DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material.
Hello everyone. A little bit of housekeeping before we get into this week’s movie. Back in my Alice in Wonderland review I used three racist anti-Irish cartoons to demonstrate why nineteenth century artist John Tenniel was invited to suck my…ahem…unshaved mouse. Now, I’ve since discovered that one of these cartoons:
…was actually not by Tenniel but by his contemporary Thomas Nast. Which honestly I should have twigged as their styles are quite noticeably different. I’ve since changed the Alice review but I felt I should come clean anyway. So yeah, I was sloppy. Sorry. John Tenniel?
I apologise for confusing you with that OTHER racist dick weasel.
So, now that I’ve hopefully eaten enough crow..
…we can get on with the review.
Lady and the Tramp is a bit unusual in the Disney canon in that it is an adaptation of two separate stories. Animator Joe Grant originally approached Walt with an idea based on his own experiences of owning a cocker spaniel puppy named Lady who he couldn’t spend as much time with once Joe had a son. Walt liked the idea.
And he told Grant to draw up some storyboards for a proposed animated feature called Lady. Apparently these storyboards weren’t really up to scratch (and in fairness, there’s not really that much story to Grant’s pitch) so the idea was abandoned and Joe Grant later left the studio. Walt decided that what the story needed was a second dog character to counterbalance the innocent Lady, a streetwise, cynical, wiseguy. A dog with attitude, who gets “bizzay” as opposed to “busy”.
Walt came across a short story by Ward Greene called “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog” in Cosmopolitan magazine and whoa whoa whoa whoa back the fuck up. Walt Disney read fucking Cosmo!? Oh that is hilarious! That is…where are you Walt?
Whatever, Walt. So anyway, in between learning the 75 Sex Moves Men Crave, Walt Disney decided to buy the rights to “Happy Dan the Whistling Dog” and integrated the story into the existing concept for Lady. The character’s name was changed to The Tramp, and thus was born Lady and the Tramp. Is it any good? Well let’s take a look.
The opening credits play over a very nice version of Bella Notte (the song that’s sung later over the spaghetti scene) and oh God please I don’t ask for much but…
The movie opens with a quote from Josh Billings that says that there is only one thing that money cannot buy: the wag of a dog’s tail. It’s a nice sentiment, but frankly bullshit.
Anyway, the movie begins with a beautiful depiction of a snow blanketed town at Christmas and this is some very, very strong animation. Certainly better than Peter Pan, maybe even better than Alice in Wonderland. In the house of two human characters, a married couple known only as Jim Dear and Darling, Jim Dear is giving Darling her Christmas present, a tiny cocker spaniel called Lady. Apparently, this is based on a real life event. Walt apparently forgot a dinner date with his wife and gave her a puppy in a hatbox as a peace offering. Which does not sound at all like the Walt I know.
Darling is absolutely enchanted with Lady, as well she might be because she is friggin’ adorable.
They try and put Lady in her own basket but she whines and whines until they agree to let her sleep in their bed and as someone with a four month old baby, I feel their pain.
Weeks pass, and Lady grows up into the kind of cartoon dog that gives furries a reason to get out of bed every day. One morning she wakes Jim Dear and runs downstairs, while he implores his wife to teach their dog the concept of “Sunday”. Lady goes tearing around the garden, chasing blackbirds and burying bones. Now, believe it or not we are already ten minutes into this movie and very little has happened. Like Bambi, this film doesn’t exactly have what you’d call a tightly plotted narrative. But that’s not a criticism. The movie’s slow, laid back, we’ll-get-there-when-we-get-there approach to storytelling adds to its charm.
The tone makes an abrupt shift when Lady sees a rather sinister looking rat and chases him out of the garden and into lower-income housing, never to be seen again.
Lady gets a new collar and goes to show it to her two neighbours, Jock the Scottish Terrier and Trusty the Bloodhound. Jock is voiced by…holy crap, Bill Thompson? I was actually amazed to discover that Jock and the White Rabbit have the same voice actor because they sound nothing alike. Jock has a thick Scottish accent (a pretty decent one actually), and is stingy and short-tempered which is of course a completely baseless stereotype.
Trusty on the other hand is played by veteran Western actor Bill Baucom, and he voices the Bloodhound with a deep Southern drawl that sounds like Foghorn Leghorn on tranquilizers. Trusty was apparently an ace tracker back in the day but Jock confides to Lady that he’s lost his sense of smell. Jock and Trusty are our comic relief but they’re significantly more grounded and less zany than is usual for these types of Disney characters. In fact all the characters, from the leads to the supporting cast are a good deal more rounded and layered than we’ve seen in the canon up to this point. Part of this may be due to the leisurely pace of the story which gives us more time to just hang around with the characters, but Lady and the Tramp is something of a first for a Disney movie in a way that I’ll get into a little later.
