THE HOUSE OF MOUSE – ‘Lady and the Tramp’

The one that delivered a love story like no other.

By the mid-1950s, Walt Disney’s time and energy were split amongst three separate areas; the animation department which had made him famous, Disney’s booming live-action feature film division, and the plans and construction for his mecca to be known as Disneyland. After the box office success of Peter Pan placed Walt Disney Productions back on top, Walt knew he needed a sure-fire winner to keep Disney on track. And the answer was rather obvious.

Disney was fast becoming known for its adorable animated animal characters who consistently managed to steal focus in a film, whether they were the star or not. Jiminy Cricket, Timothy Q. Mouse, Thumper, the mice of Cinderella, and Cheshire Cat, to name just a few. But Disney still lacked a true canine film star to add to its menagerie of beloved creature icons. Nor had it delivered a true animated romance to date. Why not kill two birds with one stone?

The idea for what would eventually flourish into Lady and the Tramp was born way back in 1937 when the entire studio was workshopping concepts for potential future animated feature films. Disney story artist Joe Grant approached Walt with an idea and sketches inspired by the adorably jealous antics of his English Springer Spaniel named Lady, who had been unceremoniously pushed aside by the arrival of Joe’s new baby daughter.

Walt loved the way Lady’s long fur resembled a dress and thought the story concepts involving Lady’s rivalry with a newborn baby could make for a great comedy. As such, he commissioned Grant to begin story development on the project under the working title Lady. After several years of numerous concepts and designs from Grant and his fellow animators, Walt felt the story was still lacking something and Lady was too sickly sweet.

It wasn’t until 1945 that Lady and the Tramp would begin to take shape after Walt read the short story “Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog” by Ward Green in Cosmopolitan magazine, which, in the 40s, was more focused on publishing fiction than beauty tips. The story tells of a mischievous stray dog who revels in his ability to manipulate humans into feeding him. Walt felt Grant’s story would work best as a love story between two dogs from different worlds and bought the rights to Green’s story so the stray character could be added to the film.

Initially, Lady and the Tramp was planned to be filmed and screened in the typical full-frame Academy aspect ratio Disney had been utilising since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However, in 1953, 20th Century Fox had released the Biblical epic The Robe, the first film to utilise their new invention CinemaScope, which we now commonly refer to as widescreen. The film was an enormous critical and commercial success for Fox, and Walt saw the technology as the future of cinema, especially the possibilities it offered his animated films and its groundbreaking use of stereo sound.

Despite the fact Disney’s animators had already begun production on Lady and the Tramp in full-frame ratio, Walt was determined for the film to be the first animated feature filmed in widescreen. While his decision would be a groundbreaking moment for animation, it meant an entire redefinition of the film’s scope and a total reinvention of the technique of layout art.

Backgrounds had to be redesigned to be wider and the animators needed to remember to move the characters across a background instead of the background passing behind them. Movement sequences now had to take into account larger spaces. Characters were required to be spread out more evenly across the screen to avoid the scenes looking too sparse. Essentially, the entire film was reworked from the ground up. But this was only the beginning of the headaches for the animators.

As they tirelessly worked to accomplish Walt’s gargantuan task, just one year out from the film’s release, Walt realised there was one small problem with CinemaScope; by the time the film was scheduled to be released in 1955, not all theatres in America and around the globe would have the capacity to screen films utilising the new widescreen technology. Whoopsies.

To compensate for this, ah, minor oversight, Walt had no choice but to direct his team to construct two versions of Lady and the Tramp; one utilising CinemaScope and another for use in Academy-ratio. To achieve this task as quickly and cheaply as possible, animators simply reconstructed any scene where characters were on the edge of the screen and moved them further within the confines of full-frame ratio. While this would mean portions of background and set design animation would be lopped off from the sides, it still allowed for a cohesive final product for those cinemas unable to offer audiences the widescreen experience.

One of Walt’s most enduring qualities was his yearning for nostalgia, particularly his fond memories of his quaint hometown of Marceline, Missouri. The town would be the inspiration for the design of Main Street in Disneyland and it would heavily influence the production of Lady and the Tramp. While it’s never made explicitly clear what year the film takes place, the production design, costuming, and technology within the animation suggests somewhere around the 1910s, aka the time when Walt was a young boy. Lady and the Tramp was ultimately Walt’s nostalgic ode to his childhood.

To create the numerous canine characters of Lady and the Tramp, the Disney animators closely studied numerous species of dogs through live sessions within the studio and home movies of their own dogs. The animators expertly crafted the intricate movements and mannerisms of each differing dog character, creating some of the most realistic animated animal characters in animation history. Walt also instructed his animators to consistently keep the animation at the eye level of a dog to centre the action within their world.

