If you’re not a dog lover, Disney’s ‘Lady and the Tramp’ might not appeal to you all that much. It starts with a doggy dedication, and most of the film is drawn as though from the dog’s points of view (it’s rare you see a human face, but there’s a lot of ankles). Actually, though, it’s just a classic love story that happens to centre on talking dogs.
It’s also one of the few Disney stories you might not be familiar with, as it was an original idea unlike most of the studio’s adaptations and re-imaginings of various traditional children’s stories. The story of literal puppy love starts on Christmas day, when Jim Dear gives Darling a pedigree cocker spaniel puppy in a hatbox (using her owners’ pet names for each other is another, sweet touch to show Lady’s perspective on things). As we all know, a dog is for life, not just for Christmas, and Lady is demanding from the get-go. Like a spoiled child, she howls and cries to get her own way and, when that doesn’t work she makes her way to their room with dogged determination (excuse the pun!). The family of three exist in a state of suburban bliss, where Lady chases birds, buries bones, and fetches the morning paper. In the first ten minutes, Lady herself never utters a word – a rarity in Disney films, where animals usually do most of the talking!
It’s not long before Lady gets presented with licence and collar, a sort of “coming of age” symbol – it’s almost like a sweet sixteenth gift. Proudly, she trots off to see Jock, the very Scottish scottie dog, and Trusty the doddery, retired sniffer dog that has lost his sense of smell. It’s entertaining to see the dog’s breeds used to inform their personality, but it does start to border on racial stereotyping.
Meanwhile, the Tramp – who is never actually referred to a proper name by his fellow canines – is sleeping rough and begging for his breakfast. He’s a slender mutt, presumably some kind of mongrel, but because it’s a Disney film he’s not starving or dirty; he’s a charming, cocky, daredevil. Evading the dog catcher leads him to “Snob Hill” as he calls it – Lady’s neck of the woods.
It’s like an early, cartoon version of ‘Grease’ with dogs; while Lady’s living her upper-middle-class life, the Tramp’s off making mischief, until their paths cross. Lady spends her time with the doggy equivalent of gentleman; compare that to the rough-and-ready friends the Tramp liberates from the pound wagon. There’s the big butch British bulldog (my understanding is, he’s meant to be a cockney) and saucy Peg with her blue eye shadow and bangs in her eyes. In all honesty, she might be the dog equivalent of a streetwalker.
Out of the blue, Lady’s content existence is beginning to sour – Jim Dear calls her “That Dog” and Darling strikes her! She calls a pow-wow with her friends, which amusingly they ensure is out of sight of the humans, who explain there’s a baby on the way. Lady has no concept of what a baby is, seeing as she’s never even seen a puppy other than herself, but is soon reassured by Jock and Trusty…until the Tramp shows up unannounced and tells her the “reality” of having a baby in the family. The paranoia this induces builds throughout the pregnancy, as Lady gets increasingly jealous and overlooked and the film builds to the ominously circled ‘April’ on the family calendar.
When the baby is born, Lady gets her first song. It’s an inner monologue about what babies are, and it’s a touch haunting, but once she’s seen the baby she’s as taken with him as everyone else and they become a family unit of four. The first time we see the baby, he’s so realistically rendered he doesn’t really ‘fit’ the scene, but perhaps that’s to make him all the more breathtaking in our eyes as well as Lady’s. We’re not allow to get comfortable, because just as things are returning to normal, Lady is pushed out by Aunt Sarah, who comes to stay when Lady’s beloved owners go on holiday. You might question how advisable it is for a couple with a newborn and a dog to take a holiday, but try and see it as nothing more than a plot device!
Aunt Sarah, a formidable woman with an exaggerated large bosom and backside, has two Siamese cats that bring us back to the issue of racial stereotyping. Their disjointed English and ridiculous accents, teamed with the oriental music for their song “We Are Siamese” and their vicious attempts to kill both the bird and the fish within minutes of being on screen leads you to wonder exactly how Disney and co. perceived the orient…or maybe they just really didn’t like cats?
Either way, poor Lady is blamed for the mess they make and humiliated with a muzzle. She runs away from Aunt Sarah and the pet shop, and who should come to her rescue when she is chased? It’s Tramp, of course, and it’s quite a violent battle for a kid’s movie! Cunning and streetwise, Tramp sneaks them into the zoo, switching from fang-baring fighter to loveable rogue in seconds. In order to get the muzzle of Lady, the Tramp scams a gopher who bears a strong resemblance to Gopher from Winnie the Pooh with his whistling ‘S’.
