Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Anne: So, remember at the end of the last post when I said I had never liked Lady and the Tramp?
I have officially reversed my position.
What a charming, funny, touching and downright romantic movie this is. And not “for an animated film” either–for ANY film. I was enchanted from the moment Darling opened that hat box and Lady was inside.
Which begs the question, why didn’t I enjoy Lady and the Tramp this much as a child, or even the last time I watched it? I think a lot of it has to do with the sophistication of the screenplay and voice acting–a lot of the more subtle details would have gone straight over my head. For example, all of the dogs had different accents and styles of speech depending on their breed. Would I have caught the references to Maxim Gorky and the Cossacks from the Russian wolfhound slash philosopher Boris?
As a child, this movie was just that dog movie for me, and I wasn’t really interested. In general I’m not into movies that are entirely about talking animals–it’s the reason that The Lion King has never been a particular favorite of mine. But what I found this time through Lady and the Tramp was that it’s not just about dogs, even though the main players are all dogs. While maintaining a realistic style of animation–that is, the animals always move like animals, despite some anthropomorphic detailing–Disney manage to tell a universal story that has also been told in live action and with human actors. Girl from a wealthy family, boy from the wrong side of the tracks, they fall in love, but not without complications, boy has to win the trust of girl’s family.
At one point during the film, during that iconic scene at the Italian restaurant, I remarked to James, “It’s like they’re humans! But they’re dogs!”
Speaking of all that mushy romantic stuff with the spaghetti and the accordion and “Bella Notte”…it’s all much more interesting when you’ve got someone special to watch it with.
James: Awww. It’s certainly the most romantic film Disney have done to this point; although arguably Lady has the larger role, it’s very much a partnership between the two leads, learning about each other and falling in love together. It’s also a surprisingly mature view of romance; they court, they learn about each other, they argue and they work together. Even in later films I can’t think of an example of such genuine conflict coming out of the romantic leads’ basic character traits; it’s always a villain stirring things up.
And right there is one of the reasons why Lady and the Tramp strikes me as a much, much better film to watch as an adult than as a kid; there’s no villain. Sure, there’s occasionally some Siamese cats or a rat to contend with, but most of the time the characters are just acting, well, human. The drama comes from the people and the animals being not bad but flawed. Heck, even Aunt Sarah is just doing what she can to protect the baby; inconsiderate to Lady she might be, but uncaring towards the innocent she is not. One of my favourite small touches is that right at the end, after all the drama and misunderstandings are cleared up, Aunt Sarah sent a box of dog biscuits for Christmas. Even she could admit her mistakes.
Which leads me onto another reason why it’s better as an adult. I never picked up on the line about Aunt Sarah sending a box of chocolates as a kid, for the same reason that I never realised just how funny this film is; so much of the good stuff is given to the parents off screen, while our attention (particularly at a young age) is drawn to the dogs scampering about on screen. Jim Dear gets some very funny material, but Lady is so beautifully animated that she steals the attention away from the brilliant lines being delivered. For example:
Lady’s movements there are just delightful, but if you pay attention to her you’re likely to miss the wonderful delivery on lines like ‘Doctor, it’s a boy!’ ‘Yes. Yes, I know.’ And of course the delightfully indicative line ‘Have you noticed, Darling, since we’ve had Lady we see less and less of those disturbing headlines?’
A lovely, telling line. This script would have likely gone way over my head when I was younger, but as an adult the dialogue is perhaps the best thing about the piece.
Anne: I agree with you. At the beginning of the film you asked if we were ever going to see Jim Dear and Darling’s faces. We did–but only as much as Lady does, which means that we mostly see their feet, legs and hands. It’s hardly like Nanny on Muppet Babies.
I think the voice acting in this movie is particularly good–and not just the performances themselves, but the casting. Lady is voiced by Barbara Luddy, whose voice is low and whispery and ultra-feminine, while Tramp’s voice is provided by Larry Roberts, who sounds a little like Gene Kelly, which gives his character even more of that playful rakish quality that we love him for.
