|Copyright Walt Disney Productions 1955|
While I enjoy certain scenes from Lady and the Tramp, it’s never been one of my favorites. I always get excited for the re-release of classic Disney films such as this one, rush out and buy it, then come home and fall asleep halfway through. This is originally what happened with Lady. But alas, that did not last. After years of skipping through what I called ‘the boring bits’, I sat down and watched the whole thing (and the hours upon hours of special features—it took me two days to do the movie and the special features!). What did I find? Beautiful animation, an interesting history, a little scandal and Disney’s first celebrity voice.
Lady and the Tramp has beautifully restored animation. It’s truly amazing how Walt could take animators with very different styles and have them work together on the same film and the film not come out looking disjointed and odd. The different styles blend seamlessly so much so that it looks almost as if a single animator did the whole film. An interesting fact is that two versions of the original film were released in 1955: one in the new, widescreen Cinemascope and one in the standard Academy ratio. Partly through production, Cinemascope (a widescreen format invented to lure audiences away from their television sets and back into the theatres) became wildly popular and Walt wanted to release Lady in it. The problem was that the film was already partially done. The animators had to go back, widen the backgrounds and rearrange the characters to fill the space in order to accommodate Walt’s most recent request.
Ironically, Roy told Walt he had to make the film both in Cinemascope and the narrower standard Academy ratio because not all cinemas had Cinemascope screens. Walt could’ve lost a lot of viewers simply because the film wouldn’t have fit on their theatre’s screen. The animators had to go back, re-adjust the backgrounds and reposition the characters to make the film playable on regular movie theatre screens.
As with every animated film, the characters evolve a lot from beginning to end in terms of looks and personality. Tramp and Lady each had a few dozen different appearances. Animator Joe Grant first pitched the idea of a dog film in the late 1930’s, a film based on his home life. At the time, Joe and his wife had a springer spaniel named Lady who got pushed to the back burner a bit when their first daughter came along. Walt liked it and they started pre-production. While Dumbo is often cited as being an original story, it really wasn’t. There was a children’s book, a roll-a-book (a style that did not last long, as most have never heard of it) about a small elephant with large ears named Jumbo Jr., but is given the cruel nickname Dumbo. Walt and the animators added a lot to the story, as the roll-a-book was only eight pages long. But it wasn’t completely original.
After a time, Walt shelved the work-in-progress of Lady. She was all sweetness and naiveté, with no darkness, sourness or really anything of contrast to provide a balance. It was a sweet story, but not much else. A few years later, Walt read a short story in then-literary magazine Cosmopolitan. It was a short story about dogs, and it had that crucial dark component Walt was looking for. At this point, Joe Grant wasn’t with the studio any longer. He and Walt had a falling out over a film that didn’t do well that Walt felt he had been convinced to make against his better judgment. Walt contacted the author of the short story, Ward Greene, to write the screenplay and a book. The purpose was to combine what Walt already had, the sweet Lady character, with the contrast of Greene’s darker male character. Then they’d have an opposite-sides-of-the-tracks puppy love romance.
Walt had Greene write a novel, “Lady and the Tramp: A story of two dogs” and published it two years before the movie’s release. He wanted people to know the story before they came to the theatre. Joe Grant’s wife was reportedly furious, as she felt that was their story and they weren’t getting any credit. But the story belong to Walt Disney Productions. The situation was rectified in the 2006 re-release, as the whole slight-scandal was discussed in the special features and his name was probably added to the credits.
There were many disputes during the making of this film. Another one occurred between one of the nine old men, Frank Thomas, and Walt. Frank Thomas wanted to date scene, with Lady and Tramp falling in love, to include dinner at a romantic Italian restaurant. Walt couldn’t see it. Dogs eating spaghetti? That would be messy and gross and not romantic at all! So Frank went off on his own, animated the whole sequence by himself, and showed it to Walt. Now it’s one of the most iconic scenes in Disney animation history. Thanks, Frank, for sticking up for your ideas. It isn’t just Walt who is an inspiration; it’s the people he surrounded himself with. That’s the secret to a successful enterprise: surrounding yourself with people with talent and great ideas, who stand up for themselves and their thoughts.
|Copyright Walt Disney Productions 1955|
You learn a lot by watching the special features, and sometimes a little innocence is lost. Although I’d seen the romantic, falling in love sequence many times, I’d never really connected the fact that the sun goes down while they’re in the park, and it comes up the next with Lady’s soft, furry ear draped over Tramp’s head. I always wondered why Lady was so touchy about Tramp’s reputation in the pound scene, but now it all makes sense. Added to the fact is that is Trusty and Jock’s proposal; where did that come from? Well, it’s the Victorian era (albeit in America) and an upper-class pooch spends the night with a collar-less mutt who doesn’t like to be tied down. And she, apparently, truly spends the night with said male. So I think, just speculating, that Jock and Trusty offer to marry her because she’s been, ah, compromised and may in fact be, um, with puppies. But that’s just my theory, based on the interviews in the special features that detailed how scandalous it was that a male and female Disney character set spent the night together before paw-trimony (I can only assume that’s what puppy marriage is called).
