Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955)

I'll be the first to admit that Lady and the Tramp (1955) is not the most important or the most aesthetically creative of Walt Disney's classic animated films, but it remains my favorite nonetheless. It makes me laugh and cry every time I see it, and by now I have seen it many, many times. What more can you ask for in a classic film? Beautifully drawn, movingly sincere, and oddly enough more human than many of the films featuring human characters, Lady and the Tramp is the Disney movie for dog lovers and hopeless romantics alike.

The story follows the early life and growth of Lady, a pampered Cocker Spaniel in an elegant Victorian home. Lady gets a shock when she discovers that her owners' feelings about her have changed because they are expecting a baby, and she gets an even bigger shock when mean Aunt Sarah is called in to care for the baby while Jim Dear and Darling leave town for a few days. The canine heroine eventually finds herself tangled up with a rakish stray called The Tramp, but his attentions only manage to land her in trouble, first in the dog pound and then in the dog house back at home. Of course, being a Disney film, a happy ending is guaranteed, with the budding romance of Lady and the Tramp evoked most memorably in the spaghetti eating scene.

Barbara Luddy provided the voice of Lady, and it was a perfect part for the Disney regular, who would go on to be the voice of the fairy Merryweather in Sleeping Beauty (1959) and of Kanga in numerous Winnie the Pooh films. In Lady and the Tramp, Luddy's voice has a soft sweetness undercut with just enough rasp to make her feisty as well as feminine. The voice that dominates the film, though, is that of the incomparable Peggy Lee, the chanteuse best known today, perhaps, for the hit song "Fever." Lee lent her voice to four different characters in the film, Darling, Siamese cats Si and Am, and Peg, and she also helped write several of the songs featured in the picture. We hear Lee singing numerous times during the film, but the highlight is certainly her rendition of "He's a Tramp," sung by Peg, the bedraggled Pekingese at the dog pound. Lee had some legal quarrels with Disney over her work on the movie, but, in the long run, it has served her well, introducing her to generations of youngsters who otherwise would never have heard her gorgeous sound.

The danger in which the movie can place its characters is one of the reasons that Lady and the Tramp has such pathos; imagine one of the Disney princesses being thrown into prison and made to watch another prisoner dragged away to his death. The pound scene is one of the film's most moving moments; certainly the animals are humanized to a certain extent, but their misery is very real, as anyone who has walked the kennels of an animal shelter can attest. Lady's fear and confusion are emotions any pet might feel at suddenly being dumped in such an unfamiliar place. Lady spends almost the entire movie being bound, caged, threatened, muzzled, and shot at, and Tramp is literally being carted away to his execution when Jock and Trusty rush to the rescue. Trusty's encounter with the dog pound carriage, and Jock's reaction, can still bring tears to the eyes of viewers who have watched the movie dozens of times and know perfectly well how it ends. (Walt insisted that Trusty had to survive the crash because he remembered the emotional fallout from killing Bambi's mother.)

There's also the romantic angle of the movie to consider. For young girls, Tramp might well be their first encounter with the figure of the charming rogue, that lovable scruffy guy who isn't exactly a knight in shining armor but who manages to win the day and the girl anyway. Disney would revisit this territory to great effect in its treatment of Robin Hood (1973). Tramp is, quite literally, the Han Solo of the canine world; he lacks the pedigree of a prince, but he makes up for it in dash and swagger and the thrill of going out with the bad boy instead of the football team captain. As a dog, Tramp can get away with being a lot more dangerous an object of affection. Parents in 1955 would have had a heart attack had this romance played out between a human debutante and a rogue from the wrong side of the tracks, and not until Aladdin in 1992 would Disney try out this kind of love story with people instead of animals. Even more daring is the fact that Lady spends the night with Tramp out on Lovers Lane; I doubt Disney would try that scene with human characters even in this enlightened age. 

I have never been a big fan of the classic princess films, largely because their heroines are all too insipid and ineffectual for my tastes, but Lady and the Tramp can be more egalitarian because it features dogs instead of people, and that is part of its charm. Lady might be all that her name implies, but she still gets to chase chickens, bark at rats, and exercise her animal spirits. She gets to run around town with a tough, sexy guy, too. It might be a dog's life, but I'll take that over being a narcoleptic princess any day. 

If you love dog movies, see more of Disney’s canine capers in 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Fox and the Hound (1981), and Bolt (2008). Try live action classics like Lassie Come Home (1943), Old Yeller (1957), and Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog (1961). Plague Dogs (1982) is a gripping emotional drama from Watership Down author Richard Adams, but don’t show it to children unless you intend to scar them for life.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.

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