The first act ends with Lady curled up beside the fire while Jim Dear and Darling remark to each other that everything seems just about perfect.
We now meet our second lead, the Tramp, as he wakes up in a barrel beside the train station. He stretches, yawns, drinks from a nearby pool, looks around appreciatively and happily declares “What a day!”. I’m going to take a few moments just to talk about what makes this character work so damn well. Firstly, the canine animation is superb. Like with Bambi, the Disney animators used live animals for reference and they’ve really shown their work. Secondly, voice actor Larry Roberts is a perfect fit for this character. From what I can tell this was his only feature film role and that is a damn shame because his voice has real charm. And lastly it’s that introduction. Unlike Lady, who’s living in luxury (seriously, Jim Dear and Darling are clearly loaded) Tramp has nothing. But from his perspective, that means he has everything. The entire world belongs to him, he can go wherever he wants, eat wherever he wants, fuck whoever he wants.
What? What did you think “Breaks a new heart every day” meant?
My point is the joy with which he greets the world upon waking up sets up the character perfectly. We know this guy, and it’s not even thirty seconds into his first appearance.
Tramp comes across the dog catcher’s van and sees that two of his friends, Bull the Bulldog and Peg the Shih-tzu Maltese, have been captured. He sets them free and gets chased by the dog catcher into Lady’s neighborhood. Tramp doesn’t think much of “Snob Hill” as he calls it. He muses aloud and that there must be “a lid on every trashcan and a fence around every tree.” The Tramp doesn’t find such a constrained, controlled existence to be at all appealing and wonders what “the leash and collar set” do for excitement.
Meanwhile, Jock and Trusty pay Lady a visit but she’s nowhere to be found. Jock calls out to her with a typical Scottish idiom.
They find Lady moping behind the house because Jim Dear and Darling have started acting very differently and no longer seem to have any time for her. Jock and Trusty figure out that Jim Dear and Darling are going to have a baby. Lady has no idea what a baby is, so Tramp, who just happens to be passing by, invites himself in and explains that babies are nothing but trouble and that once it arrives she’ll find herself in the doghouse.
Lady starts freaking out and Jock throws Tramp out growling that they’ve no time for mongrels and their “radical ideas”. Tramp leaves with one final warning for Lady “The human heart has only so much room for love and affection. And when a baby moves in, the dog moves out.”
There follows a montage of the next nine months with Jim Dear and Darling having their baby shower, picking out names and Jim Dear being sent out at three o clock in the morning in the middle of a blizzard to get Darling watermelon and chop suey. And let me tell you, as food cravings go Jim Dear got off LIGHTLY.
The baby finally arrives and Lady decides to see for herself just what a baby is. The scene where Lady ascends the stairs while the song What is a Baby? plays is beautifully done, exquisitely animated and with absolutely gorgeous backgrounds. It’s also a very sweet, gentle scene in a very sweet and gentle movie. Lady enters the nursery and Jim Dear and Darling proudly show her their new baby boy and show that while they may have been distracted they have not forgotten or lost interest in her. The scene ends with her place in the family reaffirmed.
This idyllic state of affairs doesn’t last long, however. Jim Dear and Darling decide that now is the perfect time to go on a trip and leave their newborn baby with Jim Dear’s Aunt Sarah. Aunt Sarah is played by Verna Felton (Queen of Hearts, Fairy Godmother, Dumbo’s Mother) and is pretty clearly not a dog person. She shoos Lady out of the nursery and Lady slinks despondently down to the living room where she meets Aunt Sarah’s two Siamese cats, Si and Am.
Yes, the Siamese cats have huge slanted eyes and buck teeth and they speak in broken Engrish. How bad are they? Well, they were originally going to be called “Nip” and “Tuck” so…small mercies, right? On the scale of racist Disney characters I’d rank them as worse than the crows in Dumbo (which, once you get past the fact that they’re black crows actually aren’t too bad) but not nearly as offensive as Those Guys in Peter Pan. It may be the fact that they’re cats. If they were human Asian characters then it would be pretty much unwatchable. Now here is the bit where I have to admit that…ugh…don’t hate me…I actually kind of…like…We Are Siamese.
I’m sorry but it’s a good song! It is! It’s catchy, it’s funny, the whole sequence is brilliantly animated, the whole schtick with the cats running rings around Lady as she tries to stop them from eating the tropical fish. It’s all gold. Racist, racist, gold. Yes. I know. I’m sorry.
Anyway, the cats trash the place and make it look like Lady attacked them. Aunt Sarah hears the noise and comes down to see Si and Am writhing on the ground howling in pain like a pair of Liverpool players.