Tramp’s name is even scandalous. He had many possible names, but Walt liked Tramp. The studio was worried about using such a word in a ‘cartoon’ feature. It’s hard to know what exactly tramp stood for at the time. Nowadays, dictionary.com provides numerous meanings, from our common understanding (promiscuity) to wandering travelers, homeless vagrants, to the sound of marching boots and ship schedules. Perhaps Walt meant Tramp to signify a wandering traveler, instead of the connotation we associate with phrases like ‘tramp stamp’.
Walt described Lady and the Tramp as a fun film to make, because they had a lot more license with the characters. They could just see where the characters took them without worrying about wandering off course from the original story. They also got to add in personal touches, like how Jim Dear gives Darling a puppy, Lady, in a hatbox. Walt gave his wife Lillian a puppy in the same fashion after forgetting a dinner date. They also had license to decide where to set the story; it’s one of the few Disney films set in the U.S. The town is actually modeled after Marceline, Missouri, the small town Walt fell in love with when he was growing up. It’s the same time that Main Street USA is based on at Disney Land. It’s idyllic and beautiful. It’s one of the places that I wish I could live in; well, at least I’d like to live in the animated version.
Lady and the Tramp runs the emotional gamut. We see Lady be adorable as a puppy, making mischief while making us laugh. We feel her hurt when she isn’t Jim Dear and Darling’s sole focus anymore. But the emotional clinchers really come near the end. First, we have Lady’s time in the pound. Thank goodness for that collar and license; we see what happens to poor Nutsy. The one way door. The dog catcher is never a good guy, but he’s not really super evil in this one either. Well, not as evil as I’ve seen him portrayed elsewhere. There’s a little-known animated film named Scruffy about a dog always on the run from the dogcatcher. It’s quite possibly the saddest film I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m fairly sure my grandma picked up the VHS at a Goodwill when I was a kid, and the haunting images still surprise me by coming back and taking hold. It’s tragic and terrifying and just not right. It’s complete propaganda, but it’s still heartbreaking. It’s even worse than those ASPCA commercials with the sad music and the sadder dogs. The only part I’ve been unable to block out is the scene where Scruffy’s mother dies trying to save Scruffy.
To keep the pound scene from being too overwrought, they showed the sad walk to the one-way door mostly in shadows. But it still made me cry. I’m very thankful to live in a state where dogs are rescued from shelters and shelters do their best to keep from putting dogs down. It still breaks my heart to think of other states who don’t have the amazing groups like we do here in Alaska, who don’t have a no-kill policy, or who only let dogs stay there a few days before putting them down. It’s just wrong.
I don’t only get misty in that scene, either. When Trusty and Jock rescue Tramp but Trusty gets injured and you think he’s dead…I always cry. Even though I know he lives, I still have to hug my dogs and cry. Jocks’ painful, sorrowful howl is so powerful that I just can’t help it. I love these guys at this point. They stand up for Lady and they love her and they work to make her happy. Aunt Sarah is unforgivable enough, but if she caused Trusty to actually die… well, that’s just too much. Thankfully Walt thought so as well, because originally Trusty did die. Then Walt saw the scene and was afraid it was too intense, too much like Bambi losing his mother. So he changed it, making Trusty appear in the Christmas scene that follows, injured but alive.
Part of what makes Lady and the Tramp so authentic is that everything is from a dog’s perspective. We rarely see Jim Dear and Darling’s faces, because they are so high up comparatively. Lady is a fairly small dog, so we see things mostly low to the ground. Even Trusty looks tall compared to her. Plus, the movie really isn’t about the people. It’s about the dogs. All the dog characters are thoroughly developed; even the ones in the pound are unique. We were sure their howling would get our dogs going, or at least make them look at the screen, but they didn’t. During the special features we found out why: the howling noises come from people, famous singers at the time. They sounded authentic to us, but they couldn’t fool our dogs!
Lady and the Tramp marked quite a few firsts for Disney. But one major one is using contemporary famous people to do the voices. Although the name Peggy Lee doesn’t mean much to us, she was apparently quite popular in 1955. She wrote the lyrics for the songs, she voiced Si and Am, the evil Siamese cats (I’m not going to go into the possible racism that tints those scenes as I don’t see it, but James does, so we’re agreeing to disagree which means we can’t talk about it anymore), she voiced Peggy the dog, and she was Darling. She was very seriously involved with this film. She sings some great songs as well! Who doesn’t love “He’s a Tramp”? It always gets stuck in my head, and not in that annoying way like “We Are Siamese”.
I was completely wrong about Lady and the Tramp. I love it now (minus the annoying beaver—might still skip past that scene!). Though I may never be able to look at Lady the same again after knowing what was meant to be implied by her ‘spending the night’ with Tramp. Scandalous!