legendary singer Peggy Lee and, naturally, it’s a very good selection of songs. There are three songs that everyone remembers from this film: “Bella Notte” (the famous spaghetti scene), “The Siamese Cat Song” and “He’s A Tramp”, which the impounded dogs sing when Lady is caught. They’re all brilliant songs and (ignoring the possibly-racist tones of Siamese) stand up just as well today as they first did in the 50s. One brilliant-but-forgotten song is “La La Lu”, a lullaby sung by Darling to her baby son, which is a truly beautiful moment in the film. Special mention must also be given to “Peace on Earth”, which plays at the beginning of the film. This song takes the tune of the carol Silent Night and places a new melody and lyrics over the top of it, producing a familiar-but-new number.

The black sheep of the soundtrack is “What Is A Baby?” which may be the worst “song” to appear in the films I have reviewed so far. It has little-to-no melody, really bad lyrics and an awful echo effect over Lady’s voice (it is supposed to be her thoughts, so we have an odd, underwater, “in her head” effect over the top of everything). Thankfully, it’s very short and is soon followed by La La Lu which quickly erases the pain. Other than this blemish, it’s a pretty solid soundtrack.

The Visuals
The animation on Lady and the Tramp is sometimes of a noticeably lesser quality than that of earlier Disney films. That’s not to say that it’s bad, but there are moments where objects or characters don’t move in quite the way they should or just look really badly drawn (the newborn baby is especially guilty of this). That said, the character designs of the dogs are quite well-done, never looking particularly realistic but being all the more emotive for it. And I dare you to find an animated animal cuter than Lady as a puppy.

The film also makes use of some pretty subtle visual techniques, such as rarely showing human faces, forcing our perspective to the height of our canine protagonists. There’s also an interesting use of dream-spots: moments where Lady will imagine something and it suddenly appears around here. The seamless switch from the real world to an imagined one is masterfully done. Finally, the “show, don’t tell” approach regarding Darling’s pregnancy again helps us gain a little more of Lady’s perspective on the situation. Nobody has spelled out to her what a baby is or how they come to be, so we only catch fleeting glimpses of the nine-month process (cravings, a baby shower, Jim Dear’s flustered screams of “it’s a boy!”).

The Big Question
When visiting internet forums related to this film, there seems to be one big question that everyone wants to know the answer to: what exactly do Lady and Tramp get up to on that hillside? This question seems to be so dominant because the evidence could quite easily point to “they have sex”. For example: when Lady and Tramp wake up on the hillside, Lady seems very flustered; her response to why she and Tramp can’t leave for adventures and fun is “who would take care of the baby?” – is she talking about the human baby or her own puppies? When Lady returns to her home, heartbroken, Trusty and Jock decide that they will offer her the option of marriage, almost as if they wish to “save her honour” just in case she is expecting puppies.

Admittedly, this interpretation does require you to read between the lines and ignore some slightly more blatant explanations, but it’s an interesting implication and one that I’m sure the Disney team were aware of while making the film. It’s just another example that reinforces the fact that this story, if it were about humans instead of dogs, is a lot more adult than most Disney films.

Upon its release, Lady and the Tramp was very successful at the box office but less favourable with critics, who felt that the film was sub-par when compared to Disney’s earlier efforts. Nevertheless, the film has become a classic, with the spaghetti scene, in particular, instantly recognisable and often referenced. The romance in the film is often recognised as one of Disney’s best and the American Film Institute ranked it 96th on their “A Hundred Years… A Hundred Passions” list (one of only two Disney films to appear).

The film was popular enough to spawn a direct-to-video sequel in 2001, centring on the character of Scamp, Lady and Tramp’s son. While it remains as derivative and unoriginal as you would expect from a Disney sequel, it’s better than some and still fairly enjoyable.

Before starting my review, I remembered Lady and the Tramp being an enjoyable but unremarkable film and, after reviewing it, my feelings haven’t changed much. The characters are fairly strong, the music is solid and the story is unexpectedly mature but the final product still feels average. I’m not even sure exactly what needs improving or tweaking – it’s just not a very spectacular film.

I award this film 7 out of 10 puppies.

Next review: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

So, what do you think ?