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Disney Sundays: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

          You can’t get much cuter than a love story about two dogs, and I think Disney realized how profitable that could be when they made Lady and the Tramp, which is that classic story about a high class beauty and a low class guy coming together and falling in love. But done with dogs. Despite having one of Disney’s iconic scenes, this isn’t a film that a lot of people think about. And there are reasons for this, but also reasons it should be remembered.
          Lady is a cocker spaniel given as a Christmas gift by a well-off young man to his wife. She enjoys her life with the couple in their nice house, pampered and privileged occasionally interacting with other neighbourhood dogs Jock and Trusty. But she soon learns that her owners are about to have a baby and spurned on by the warnings of a street dog called the Tramp, worries that it’ll push her out of their lives. After the baby is born she is put in the care of Aunt Sarah a cat person which naturally leads to her ending up on the street and being introduced to another side of the dog world by the Tramp.
          When people do remember Lady and the Tramp they remember the love story but tend to forget there’s a bit more to it than that. One of the major themes is Lady’s coping with the change of her owners having a baby and what her place in the household is going to be. Hell it’s actually the conflict that drives a lot of the story. Which is refreshing, especially as it gives Lady some character motivation and is more an original idea next to the love story. The relationship is fine though, and actually one of my problems with this movie may be that it’s not long enough. I think more time should have been devoted to Lady and the Tramp’s relationship, because as is, it feels rushed. Granted it’s a lot more believable than princesses falling in love before exchanging a word with a prince, and I admire that we see the romance from both sides, but I do feel it could have been developed at a better pace. As good as it is to have this storyline about Lady and the baby, a few of those scenes could have been cut. But apart from that, their relationship is solid enough. The film avoids some of the easy romance bits. And while there is a scene of mistrust between the two in the final act, it’s brief and actually makes sense. It was merely a reaction to Lady learning who the Tramp really is. 
          I wish the audience were given a bit more of who the Tramp is too. He is the only really interesting character in the movie. Lady is fine and enjoyable to watch, but she just doesn’t have the interesting personality the Tramp does. Larry Roberts plays the Tramp with a decidedly modern voice and sensibility. He reminds me of figures like Frank Sinatra which is great and it kept my attention. There’s also the implication based on his knowledge of what happens to dogs when a baby is born, that he was once domesticated too. That back-story perhaps could have used more exploration, but then again even the hint gives him an added depth, as well as his reputed past with other lady dogs. Bitches if you don’t want to be classy. Speaking of which, Aunt Sarah is one. She hates and doesn’t understand dogs, being a pretty good representative of those kind of cat ladies many dog owners know. But she’s not entirely unsympathetic because you get the impression she really cares for the baby as much as Lady does. Jock and Trusty as well as the lesser seen Peg, Boris, and the Bulldog are side characters who don’t leave much of an impact. Apart from Jock’s accent which is delightful to listen to. There’s a lot of good voice talent though. Barbara Luddy voices Lady with Verna Felton returning as Aunt Sarah. Bill Thompson who voiced Smee voices multiple characters here including Jock and the Bulldog, and singer Peggy Lee voices Peg. And this film’s even got Thurl Ravenscroft a.k.a. Tony the Tiger as the alligator, and Alan Reed a.k.a. Fred Flintstone as Boris the Russian dog.
          The Russians get off easy though. Lady and the Tramp features the infamous Disney Siamese cats. The Siamese cats are another unfortunately dated characterization of Disney’s, with caricatured eyes and teeth. They probably wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for their damn song, which more than being racially insensitive is just a bad song. Luckily their screen presence only lasts one scene, but it’s enough to leave a cringing impact. Part of the problem is how they’re played as irritating troublemakers. No one complains about the Italian stereotypes because they’re such nice guys (there’s also an Irish cop for some reason).
          In addition to all that there are some sequences that are poorly written, like when the couple’s contentedness is being brought up, how their unit is perfect with Lady now added to the family. It’s just so clearly setting up a change in circumstance. But there is better attention paid elsewhere. I loved the subtle touch of how Lady refers to her owners as Jim Dear and Darling after how they address each other (though seriously, in six months Jim never once called his wife by her first name?!). But on the flip side there are scenes (particularly concerning dogs in the pound) that are played too forcefully for sympathy. As if it’s trying to make you emotional without earning it.
         Now with all this you may be thinking I generally don’t like this movie, and while there are some problems and a bit of a blandness that permeates the story rendering many parts forgettable, I actually think Lady and the Tramp is pretty good. Why? Because it’s unbelievably cute. Again it does feel forced at times, but come on, that scene with Lady as a puppy trying to go to bed with Jim Dear and Darling is too much. And I think the overall cuteness works to the film’s advantage in addition to the other positives I’ve mentioned. There’s an innocence to how the story and characters are presented. Like it’s just trying to tell a love story and an acceptance-of-change story and if there are odd choices and little plot holes (there are), they shouldn’t matter. They do, but not enough to upend this films’ charm. I like that Disney made a movie about dogs, and made it a romance that though not perfect, is a much better representative of a relationship than their usual fare. I like the animation, still wonderful to look at, especially the dogs are very well animated and diverse in design. Of all the cute moments in this film, the cutest is easily the “Bella Notte” scene. It’s not only one of Disney’s best, but one of the best romance scenes in film, up there with Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity, etc. The song is enchanting, the animation wonderful, the pacing spot on, it’s just so cute and lovely. When romance scenes are done this well, hell even I’m a sucker for them.
          So I do recommend Lady and the Tramp despite it being far from a perfect movie and not quite one of Disney’s best. There are certainly issues to be had with it. Yeah there’s stuff that doesn’t make sense; the dogs getting a better dinner than some of Tony’s customers perhaps. Yeah the climax is underwhelming where the side characters have to do what one of the protagonists should. Yeah it does have a fake death for one of the characters and feels just a little too schweet in the final moments. Yeah maybe the dogs didn’t need to speak at all, but I can’t say their doing so hurts the movie. There’s enough there to admire and enjoy. It can even be funny once in while (the remark “since we got Lady we’ve seen less and less of those disturbing headlines” comes to mind) and for a story that’s been done a number of times, this is one of the best interpretations. If you love dogs you’ll for sure love this movie, but if not maybe the animation, tone, romance, relaxing nature, or overall cuteness will work its magic on you.

Next Week: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

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