Aunt Sally decides that Lady is too dangerous and takes her to the petshop to be fitted with a muzzle and OH MY GOD SHE’S WEARING A BANE MASK!
Oh Lord, I thank you for this bounty of Batman jokes I am about to receive.
Lady breaks free and runs out of the pet store into the streets. She gets chased down an alley way by three feral dogs but Tramp sees her and saves her, fighting off all three of them like a goddamn boss.
Tramp takes Lady to the zoo to see if they can find an animal who can get her muzzle off. They find a beaver who’s trying to move a tree and Tramp cons him into thinking that the muzzle is actually a state of the art log puller.
Freed of the muzzle, Lady and the Tramp go wandering while she pours her heart out to him. Tramp is sympathetic, and says that her problem is that she let herself be tied down to one family. The Tramp explains that he has a different family for every day of the week, and that he is known by many different names. Now that’s an interesting point. The Tramp never actually tells us his real name in this movie. “The Tramp” is just a nickname the dogs in the pound give him. Maybe he doesn’t have a real name. Or maybe it’s just really embarrassing.
Tramp takes her to an Italian restaurant and we meet Tony and Joe, the two Italians who run the place.
When Tony sees that “Butch” (his name for Tramp) has brought a date, he decides to give them both the best in the house, spaghetti bolognnaise. And so, the stage is set for one of the most memorable scenes in the history of animation.
Incredibly, Walt didn’t like the idea for the scene and thought that two dogs eating spaghetti was stupid. Which, yes, dogs really shouldn’t be given that many carbs but, c’mon. Anyway, animator Frank Thomas was so in love with the idea of the scene that he went and animated it behind Walt’s back on his own time and only showed it to him after it was done. Walt, impressed (and no doubt a little bit scared) agreed to put the scene in the movie and the rest is history.
The thing about perfection is there really isn’t that much to say about it. This scene is perfect. So let’s move on.
I said earlier in the review that Lady and the Tramp is something quite unique in the Disney canon up to this point. This is a love story that doesn’t stop as soon as the two main characters get together. Snow White and Cinderella end as soon as Prince Charming gets the girl. But not here. We actually get to see what happens after the relationship has begun. We even, goodness gracious, see two characters in a romantic relationship having romantic difficulties. This is groundbreaking stuff. Lady and the Tramp wake up after spending the night together and oh yeah, that’s something that’s never even been hinted at either. Now I’m not saying the movie implies that they had sex.
I’m saying that for the period this movie was made, even the fact that they are waking up together, even if they only “slept together” in the most literal sense of the word, that’s pretty revolutionary. Don’t forget, this was a time when married couples had to be depicted on TV as sleeping in separate beds.
This is possibly the first Disney movie to look at love in any way deeper or mature than the most surface level “And then the Prince arrived and they all lived happily ever after.” This is the first movie where I actually care about the relationship of the two leads, and where it feels like there are real obstacles for them to overcome.
In fact, it seems that their relationship is doomed from the start. Tramp offers to show Lady the world: Shining, shimmering, splendid. A whole new world, you might almost say. Lady admits that it sounds wonderful, but says that she can’t go with him. Lady is not like the Tramp, she can’t just abandon her responsibility to her human masters, no matter how badly they’ve treated her. Tramp admits defeat, and sadly offers to take her home.
On the way they pass a chicken farm and Tramp asks Lady if she’s ever chased chickens. Lady is indignant but Tramp tells her that she needs to “start building some memories”.
See, Tramp is not the typical perfect Disney male protagonist. He has plenty of positive characteristics, sure. He’s loyal to his friends and courageous to a fault. But he’s also reckless, and not just with his own safety either. He leads Lady into a dangerous situation for no real reason and almost gets her shot by the farmer. Then as they’re escaping, she gets captured by the dog warden and taken away before he even thinks to realise that she’s gone.
We shift scene to the dog pound and, apropos of nothing, the movie decides that it wants to break you into a million pieces. We see several of the dogs howling a mournful dirge as we take in a scene of utter canine misery and…goddamn it movie you will not make me cry…
Walt? Why? Why would you do that to me?
Lady is thrown in with the other dogs (including Peg and Bull from before) and Lady learns that Tramp has a rather, shall we say, storied past. Peg then launches into probably the movie’s most famous song He’s a Tramp.
Peg is voiced (and indeed based on) singer Peggy Lee, who also does the voices for Darling and Si and Am. She is a phenomenal voice talent, incredibly versatile and with a great set of pipes. She also recorded the original version of the song Why Don’t you Do Right?
It’s a fantastic song, and an early precursor to the wonderful, laid back, jazzy musical numbers that we’ll be seeing a lot more of as we move into the sixties.
