Lady and the Tramp is probably the first Disney film I’ve never seen. Sure, I’ve seen the odd clip here and there, and I’ve heard the popular songs “We Are Siamese” and “Belle Notte;” but I haven’t seen the actual movie. Disney and their popular “talking animal” genre can be hit or miss. A variety of factors have to make them a success, including a solid and consistently entertaining story. Lady and the Tramp is cute, but it never feels like a full film. The plot is too leisurely when it should be tighter, characters are too pat when they should have complexity. The core romance between the dogs is cute, but that’s all Lady and the Tramp is, just plain cute. Everything about this movie is pleasant, but that’s it. It’s a movie I could watch in the background, and still feel that I’ve paid the utmost attention to it. I’ve seen Disney films I feel are worse, but Lady and the Tramp is a series of okay set pieces, not a great work put-together.
Pampered Cocker Spaniel, Lady (voiced by Barbara Luddy) feels neglected when her owners have a baby. When her masters go away, and Lady is relegated to the backyard, she goes on an adventure with a scrappy mutt named Tramp (voiced by Larry Roberts) to discover a world that’s footloose and “collar free.”
Lady and the Tramp has a convoluted history. At the time, it was the highest grossing animated film after Snow White (which came out in 1939 to show you how long a gap that is), and was the first film based around an original idea since Dumbo. When it originally came to theaters it received middling reviews, but has since attained classic status. We also get the first of what would become the norm in animated productions of having a superstar voice a character. Popular singer Peggy Lee not only wrote the songs for this, but also voices the characters of Peggy the dog, Darling (Lady’s owner), and the Siamese cats Si and Am. Oh, how I miss the days when voice actors were in animated films; weird to see such a popular voice establish Disney’s modus operandi all the way in 1955.
The movie establishes the tone from the opening credits, by having hand-crafted drawings play underneath the opening credits. I always appreciate when the animators’ process is integrated into the work, and here it establishes the back-to-basics approach employed. Since the plot is set in turn-of-the-century America there’s a lot of painted backgrounds and light colors making it akin to a Norman Rockwell, or those old hand-painted Victorian postcards. I started singing “It’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow” from Disneyland’s Carousel of Progress; both projects share similarities in terms of narrative technique. In the one scene where the baby is shown, he’s painted in a lighter, static way than the surrounding animation. Not only does this show how precious he is, but it also seems to encase a moment in time; much like Lady, the baby won’t be small forever. Looking at the static, lighter painted baby again evokes that Victorian image, but also freezes him in a moment of innocence. The rest of the animation is crisp and lush as to be expected from the studio.
The movie sets out to focus on the dogs perspective and achieves its goal. The introduction to Lady is through the infamous hat box sequence. It’s actually a popular story that’s been recounted by numerous Disney historians, involving Walt Disney giving his wife Lillian a puppy in a hatbox. It’s a cute scene, set during Christmastime, and establishes the loving trio of Lady, Jim Dear, and Darling. There’s nothing told from a human perspective within the film. For instance, take Lady being taught “who’s master” as a puppy. When she starts howling, the audience doesn’t see the frustrated masters, we look at Lady smiling to herself when she realizes it gets a reaction from her owners. The rest of the movie never has the camera pan up to human level, always keeping it low to the ground with the dogs themselves. The script also places the audience within the dogs minds. We come to understand their confusion at their owners reactions to things, and never go to the owners for clarification. The perpetual state of confusion extends to the relationship between the animal characters and the human audience.
The main thrust of the plot (if you can call it that) is Lady facing neglect and irritation at being thrown aside for the new baby. Of course, there’s ominous foreshadowing early on, when the couple say they couldn’t fathom a time where Lady isn’t the major part of their heart. Lady considers herself to be Jim and Darling’s child, and has to understand that there’s a distinction between the two. I don’t think that really runs deep enough though. Lady feels compelled to protect the baby, but never really learns why there’s a difference between her and the baby, or why her owners treat her differently than the baby.
The characters all have one or two traits, but they never feel like anything more than cartoon characters. Lady is prim and proper, Tramp is a “a tramp” as the song says, Jock and Trusty are loyal friends, etc. The Siamese cats are probably the most unsettling characters. I expected their popular song “We Are Siamese” to be another example of Disney and their post-WWII racism (akin to “What Makes the Red Man Red” from last week’s Peter Pan), but it’s such a short song that it ends up being catchy, as opposed to racist. The rest of the songs are okay, but they all sounds similar. “Belle Notte” is the iconic theme for Lady and the Tramp and it excels as the highlight of the production. It’s romantic and sets the tone for Lady and Tramp’s relationship. I do have to ask how many people love the movie, or simply love this one moment?
Lady and the Tramp just never gels into a movie; it feels more like a strung together series of cartoon vignettes. The pacing really meanders with the dogs wandering around talking for long periods, and remember this is only a 76 minute movie. Opportunities to craft a coherent narrative are thrust aside. Aunt Sarah is a horrible person who pampers her villainous cats, and yet her role goes nowhere. Is she meant to be a villain? We’re not sure as her snippets of scenes never go anywhere outside of casting Lady outside. The same with the dog catcher. There’s no grand chase or need to evade him. It really boils down to the dogs hiding until he walks past. Lady and the Tramp teaches kids little other than pounds are hell for pets with no owners to go to, and even than it’s limited to one scene.
I can see why certain audiences enjoy the sweet simplicity of Lady and the Tramp. It’s a simple story of dogs falling in love, but I wanted more. Disney works better when they have source material, in my opinion, and movies like Peter Pan, Cinderella, etc allow the Disney animators to take what they love and create worlds. There’s no world for the audience to immerse themselves in. It’s okay, not particularly memorable.
Next Week: The last Disney movie of the 1950s is a return to fairy tales with Sleeping Beauty.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.