Lady, who he bizarrely nicknames “Pigeon”, is now in his world and discovers he has a “family for every day of the week” – and a different name to go with them! His favourite are the staff down at Tony’s restaurant – ready for yet more stereotypes? The Italians put an ‘a’ on the end of every word they speak, sport dodgy facial hair, and serve up meatballs. Yes, the dogs get the five-star treatment; table cloth, candle, slap-up meal and musical accompaniment on the accordion. Tony actually comes across as a bit of a nutjob, insisting the Tramp talks to him and organising him a date complete with mood music, but whether or not you’re old enough to question this it’s a sweet scene. There’s the famous nose-bump when they eat the same piece of spaghetti, and romantically, the Tramp gives Lady the last meatball (Tony also advises the Tramp to “settle down with this-a one”, suggesting he doesn’t just flirt with different families!)
After their date, they take a moonlit walk through some wet cement. It’s a night-time scene so it lacks the rich colour and depth of earlier films, but perhaps that’s to set the mood, or perhaps it’s due to the fact this was the first Disney film broadcast in Cinemascope. That’s not to say it’s not detailed, but the background stays very much that; a backdrop as opposed to part of the action. The two stay out all night and the Tramp tries to lead Lady astray, but she’s set on going home. Unfortunately, a digression to chase chickens lands Lady in the pound. The melancholy dog chorus and the cute dogs shedding single tears in the most basic of buildings is surprisingly upsetting and would no doubt lead to protests from animal rights activists were it a modern release (remember: it’s a 1950s cartoon!). Talk of ‘the long walk’ is particularly disturbing; though it’s not confirmed aloud; it would seem that’s where dogs go to die.
To brighten the moment, what else? More racial stereotypes in the forms of Pedro the Chihuahua and Boris the philosophising borzoi. In puppy prison, Lady learns that while the Tramp’s never been caught by the dog catcher, he has one weakness: “the dames” – “what a dog!” They list his previous conquests before Peg – who’s also smitten with him – sings the sensational “He’s a Tramp”, sashaying around the pound while the other dogs harmonize.
Before long, Lady is rescued but relegated to a doghouse in the garden. Jock and Trusty devise a harebrained but honourable scheme to ‘marry’ Lady so she can live with one of them but, when they present her with her choice, cue the Tramp’s entrance. The three snub him, even though he comes bearing a gift (typical man!). He gets his chance to redeem himself when the rat – who is evil and hideous, a very unusual animal portrayal in a Disney movie – gets into the baby’s room! Lightning flashes and tension mounts as he pursues the nasty rodent into the house and even now, it’s pretty frightening as the two are locked in battle around the baby’s crib. The Tramp wins, of course, but it would seem to adult eyes that he’s actually murdered the rat behind a chair instead of chasing it away.
Bumbling Aunt Sarah is awoken by the commotion and naturally gets the wrong end of the stick, so Lady is banished to the basement and the Tramp is handed over to the pound. Fortunately, with classic Disney timing, Jim Dear and Darling come home at that exact moment. Jim Dear discovers the rat (or its remains, at least) and eavesdroppers Jock and Trusty (where exactly are their owners, and why do they never notice their pets are missing?) realise they’ve misjudged the Tramp. They go on a mission to rescue him, closely followed by Jim Dear and Darling. OK, in real life, it’s doubtful dog owners would interpret their dog’s barks as “Please! Save my boyfriend!” but it’s an exciting high-speed chase and when Trusty gets caught under the wheels of the pound wagon, expect to experience a pang of sadness that’s surprisingly acute given that it’s inspired by hand-drawn dogs.
Never fear! The film ends exactly a year after it started, on Christmas Day, and while Jim Dear attempts to get a family snapshot that includes the Tramp with a shiny new collar and a litter of pups, Trusty and Jock pay the family a visit. Jim Dear organises “refreshments” (apparently, Aunt Sarah sent dog biscuits, which hopefully means she’s made amends with our protagonists) and the large group of dogs laugh and joke. (Although abusive uncle Jock kicks one of the babies in the face!) Lady has made an honest dog of the Tramp, who is a reformed character, committing himself to one lady and one family.
Unfortunately, Lady and the Tramp is one of those Disney movies with a dreaded sequel. ‘Return of Jafar’ aside, most of their animated sequels have been low-quality spin-offs and, although this reviewer’s never exposed herself to it, this straight-to-video 2001 release seems no exception. Apparently, it follows the adventures of their son Scamp who wants to be a ‘wild dog’, which just sounds like the original film in reverse (a bit like ‘Grease 2’…).
Even if the sequel taints the memory of this film slightly, it’s still an absolute classic. Unless you’re easily offended by mild racism, cruelty to cartoon animals, or negative presentation of cats and/or rats.