Aunt Sarah takes Lady home, who stays moping in her dog house in a depressed funk. Jock and Trusty, knowing that she is now a fallen woman having spent time in the pound, both offer her their paws in marriage so that she can escape her life here and start over in a new house. Aaaand how is that supposed to work exactly?
The Tramp shows up with an “I’m sorry” bone for Lady.
Lady is having none of it however, and won’t forgive him for leaving her behind…shit! I just thought of a great joke about the “I’m sorry” bone can we just go back…no?
Lady is genuinely distraught and says she was so scared in the pound, and Tramp tries to comfort her by saying “Now, now, now. Who could ever hurt a cute little trick like you?”
Dude! DIG UP!
Lady then tears him a new tramp-hole listing off all his previous girlfriends that she heard about while she was in the pound and the look on Tramp’s face is just priceless.
Lady tells him to go walkies and he leaves, heartbroken. However, it’s at this moment that the rat from before decides to make another appearance. Of course, if you’ve seen the movie, you know what happens next. The rat breaks into the house to try and eat the baby and Lady and the Tramp save him.
But I hate to break it to you, that’s not what actually happens.
Ladies and gentleman, at last the truth can be known. I give you, the Tragedy of Larry the Misunderstood Rat.
However, despite Larry’s valiant efforts, he is apparently killed. Aunt Sarah runs into the room and sees the crib overturned and thinks that Lady and the Tramp tried to savage the baby. She locks Tramp in the broom closet and Lady in the basement and calls the dog catcher.
Jim Dear and Darling arrive at the house just as Tramp is being hauled away by the dogcatcher who tells them that he was caught attacking a baby. Jock and Trusty overhear this and Trusty can’t believe that even Tramp could do something so awful. Jim Dear and Darling race into the house and Aunt Sarah tells them what happened. Jim Dear doesn’t believe it and frees Lady from the cellar. Lady runs to the baby’s room and shows them the tattered, mangled remains of Larry…
Realising what happened, and that Tramp is about to be sent to live on the same farm they put Bambi’s mother, Jock and Trusty race after the dog catcher.
Against all odds, Trusty is able to track down the wagon and throws himself in front of it. Jim Dear and Lady arrive in a car to rescue Tramp but it seems like it’s too late for Trusty.
You sir, are a nasty piece of work.
We then skip forward to Christmas where Lady and the Tramp are now the proud parents of a litter of puppies and all seems to be well. They’re joined by Jock and, surprise, surprise, Trusty who is still alive. The original ending for the film would have had Trusty actually dying but Walt didn’t want a repeat of the whole “Bambi’s Mother” fiasco so he ordered it changed. Honestly, while I’m not a fan of fakeout deaths, if Trusty had actually died and they just skipped to the next scene it would have been very jarring so I’ll let this one go. The movie ends as it began, with Lady surrounded by her loved ones at Christmas. A happy ending for almost everyone.
Lady and the Tramp was a huge hit when it was released in 1955, out performing Cinderella at the box office and becoming the studio’s second biggest hit after Snow White.
Amazingly, the movie was not a hit with critics which just goes to show that anyone who thinks that their subjective opinion on a movie is somehow so superior to everyone else’s is a pompous ass and a fool.
Incredibly, some critics criticised the artwork and animation which is frankly preposterous. This is a beautiful, beautiful film, possibly the first film from this period that can legitimately stand up to the great Disney movies of the forties. The critics were wrong on this one, and the great unwashed masses were right.
I didn’t really have great expectations for Lady and Tramp going into this review. There are some Disney movies that I can recite word for word and some that just slipped through the cracks and for me this was one of the latter. But now that I’ve had a chance to rewatch it, there is so much to love about this film. Highly recommended.
The Animation 18/20
There’s no big epic monster battle, no wildebeest stampeded, no army of huns running down a mountain. But in it’s perfectly rendered canine motion, fluidity and absolutely gorgeous facial expressions, this has some of the best animation in the canon.
The Leads: 18/20
Finally a movie where the leads are the most interesting characters. Lady and the Tramp are a great couple, sweet, funny and believable.
The Villain: 10/20
Poor, poor Larry. Alright, in all seriousness the rat is impressively creepy and sinister.
Supporting Characters: 14/20
Plenty of solid supporting characters, but this is one Disney movie that’s all about the leads.
Bella Notte and He’s a Tramp.Two of the all time greatest Disney songs are in this movie and it’s not even really a musical. Also, the incidental music is very good, particularly in the climactic fight between Tramp and Larry
FINAL SCORE: 77%
This is a big one. The one you’ve all been waiting for. Join me next week as the Unshaved Mouse reviews Sleeping Beauty, one of the greatest feminist movies of the twentieth century. Not kidding.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!