Lady and the Tramp was a first for Disney for several reasons. After a series of fantastical stories it represented Disney’s first domestic picture based not on a fairy tale but in a more realistic human setting (with Bambi of course being a realistic movie set in the wilderness). It was also Disney’s first feature film not based on an existing story as all they used an obscure comic strip Happy Dan, Whistling Dog as their only outside source of inspiration. Though venturing into new territory like this could be a dangerous prospect, it turned out to be a fruitful one as Lady and the Tramp became one of Disney’s greatest moneymakers and an underrated classic to boot.
The movie opens in a genteel midwestern town at the turn of the century on Christmas Eve, immediately setting it apart as unique in the Disney canon. There is no “once upon a time”, no hint of magic afoot, and only the very down to earth revelation that a husband has gifted his wife a puppy for Christmas. As this opening scene progresses, with the adorable cocker-spaniel pup Lady slowly settling into her new home, it highlights a key aspect of Disney animation that set it apart as exemplary storytellers. This key aspect is the meticulous attention to detail in their animation. I’ve had six dogs in my entire life, five of them being cocker spaniels, and it is astonishing just how much Lady’s movements and mannerisms mimic my own dogs. There is hardly an action that she or any of the other dogs do that seems false or highly anthropomorphized.
More importantly, Lady’s relationship to her humans is also perfect analogous to the relationships I had with my dogs. Her sneaking into her humans’ bed (and staying there permanently) is roughly the same path that my dog Charlie took as a puppy. The way she runs toward Jim Dear when he comes home from work or sits by the fire in the evening is almost exactly how I remember my other dogs. And the disorientation Lady goes through when a baby arrives in her household gave me deja vu when I thought about how my Charlie handled that transition in our household. Yet the genius of the Disney animators is that it took me until I revisited this movie for this review to notice just how accurately the movie depicts dogs and their relationship with us. It is such a pitch perfect depiction that I’ve seen this movie at least a dozen times and never noticed this before – it is so naturalistic as to be almost invisible.
Lady and the Tramp is remarkable in that it is the first truly romantic drama that Disney has attempted that doesn’t involve princesses and princes. And as one half of the romantic couple, Lady is arguably the strongest female character introduced in the Disney canon so far. Of course the bar is abysmally low on that count, as the mere fact that she is loyal to her human, fiercely protective of the baby, seems to have her own opinions, and is willing to stand up for herself against the Tramp (more on him in a bit) means she is leaps and bounds ahead of the otherwise slightly vacuous female leads and underused female side-kicks who have appeared so far.
On the other side of this movie’s romantic equation is the easy-going and vagrant Tramp, who literally lives on the other side of the tracks. His character is also one of the more complicated characters so far as he is outwardly a rascal and a scamp of a dog (we’ve all known one of those) and yet this outward show of strength hides a loyal and tender side to him as well as possibly his woundedness at not being part of the “leash and collar” crowd (and possibly having been a part of that crowd at one point). Together he and Lady form a classic Hollywood couple made up of two individuals from different worlds and their coming together is arguably the most mature depiction of romance in all of Disney’s movies, warts and all.
Helping out this movie is a severely underrated soundtrack featuring classic songs like “Bella Notte”, “Peace on Earth”, and “He’s A Tramp” among others as well as an orchestral score that helps emphasize the movie’s general domestic gentility. “Bella Notte” in particular is the anchor of one of the most iconic romantic scenes in all of cinema and arguably the best scene involving pasta.
Of course while the music is for the most part a highlight of the movie, it is also a central feature of one of its lowlights. Halfway through the movie Lady is introduced to two nefarious Siamese cats who are regrettably depicted as offensively stereotypical Asians. The song “We Are Siamese” is an indefensible piece of music, filled with every possible mangling of the English language in order to play up Asian exoticness. As a half-Asian myself it is unfortunate and insulting that this is the first real depiction of Asian culture in a Disney film and that it would take almost half a century later with Mulan before we would finally get something resembling a respectful depiction of Asians. With this movie following the previously problematic Peter Pan Disney goes 2-for-2 in its racist depictions of non-WASP cultures (the depiction of Italian-Americans in this movie is also similarly a little problematic). Mercifully the only saving grace is that the Siamese cats’ appearances amount to maybe three minutes of the movie and are quickly forgotten after that.
Another fault of the movie, and possibly why it hasn’t necessarily risen to the level of a true Disney classic, is that the story is ultimately slight. The stakes never truly rise to anything above mild peril. Even a climactic and potentially heartbreaking cliffhanger in the third act gets resolved a mere thirty seconds later. The movie is mostly a string of episodes that while enjoyable, don’t ever move the level of tension and excitement beyond the pedestrian.
This movie’s success lies with the strength of the central relationship between Lady and Tramp and fortunately the movie succeeds in this regard. It also succeeds in depicting the ancient relationship between humans and dogs in a way that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever had a dog in the family. Together these two strengths coalesce to create a movie that is unique in the Disney canon in that it is firmly rooted in reality. And yet conversely, it is precisely this commitment to a down-to-earth reality that helps Lady and the Tramp be as magical as any fairy tale Disney has produced.
Other movies in “Disney Silver Age”: