“You guys all think that the world is made up of gags! There isn’t one of you left who could write a lullaby or a love-affair romance in a picture, you all want gags, gags, gags!” — Walt Disney to his Story Department, on the importance of warmth in animation, as recounted by Frank Thomas.
By Scott Ross
Lady and the Tramp (1955) was the first Disney animated feature in widescreen (CinemaScope, as with the previous year’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and remains among the most charming of all full-length cartoons; when I first saw it at age 12 it stayed with me in a way few movies ever do. A modern audience is probably discomfited by the racial stereotyping of the animals — and a couple of human Italians — especially the cats Si and Am, and you can argue that it was a mistake not to leave the old bloodhound Trusty dead at the end (he shows up later with a broken leg)* but the picture is so beautifully designed, structured, animated, voiced and scored that these are very minor cavils.
Suggested both by a Ward Green story (“Happy Dan, The Cynical Dog”) and some ideas by the Disney veteran Joe Grant, who had a Springer spaniel he called Lady, Lady and the Tramp developed into a cunningly designed and bittersweet narrative, told from a pet’s-eye view, with some surprisingly adult touches: When after a romantic evening Lady and Tramp are discovered sleeping together at sunrise, there is a strong suspicion that something happened between them in the night, a sense later reinforced when Lady’s neighbors, Trusty and the middle-aged Scottish Terrier Jock, offer to make an honest woman of her. As if those eyebrow-raising revelations are not enough, when she’s briefly in the city pound a slightly tatty show-biz female also sets Lady straight on just what a rake Tramp really is. If someone tried any of that with an animated film in today’s weird era of youth-driven Puritanism, I’d hate to hear the yips of Millennial outrage that would follow.
According to Disney lore, the look of the town in the picture was (like Disneyland’s Main Street, USA) a tribute by Disney to Marceline, Missouri, Walt’s lost Eden. But as his world was bordered by his father’s rural farm rather than the town itself, we’ll just have to take the studio’s word for it. (The style of the houses and streets recalls more the layout of the 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis than the barnyards that circumscribe the early years of Mickey Mouse.) The picture has a lush pictorial quality, and the characters are wonderfully delineated. A lot of talent went into Lady and the Tramp: Its credited directors were Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske; its story was worked on by, among others, Joe Rinaldi and Don DaGradi with un-credited assists from Dick Huemer and even Frank Tashlin; the backgrounds were the work of Claude Coats, Al Dempster and Eyvind Earle; the animators included Don Lusk and John Sibley; and the directing animators were seven of Disney’s “Nine Old Men”: Les Clark, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Frank Thomas. Disney is often accused of sentimentality, and the accusations have some merit. But when he and his animators make use of understated emotion, the effect can be devastating, as in the moment when an impounded dog is glimpsed during a howling rendition of “Home, Sweet Home,” a single tear rolling down his furry cheek. The shot lasts only a few seconds, but manages to stand in for the confusion and grief of every animal suddenly removed from its environment and locked in a cage for the offense of being unloved.
Thomas, who rather astonishingly thought he wasn’t a very good artist, did such beautiful work here I would imagine the first image that comes to your mind when you think of the movie is his animation of the spaghetti supper shared by Tramp and Lady: The way they distractedly seem to kiss, and the look in Tramp’s eyes as he nudges a meatball across the plate to Lady. It’s really the first time in a Disney animated feature that love between two characters (aside from mother-love) was depicted as more than an abstract idea; everything that preceded it was about generalized emotion (“Someday My Prince Will Come”) or as something inevitable (Bambi and Faline, Cinderella and her Prince). If there is a more effortlessly charming depiction of the beginning of feeling between two characters in an animated picture, I’m not aware of it.
The voice talent is equally impressive. Barbara Luddy, who would later provide the voice of the fairy Merryweather in Sleeping Beauty and who was middle-aged when the picture was made, gives Lady a gentle sweetness and sense of naïveté that are entirely natural and never cloy. Larry Roberts is a jolly, ingratiating Tramp, likable even at his most insensitive. The wonderful Bill Thompson, who elsewhere was the voice both of Droopy and Spike for Tex Avery and a fat, floppy-nosed, hilariously sissy Indian in Avery’s 1944 Screwy Squirrel short Big Heel-Watha — he was also Smee in Peter Pan and Mr. Wimple and The Old Timer on Fibber McGee and Molly — not only provided the burred voice for Jock but the Italian cook Joe, an Irish policeman (was there any other kind in 1910?) and, at the pound, the English bulldog and the tunnel-digging Dachsie. Peggy Lee, who wrote the movie’s lyrics, also voiced the torch-singing, Mae West-like Peg, Lady’s human owner Darling and the Siamese cats; Stan Freberg was the gullible beaver, Alan Reed (aka, Fred Flintstone) was the Russian borzoi Boris, George Givot was the excitable Italian restauranteur Tony, Verna Felton the pompous and over-protective Aunt Sarah and The Mellomen (who included Thurl Ravenscroft and Bill Lee) performed the canine quartet.
Although I’ve never quite understood why the rat that threatens the human’s baby was made to look quite so Satanic, or why it makes a beeline for the nursery, the sequence in the rainstorm during which Tramp rushes in to fight it is among the finest set-pieces of its kind in the Disney oeuvre. Thrillingly animated by “Woolie” Reitherman, it’s of a piece with the Monstro the Whale chase in Pinocchio, the enchanted forest in Snow White and the race with the key in Cinderella, and probably gives a good indication of why Reitherman was soon promoted to Supervising Director on features with The Sword in the Stone. (Although, since he hated sentiment, his movies are seldom as emotionally rich as the best Disney titles; it’s a long, dry stretch between 101 Dalmatians in 1961 and The Rescuers in 1977.) Disney house composer Oliver Wallace contributed one of his loveliest scores, with an especially appealing theme for Lady, and Lee’s terrific lyrics were beautifully set by Sonny Burke. Interestingly, Lee is one of the few litigants who have ever gone up against Disney, and prevailed. Aware that she and Burke were being cheated of their royalties, she sued in the 1980s and was awarded $2.3 million in damages. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes you can take on The Mouse and win.
As to the perceived racial insensitivity of the original: Better Si and Am (and Tony and Joe, for that matter), say I, than the ludicrous, incredibly ignorant specter, in Disney’s ill-advised 2019 live action “remake,” of a blithe interracial married couple… in 1910… in the Jim Crow Deep South… in New Orleans, for crissake!… a full 50 years before Loving v. Virginia. But as Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton never let a good crisis go to waste, so too does the new, super-cuddly megamorph Disney Company never lose an opportunity to show how with-it, hip and multi-culti it is, regardless of pesky, inconvenient historical fact. Is it any wonder so many young Americans now know nothing whatsoever about their country’s past?
*Speaking of Trusty: I wonder whose idea it was to remove the accurate red rims around his bloodhound eyes? If you watch the clips on the DVD of the old Wonderful World of Color series from the early ’60s, you can see them; in later releases they completely disappear. I assume this was effected during the video 2006 restoration, but since I hadn’t seen the picture in a theatre since 1973, I may be wrong.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross