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Lady and the Tramp is a charming animated Disney film from the middle of the 1950s, when his TV and amusement park empire was just in high gear. The farm-bred workaholic genius had also just debuted his big CinemaScope feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Although famous for his celebrated animated cartoons, each of which was always a major event, Disney was now building a monumental multi-media multi-platform entertainment empire. As terrific as they are, the 'cartoons' were now more expensive to produce and too demanding of his time. His most artistic efforts had been the very ones that didn't make a profit.
So it's no wonder that Walt Disney fell back on the kind of animation that previously didn't interest him -- humorous, un-ambitious tales about cute cats and dogs. Cleverly marketed from the title up (Lady and the Tramp reminded many of a risqué song from Pal Joey), this new film plays it safe all the way down the line. It takes place in Disney's undefined early part of the century -- 1910 or thereabouts -- in a beautiful idealized community of starched collars. The town's citizens only exist as a few silhouettes -- most of the streets are empty. At one point we visit the alley behind a lively Italian restaurant ... where the outgoing proprietor must be serving spaghetti and meatballs to ghosts.
The reason that there are no people in Lady and the Tramp is because the animals take their place. Lady (voice Barbara Luddy) may look like a Cocker Spaniel but she's really a highly feminized young girl, living a sheltered life. Her puppy phase gives the Disney artists the opportunity to celebrate and cherish infantilism. The cute baby stuff is adorable, whether human or canine, and wins over the Disney audience every time. Like any idealized American teenager Lady is ignorant of worldly matters. The slight story sees her meeting a footloose, spirited mongrel named Tramp (voice Larry Roberts), who shows her the "adventure" of living on restaurant scraps and dodging the dogcatcher. Life is different out there: no-account ruffians like Tramp get euthanized by The Man, while licensed purebreds like Lady are given a gentle ride back to their rightful owners.
So far Disney's writers have come up with an interesting game plan. Lady suffers petty injustice under the cruel discipline of a nasty babysitter and her Evil Siamese cats. She rebels against the muzzle and runs away. It sounds like a perfect role for Sandra Dee. Like Dee in A Summer
Since Disney believes so strongly in the Status Quo, Tramp's efforts to introduce Lady to his wild world don't work out. Lady doesn't end up in an artist's shack, cleaning paintbrushes and raising puppies for a Tramp who spends his time chasing other b-- female dogs. Events instead conspire to domesticate Tramp. His wild days over, he becomes the proud protector of the Dear family, and wears the collar and gold-plated license indicating that he's now "owned" (picture just above). And he likes it, too. It may look like 1910 but the viewpoint is fifties all the way. Tramp will be punching a time clock while Lady subscribes to Ladies' Home Doghouse and wonders if she needs therapy. That youthful episode when her masters chose to favor a human baby over her was a serious trauma, you know.
The animation is marvelous. A dozen dog characters are given wonderfully stylized attributes, yet still capture the essence of ordinary dogs. Disney's play with ethnicities and types is very much in evidence, and of course very telling. A Scotty dog and an English hound are dependable, faithful friends, while a bulldog is dumb but loveable, etc. Stan Freberg's provides a Beaver with a whistle-y voice, just to enliven the cast of characters.
We also see some characterizations that send mixed signals. Peggy Lee's amusing Peg is a dog from the wrong side of the kennel, and clearly set up as an inverse role model for Lady. Peg's song He's a Tramp is truly amusing. Here's where a critic is supposed to lean heavily on Disney for labeling his doggie 'women' as either good girls or promiscuous hussies. Peg may be on the way to the gas chamber for her sins. Sex among dogs is just as confusing as sex among people. Little Lady succumbs to Tramp on a romantic night, but she's innocent. We don't get a Way Down East scene where a preggers Lady is forced out into a Missouri blizzard. This is 1910, you know.
I also don't call the Disney mindset racist for having a Mexican Chihuahua mimic a Jose Gonzalez-Gonzalez accent and talk about his promiscuous sister. That kind of casual racism was everywhere in the 1950s; Warners has a bushel of Speedy Gonzales cartoons that are truly offensive. I also don't see anything particularly significant in the Red-baiting reference in the dialogue given the Russian Wolfhound Boris (voice Alan Reed). Let's just say that the noxious political climate had penetrated deep into the culture. Being one of the most prominent exponents of our society, Disney movies are bound to reflect the situation. What about the "insidious, sneaky, two-faced and treacherous" Siamese cats Si and Am? The equation of catlike control and grace with presumed Asian qualities make for some brilliant animation and a wonderful musical number, The Siamese Cat Song. As a kid weaned on '50s Disney movies, I do have to attest that the scenes like that one influenced the formation of erroneous cultural assumptions about Asians. I have met some quiet Asians, but never any that behaved like living demons.
Lady and the Tramp therefore provided a warm and nostalgic bit of entertainment for the '50s mainstream. It helped keep Disney in the chips by continually yielding new revenue for the last 57 years. I think I've seen at least 70% of the feature excerpted on the old Disney TV show. The dog characters are likeable and the leads idealized in a way that appeals. Alienated, career-unsure urbanites seem even more in need of real companionship today. This has led to an explosion of 'families' with dogs instead of children, so the picture's appeal certainly hasn't diminished. And I have to say that the final scene with the new puppies brings back the sentimental childhood "pang" of recognition -- at a young age, I remember Disney films conditioning me to the notion that having a family was a good thing.
Disney's Blu-ray of Lady and the Tramp really benefits from the Hi-Def image and sound, which delivers a class-act transfer and a beautiful sound mix. Disney's audio department probably lavished more care on his features than any other studio. The ultra-wide (2:55) image is immaculate. As the style of this cartoon does not reveal painterly brushstrokes or a full range of textural detail, any digital cleanup done simply makes the picture look cleaner and more refined.
Disney's new presentation includes a few new extras advertised as new, such as a deleted song and some deleted scenes. Shown in storyboards, one deleted scene is a fantasy in which Tramp describes a world where dogs are the masters and people are dragged around on leashes. Did Pierre Boule visit the studio that week? Other billboarded new features are a story meeting piece (using Disney files), a short film about dogs as pets and a piece on the songwriting team of singer Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke. Ms. Lee affects this knowing, optimistic look about her for the Disney promo cameras... she must have really been a special person. Disney relatives add personal remembrances of Walt as well.
Older galleries include an interesting making-of stack of docus, bookended by features on Walt Disney's affection for the country community where he did a lot of growing up. The docu stresses the fact that a major Disney associate Joe Grant developed the basic "dog movie" idea back in the late 1930s. It was rejected and revived by others after Grant left the studio.
The "2-disc combo pack" also contains a DVD version of the film. As low-end Blu-ray players have become so cheap (I'm a proud owner of one) I don't see the point of this, except to help out the marketing people by turning two products into one for inventory purposes and keeping the price up. But dual-release packages have become almost a standard feature on big-audience family films.
What's missing is information on technical issues. Lady and the Tramp is said to be the first CinemaScope animated feature. Considering all the optical "issues" of early CinemaScope lenses, we wonder exactly what kind of lens was used -- did Bausch & Lomb develop a close-up 'Scope lens for animation, or did Disney make animation stands with the camera fifteen feet away? We're told that Lady and the Tramp was concurrently filmed flat, which presumably required twice the time on animation stands. Frankly, the background compositions on the 'Scope version seen here are so tight North and South that the flat version for 1:85 might look better. But maybe the flat 1:85 just eliminated the extremes of the frame left and right. Did the 'Scope format make using multi-plane setups impractical, or was that just an economizing / simplifying / artistic choice?
I remember somebody at the UCLA Film Archive viewing the flat version on a Steenbeck back in the 1970s. I recall being told that Disney had decided to preserve only the flat version. That's heresay. But if memory serves, the alternate "flat" version on an earlier DVD was not the theatrical non-anamorphic copy, but a pan-scan of the 'Scope version. Is it too much to suppose that perhaps Walt had special lenses made, or that the film was shot in some clever way that only used the Fox-owned logo? Lady and the Tramp looks fantastic in CinemaScope, so the question is just for the film format fanatics.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lady and the Tramp Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.