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film rating



By Daniel Lammin
21st June 2015

Walt Disney Animation made its name in the early days with beautiful adaptations of fairytales and children’s classics. These are the films we more immediately associate with Disney, and have certainly been their most commercially and culturally successful. Yet one film from the classic era doesn’t come from any piece of popular source material, but was developed within the studio as a wholly original story. Nowadays there would be nothing unusual about this, but in the 1950s, with the studio financially secure again after the Second World War, it was a massive gamble. That film, now celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, was ‘Lady and the Tramp’, now seen as one of the most mature and nostalgic films in the Disney canon.

I came from a very Disney-oriented household. We had a large pile of Disney movies on VHS, which my brothers and I coveted. Of course we all had our personal favourites, but one of the few unanimously loved films in our household was ‘Lady and the Tramp’. My mother bred dogs for a while, and we even had a Scottish terrier named Humphrey, so dogs were a large part of our lives. It may not have been filled with catchy songs or magical flights of fancy, but ‘Lady and the Tramp’ was a film we all kept going back to, captivated by this vivid portrait of animals we knew so well.

Lady (Barbara Luddy) is a cocker spaniel living with her adoring owners John-Dear and Darling in a sleepy U.S. city in the early 1900s. She has everything she could want – a safe home, happy owners and two trusted friends, a bloodhound named Trusty (Bill Baucom) and a Scottish terrier named Jock (Bill Thompson). However, two events occur that throw Lady’s life into a spin – Darling and John-Dear have a baby, and she catches the attention of Tramp (Larry Roberts), a charismatic mongrel from the streets who decides to court her. With so much out of her control, Lady’s rejection of Tramp begins to turn, and the two dogs quickly begin to fall in love.


Development began on the film in the late 1930s from an idea by animator Joe Grant. He had begun sketching a story featuring his dog Lady, and Disney had been so charmed by the idea that he pushed the story through to further development. By the late 40s, it had hit a snag and Grant had left the studio, so Disney turned to writer Ward Green, who added the character of Tramp and crafted it into a romance. Disney actually commissioned Green to write a novelisation of the film before it was released, which was pretty common at the time (the same happened with ‘The Third Man’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’).

‘Lady and the Tramp’ was new territory for Disney Animation in a number of very important ways. Apart from ‘Fantasia’, this was one of the only major films the studio had developed from scratch, not relying on an established and popular source material to fall back on. It was their first film without any magic or fantasy since ‘Bambi’, which had not been a success for the studio. In ‘Lady and the Tramp’, humans give birth, dogs are put down and animals are forced to fend for themselves. For audiences in 1955, who were used to magic pumpkins and white rabbits and Never-Never Land, this must have been a strange film indeed. This was the closest Disney had come to approaching some kind of social realism, and is still one of the few that have.

Because of this, ‘Lady and the Tramp’ is a genuine treasure in the Disney canon. Like so many of their films, it has everything working for it – gorgeous characters, stunning animation, beautiful music and a clear, affecting story. What really sets the film apart though is how immensely romantic it is. As Lady and Tramp get to know one another, a playful contempt turns into palpable affection, and even though they’re just ink and paint, the moment they finally fall for one another is up there with the best screen kisses of all time. It’s probably the one moment of the film most people remember – serenaded by their Italian chef over a bowl of spaghetti, they accidentally end up eating the same string of pasta, and to their surprise it leads to an unexpected and magical kiss. They don’t need to say a word, because the visuals and the mood say everything. And on top of that, it features the most famous song from the film, ‘Bella Notte’, which has become a standard "love song" classic. No matter what age or background, your heart just melts. If a film can convince and move you with two dogs falling in love, then it’s definitely doing something very right.

‘Lady and the Tramp’ is amongst the more adult of the Disney films, touching on some pretty serious ideas.

‘Lady and the Tramp’ is amongst the more adult of the Disney films, touching on some pretty serious ideas. At one point, Lady ends up in the pound with a terrific bunch of other dogs, but while there she sees one unsuspecting pooch taken for a walk that will ultimately lead to him being put down. Death is not only prevalent in the film, but is an active and threatening force. From dog fights to the vicious rat that threatens the baby to the iconic Siamese twin cats, the pets of dangerously intolerant Aunt Sara who babysits while the parents are away, who terrorise Lady and almost devour the other pets in the house. Because of this, ‘Lady and the Tramp’ feels more grounded, and because it plays with settings and animals familiar to young children, it feels far more immediate. It might be from a more romantic period in the past, but the team behind the film find a way to keep the film with two feet on the ground.

It’s also a huge technical achievement. Because of the commitment to accurately animating the animals in the film, everyone moves fluidly and believably. When Tramp stretches at the start of the day, you feel every muscle stretch and every bone creak, even if you don’t hear them. The world of the film itself, modelled after Disney’s childhood home of Marceline, is a kind of pastoral American postcard, whether it be in the privileged neighbourhood where Lady lives or in the railroad slums where Tramp does. The previous three films, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Peter Pan’ had worked with a kind of abstract, impressionist aesthetic, while here, all the detail is grounded in realism. Even the puddles that Trusty sniff through to catch a scent in the film’s climax feel like you could touch them or smell them. It was also the first widescreen animated film, Disney deciding just before release to have the film altered and reanimated to accommodate for the wider aspect ratio. Their next film would be ‘Sleeping Beauty’, probably the greatest technical achievement in the studio’s history, and all the seeds for that are sown in ‘Lady and the Tramp’.

In the end, the gamble paid off. ‘Lady and the Tramp’ was a huge critical and commercial success, the most successful Disney film since ‘Snow White’. And it’s little wonder, when the film is so endearing and entertaining. Watching it is like cuddling under a warm blanket, so familiar and comfortable are the characters and the story. It moves from one breathtaking moment to another, and I haven’t even given enough time to the great music, both the score and the songs. Try and get either ‘Bella Notte’ or ‘The Siamese Cat Song’ out of your head after watching it!

All of this accounts for the enduring legacy of ‘Lady and the Tramp’, and why it is worth celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. So much attention goes to the fairytale and princess films (as it should), but it’s gems like this that pushed the medium and the studio forward. ‘Lady and the Tramp’ is a beautifully romantic film, not just for its central love story but also for its nostalgia. It might not have fairies or flights of fancy, but there’s plenty of magic at every turn. If dogs are man’s best friends, then ‘Lady and the Tramp’ does them all the justice they deserve.

RELEASE DATE: 22/06/1955
RUN TIME: 1h 16m
CAST: Barbara Luddy
Larry Roberts
Peggy Lee
Bill Baucom
Bill Thompson
Verna Felton
DIRECTORS: Clyde Geronimi
Wilfred Jackson
Hamilton Luske
WRITERS: Ward Greene
Joe Grant
PRODUCER: Erdman Penner
SCORE: Oliver Wallace
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