Thursday, June 28, 2012

1955 - Lady and the Tramp

So Peter Pan was a massive success. I don’t begrudge it this, since it was the 1950s, and we were still in a state of dizzy, post-war stupidity. And besides, I’m glad for that, since once Walt gets some cash in his pocket, he starts taking risks. And this movie was a big one. It’s such a classic today, and there have been several movies along the same lines, so it’s a bit weird to think how unusual it was that there was a movie so completely about dogs. This film was also Disney’s first ever completely original story. It had its genesis in the short story “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog”, which they had tried vaguely to make into a short. When a friend of Walt’s got a spaniel puppy, he decided that a hobo mutt and a pampered pedigree meeting would make suitable material for a feature, and said “HEY YOU GUYS WE’RE MAKING A DOG MOVIE NOW OKAY?” (Yes, he talked like that. Little known fact.) Feeling a bit mangy? You should see a vet. But before that, get some Alpo and a fresh bowl of water, and let’s talk about Lady and the Tramp.

Now, I want to make something clear to those of you who don’t see why a dog movie should constitute such a risk for the studio. This is not a movie about people who own dogs,  it‘s a movie about dogs. The whole think is shot from a dog’s point of view. The human’s faces are rarely seen. Their names, as far as we know, are “Jim Dear” and “Darling”. That’s what they call each other, so that’s what the dogs call them. In addition to the low angles and non-human focus, this was the first animated film ever to be done in Cinemascope widescreen, forcing the animators to come up with whole new ways of framing scenes, and how to animate characters moving across a background, rather than moving the background behind the characters.

Plus it let them do this, which is like half the reason people remember the movie.
Start to finish, it works fantastically. This was another one where I went in with low expectations. All I knew about it was that a rich girl and poor boy met, clashed, and fell in love, all while being dogs. To my surprise, this didn’t really cover it. There was very little of the kind of “Oh, we’re so different” stuff you usually get in these “Uptown Girl” stories. Lady isn’t prissy and stuck up at all, just a bit naïve. She actually acts like a dog. She’s seen chewing up the paper, barking at rats, all that stuff. When her owners have a baby, she’s a bit concerned, and that’s when she meets the Tramp, who was set loose by his owners after they had a kid. Lady winds up loving the kid, but when the new parents have to go away for the weekend, they leave the house in the care of Jim Dear’s aunt, Lady makes a fuss at her two horrible cats, and the overprotective aunt has her muzzled. She runs away from home, the Tramp finds her and helps her de-muzzle herself, and romance blooms.

The story is handled in a surprisingly frank and mature way. There’s no real villain to speak of. There’s the aunt, who’s just kind of dumb, and the cats, the rat, and some street dogs that the Tramp has to fight off, who are only momentary setbacks. Even the dogcatcher that almost euthanizes the Tramp at the end is shown to be just doing his job, and seems to have some measure of care for the dogs at his pound. The romance between Lady and the Tramp actually seems more believable than most human romances I see in movies. Certainly more than I’ve seen in Disney so far. They actually talk to each other and have interactions on multiple occasions and spend a significant amount of time with each other. It’s still quick, but they are, you know, dogs.

"Noo, Laddie, there's wee bairns aboot me auld haggis, hoot mon."

I do need to mention this week’s installment in “Walter Elias Disney’s Wacky Parade of Ethnicities”, or “Epcot Stereotypes”. The first, and most famous, are Aunt Vera’s Siamese cats, who speak broken English and have crooked, yellow teeth. On my little spectrum, I‘d rank these guys at 2. They are undeniably using stereotypes that can be hurtful, but they’re using them in a way that colors a necessary character with other personality traits. This is the general tone of the stereotypes in the movie. The British bulldog, German dachshund, Italian waiters, and Irish police officer all fall into this category also. Jock and Trusty, who are Scottish and Deep South, respectively, are more Class 3, where their ethnicities merely provide a bit of extra personality and human interest (for lack of a better term) to what would otherwise be a flat supporting character. So I’m cool with it. Most of the supporting dogs are Bill Thompson again, by the way.

So yeah, in terms of writing and production, this is the best one I’ve seen so far. And it was a huge hit. The critics couldn’t really make heads or tails of it, but the audiences (aided by the TV advertising Disney was now able to do) flocked to it, raking in more cash than any Disney film since Snow White. This approval of unconventional storytelling and the bold new widescreen process gave Walt a HUGE dose of confidence and creativity, which resulted in… Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. See you in a few days.

We are disconcertingly stereotyped, if you please / We are disconcertingly stereotyped, if you don't please


* Per a lullaby sung by Darling, the baby appears to be named “Star Sweeper”. I’m aware that it probably isn’t, but I’m going to pretend it is.

* The main thrust of the plot comes when Lady runs away. Some other dogs smell her, then chase her. Tramp saves her, and  they spend the night together. The next day, Jock and Trusty propose that one of them could marry her to save her honor. Then she has puppies. I did not put all those pieces together when I was a kid. Seems obvious now.

* When she’s pregnant, Darling requests watermelon and chop suey as part of a typical “wacky craving” gag. Did upper-middle class people in the 1890s know what chop suey was? It seems so incongruously modern, but I guess it isn’t.

* I feel the same way about the beaver they see at the zoo. Are beavers really that exotic to people?
Marvel at the mysterious wonder-beast from the fabled Canadias!
* Walt really loved the 1890s, by the way. Well, everyone did, the “Gay Nineties” were the subject of some of the earliest forms of decade nostalgia. But Walt really got into it, with it turning up as a completely arbitrary setting in several of his cartoons. Seriously, this plot would not be the slightest bit different if it was set in the ‘50s, except the dog catcher would have a van instead of a horse cart.

* The songs are forgettable, mostly. There’s the Siamese Cat Song, which is catchy, but certainly too racist to be enjoyable. On the lighter side of stereotyping, the Italian waiters have a song called “Bella Notte”, which is quite nice and plays over the opening credits. There’s a few more sung by a random chorus, “He’s a Tramp” sung at the pound, and “What is a Baby” a Lois Lane-style spoken word bit. I couldn’t hum them for you if I tried.

Fun fact: There are WAY more screencaps of the lousy DTV sequel to be found than of the original movie. It's like 3 to  1. It's bizarre. 


  1. It's great to have the critiques back; now I've got got something to liven up my summer, ^_^

    (Are the minority portrayal rankings going to be a recurring theme? God, I hope so.)

  2. I'm sure I'll go back to them if I need to. When I was writing this one, I kept getting stuck writing way too long paragraphs comparing this movie's stereotypes to previous ones, so I made the classes to have a shorthand. And we've still got the 1960s to go, so I'm sure I'll need them again. There's definitely at least one class 1 I can think of. Anyway, thanks, good to be back. Sleeping Beauty will be up in a few days, then I've actually got a few days off, so I'm planning on writing like mad, then going biweekly until I've worked off the backlog Emerald City and my sickness built up. I'm actually 10 behind schedule. Jeepers.

  3. That's biweekly as in twice weekly, not as in fortnightly. What an imprecise word.

  4. Fun fact: “He's a Tramp” started my life-long love of Peggy Lee songs — certainly an early big pull of a popular celeb as a Disney voice (she also voiced Darling and, well, Si and Am, which I'd rather forget), along with Stan Freberg, in a small role as the beaver.

  5. Where'd you get the 1890s from? Wikipedia states 1909. Personally I always pictured it as 1920s...

  6. Oh, just a general "Gay Nineties" feel about it. Disney was doing a lot in that era at the time, so I kind of assumed.