(One of my bugaboos about voice acting in more recent animated films is that instead of focusing on finding the best fit for each character, film studios are going for famous people. Case in point: when James and I went to see Frozen, I remarked that there wasn’t enough contrast between the voices of Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). It was more important to hire Veronica Mars and Elphaba than it was to find actors who could give the characters an indelible quality that would make it impossible to hear any other voice in the role. I’m not saying that famous people can’t create these characters–witness John Goodman and Billy Crystal in Monsters Inc., Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in Toy Story, Robin Williams as the Genie, of course–but how about some personality? And just because they’re both ingenue characters doesn’t mean they can’t have interesting voices–how about Jodi Benson, Paige O’Hara and Kathryn Beaumont? Okay, moving on.)
The supporting cast of this film is particularly good–not a single character is given short-shrift in the voice department. Aunt Sarah is the stalwart Verna Felton (upon hearing her first line, my response was “Bibbidi bobbidi boo!”–Aunt Sarah is much closer to the fairy godmother than to the Queen of Hearts!); Jim Dear and Darling have attractive but not especially distinctive voices, and that’s not a bad thing for their characters.
As I mentioned before, something I loved about Lady and the Tramp was the wonderful range of dog voices and the different accents according to breed.
To me it’s clear that everybody involved loved this movie, because so much care was taken to give every dog a distinct sound and characterization. From the chihuahua in the pound with his Mexican accent to the wonderful Jock (Scots) and Trusty (Southern), they are all memorable–so memorable that I’m not sure why I didn’t really remember them from the last time I saw the movie!
Speaking of Jock and Trusty, I think they might be my favorite part of the movie. I love how they are recognizable characters despite being dogs–the retired old Confederate soldier who tells stories about his grandpappy Old Reliable (Trusty) and the scrappy slightly crotchety Scotsman who always comments on how expensive things are (Jock–this is not a comment on Scotsmen in general, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that character in another movie somewhere). They are Lady’s kindly old uncles who watch over her and educate her as best they can, and of course, in the end they save the day. I definitely cheered when Trusty found his sense of smell again to track down the dog pound truck and save the Tramp…and then teared up when Trusty seemed to have been run over.
But SPOILER ALERT! He makes it.
And that final scene is so endearing, with Jim Dear ushering Jock and Trusty into the house with a hearty Merry Christmas, and Darling going to find the aforementioned fancy dog biscuits.
(You know, I’m finding it much harder to write coherently about a movie I loved than one I didn’t care for…hmmmm.)
James: It is an excellent supporting cast, led by Jock and Trusty. They become very significant characters, not just for their role in the climax of the story, but for their colour; they are the first and most substantial exploration of dog ‘society’ within the film, explaining the significance of collars, the dangers of the outside and the relationship with these peculiar creatures called ‘babies’. If I have one gripe with their role in the film, it’s that the climax becomes slightly too much their story; They are tasked with rescuing the Tramp, they are the ones with the character twist (in Trusty’s smell being excellent) and they are the ones with the emotional peak (when it seems Trusty has perished). For what should be the most important sequence in the film, Lady and the Tramp are completely ineffective. It’s not quite as bad as the climax of Cinderella being between mice and a cat, but it’s still not a strong moment in the story of the two leads. If at least Lady was with them then there would be some sense that it’s still a part of her story. Narratively, it’s an unfortunately positioned weak point.
That said, I can’t be too mad at it. It’s not a long sequence, and the general point is still made. And it’s not like Jock and Trusty are thin characters; they are set up well all through the film, and it’s a genuinely heartwarming moment when Trusty realises he has a whole audience of pups to tell the tales of his grandpappy.
(I’m just going to criticise the narrative once more here: the rat attack is kind of silly. A mute threat seen only once before, who was only kept at bay by Lady not being on a leash? Who goes straight for the open window, straight to the baby’s room? Whom Lady immediately knows is a direct threat to the baby (and is proven right)? Whom the Tramp can track down so easily in a strange house? And then Jim Dear and Darling find the dead rat and immediately leap to the correct conclusion that the stray dog had intruded into the house and tracked down the rat to protect the baby and only caused such destruction by accident in his heroic actions? Doesn’t hold together in the slightest. Couldn’t the Siamese Cats have been the final villain? They’d explicitly expressed their willingness to harm the baby, and their return would have made a lot more narrative sense than their absence from the most crucial part of the film. Okay, I’m done.)