Lady’s introduction within the film takes place during a sequence inspired by Walt’s own life. In the film, Darling unwraps a hatbox on Christmas morning to find an adorable puppy inside. During the press tour for the film, Walt proclaimed this incident occurred when he presented his wife Lillian a Cow puppy as a gift inside a hatbox as an apology present for missing a dinner date. However, there is some conjecture around if this ever truly occurred, with some speculating it was Walt’s sly way of implying the entire film was inspired by his life, rather than that of Joe Grant and his dog Lady.

Grant had left the studio in 1949 before Lady and the Tramp went into full production. As such, he did not receive any official credit for his initial story work on the film, with the story of Lady being lost for several decades. This was also fueled by Walt commissioning Ward Greene to create a novelisation of Lady and the Tramp two years before the film was released to familiarise audiences with the story, leading most to assume the final film was merely a book adaptation.

It wouldn’t be until Grant returned to Disney in 1989 that his story was finally told and recognised, with the studio now openly acknowledging his involvement in the pre-production of Lady and the Tramp. On the film’s 2006 “Platinum Edition” DVD release, there is an entire featurette dedicated to Grant and the key artwork and story ideas he initially provided Walt in the 1930s and 40s. Grant would go on to work on films during Disney’s Renaissance in the 1990s including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan before his death in 2005 at the age of 86. Both Chicken Little and Disney Pixar’s Up are dedicated to him.

What truly sets Lady and the Tramp apart from Disney’s earlier works is its standing as their first example of a true romance film. While there were naturally romantic elements within films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, romance was not necessarily the crux of the narrative. Nor did either film focus on the burgeoning romance of its two lovers. Lady and the Tramp specifically follows the path of a traditional romance film, with two dogs of wildly different backgrounds meeting by happenstance and somehow falling in love, despite numerous obstacles in their way.

When you dig a little deeper, it’s one of the first examples of a Disney film offering genuine substance to its narrative, with a timely reminder love is love, no matter what form it takes. Lady and Tramp are both such contrasting personalities, it’s almost unfathomable the pair would be soulmates. Yet, as with every mismatched romance, they are destined to meet and teach each other some valuable lessons to ultimately become better individuals. The film is even devoid of a true villain, allowing the narrative to focus closely on its two protagonists and their blossoming love story.

Lady, who has lived a sheltered, precious life, learns about the broader world under the tutelage of Tramp. Tramp, who has lived a life of recklessness and irresponsibility, learns to care for others through the guidance of Lady. Their romance is typified by one of the most iconic scenes in Disney history. The spaghetti sequence is truly one of the most beautiful moments of romance ever seen on screen. Fun fact – Walt almost cut the sequence during initial story development, fearing two dogs eating spaghetti couldn’t possibly look romantic. After viewing a test sequence created by animator Frank Thomas, Walt immediately realised how wrong he’d been.

Once again, we must broach an elephant in the room, with another sequence in Disney history now feeling terribly outdated. In recent years, the scene featuring two Siamese cats singing “The Siamese Cat Song” in Chinese accents with stereotypical Chinese music has become a sore spot for the film, with many finding the sequence to be borderline racist. On Disney+, Lady and the Tramp features a disclaimer regarding its outdated cultural depictions and the song was cut completely from the 2019 live-action adaptation of the film.

Again, being a white film critic, it’s not my place to comment on the validity of the cultural problems with this sequence. It can be regarded as a product of its time with Disney bumblingly attempting to create some authenticity with Siamese cats speaking in Siamese accents and generic Asian-esque music. But to hire white actress Peggy Lee to voice a pair of Asian characters was never a wise idea and it’s hard not to cringe at the sequence with a 21st-century gaze.

Lady and the Tramp was released on June 22, 1955, to surprisingly negative reviews. The New York Times decreed the film to be “not the best Disney has done in this line,” and Time magazine stated the film “simply did not work.” Regardless, audiences were clearly nonplused by the critical drubbing, with the film becoming the highest-grossing Disney film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, ending 1955 as the sixth-highest grossing film of the year.

While critics of the time may not have loved Lady and the Tramp, the film has since gone on to be regarded as one of Disney’s finest creations. The realistic animation of the dogs is simply remarkable, particularly for those of us with canine friends of our own who will instantly recognise the behaviour and mannerisms found in the animation. The artistry of the character designs represents the culmination of everything Disney had learned thus far.

As gushy as the romance story may be, it works on every level, with Lady and Tramp’s love story standing as one of the best in cinema history. That iconic spaghetti scene is known by those who haven’t even seen the film, representing the cultural impact of this gorgeous film. A timeless piece of sentimentality, Lady and the Tramp is a nostalgic masterpiece that rarely receives the recognition it deserves.

Is Lady and the Tramp a Disney Classic? As Disney’s first foray into a genuine romance film, Lady and the Tramp is undoubtedly a Disney Classic.

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