To end on a positive, here’s a frame from the film I particularly enjoyed, just after Tramp explains to Lady that Tony calling her his girlfriend was just a bad translation:
You can practically see him pulling his shirt collar. These characters are so alive, so real, so human. This is a mature film, perhaps too much so for kids. I can’t give it a perfect score, because it has a messy narrative near the end and is almost pitched at the wrong demographic, but it’s an utterly delightful piece, and with some of the funniest dialogue to date. 8.5/10
Anne: I’m not sure I agree with you about the climax of the film. The rat isn’t the strongest threat to the baby, and you’re right, how on earth did the rat know where the baby’s room was, et cetera? BUT I think that’s at least partially deliberate. I think the fact that the Tramp risked his life–quite literally, since if caught he was going to be sent to the pound and probably euthanized–for a not-particularly-threatening threat reveals his true nature and his feelings for Lady, and what he’s willing to sacrifice for her. And Jock and Trusty see that and decide to help him, because they realize that he’s deserving of Lady after all. It’s a pretty strong statement, really.
Also, I don’t mind that Jock and Trusty are the ones involved in the chase scene. I cared about their little story as much as I cared about our hero and heroine, and I appreciated seeing the two nicely groomed upper-class dogs running like crazy through the mud to stop the dog-pound truck. Besides, it couldn’t have been either of the title characters who saved the day–Lady needed to stay with Jim Dear and Darling and the baby, and the Tramp was locked up in the truck. It doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers you that neither Lady nor the Tramp are involved in the last push to the happy ending.
I just realized that we never talked about the music in this movie, so let me give it a quick run-down before I wrap things up. It’s not my favorite Disney score–“What Is a Baby?” and the lullaby that Darling sings are both pretty forgettable, though pretty enough, and man, did I squirm during the Siamese cat song–but it contains a couple of my favorite musical moments in the canon. I love that for “Bella Notte” the animators drew inspiration from the idiom of the song to create an indelible image, arguably one of the most famous Disney visuals of all time. To be fair I haven’t read the source material, so maybe the Italian restaurant isn’t an original Disney creation, but I find it so thrilling that somebody said, here’s this great song called “Bella Notte,” it has nothing to do with this movie’s plot on a thematic level, but what if the Tramp had friends at an Italian restaurant and they gave him and Lady a plate of spaghetti and played the song on the accordion? And as I’ve already mentioned (or did I?), it’s a beautiful, romantic sequence that fits perfectly into the arc of the film.
I’ve already talked a bit about how much I love the dog pound sequence, but I’ll talk about it a little more. With all of those different dog types and voices, what could be more fitting than a Barbershop Quartet style opening number? There are no lyrics, it’s just howling in harmony, commiserating over a shared fate. I almost don’t like to laugh at it, because we all know what happens to dogs who get taken through the door at the end of the hallway…don’t even get me started, that scene is like an ASPCA commercial, only without the Sarah McLachlan song…but it’s still pretty funny. And then there’s Peg, voiced by Peggy Lee (who also does the voices for Darling and the Siamese cats), who gets to sing one of the great cabaret numbers in the Disney canon.
One day I’d like to program a cabaret show including this song and “Why Don’t You Do Right?” from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. But that’s a project for another night.
(ETA: When I initially shared this blog post on Facebook, one of my friends pointed out that I had neglected to mention that in addition to voicing all of those characters, Peggy Lee also wrote the songs in this movie, in collaboration with Sonny Burke. Again, I don’t really care for some of them, but the good ones make up for it!)
Also, one last thing to note while I’m on the topic of the music, there’s a moment in this movie that I found particularly effective for its total lack of music, and that was the fight scene between the Tramp and the big dogs that were chasing Lady. Right at the most heated moment of the fight, the music stopped completely; the only sounds were growling and gnashing of teeth and bodies hitting garbage cans. Awfully gritty stuff, actually, and I noticed it because I think moments like that are pretty rare in Disney movies (I’m remembering a couple in Bambi, at the first encounter with Man and also when Bambi’s mother…well, you know).
Finally, my score for Lady and the Tramp is 9/10. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it was a delightful surprise and I will happily revisit it in the future.
Next up, it’s back to the princess genre with Sleeping Beauty!