Thursday, February 3, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (11/50) -- Lady and the Tramp (1955)

An uncontested member of the Disney Classics pantheon, Lady and the Tramp is perhaps the most- and least-remembered out of the entire Disney canon. On one hand is the immortal “Bella Notte” scene, where our titular characters dine together on a plate of spaghetti and (surprise!) kiss while eating the same noodle. On the other hand is the entire rest of the film. Seriously, if you hadn’t seen it in a while, could you tell me what happens in this movie? What it’s about? This is not a diss on Lady and the Tramp, which is a fine addition to the canon and deserving of its Classic status, but rather a statement on how the film’s popularity is derived from a single scene (“Romeo and Juliet” also suffers from this, but that’s neither here nor there).

Yes, yes, there's the spaghetti scene, but what else happens in this movie?

Set in 1909, Lady and the Tramp begins on Christmas Eve, with a married couple (we only know them by their nicknames: Jim Dear and Darling) exchanging Christmas present. Darling (Peggy Lee; yes, that Peggy Lee) receives a puppy from Jim Dear (Lee Millar), and decides to call her “Lady.”

A good chunk of the early parts of the film play out in episodic spurts. We watch Lady (Barbara Luddy) grow up, and how Jim Dear and Darling dote on her. We also meet Lady’s friends, Jock (Bill Thompson) and Trusty (Bill Baucom), a Scottish Terrier and Bloodhound respectively, and eventually catch sight of The Tramp (Larry Roberts) scrounging for food among the local businesses. Lady deals with the loss of attention when Darling becomes expecting, and the film follows her from being jealous of the new baby to wanting to protect it.

It's not the primary plot line per se, but the beginning baby story is a cute and reasonably satisfying way to be introduced to the film's cast.

Lady’s real narrative arc begins to take shape when Jim Dear and Darling take a short trip and leave both the baby and Lady in the care of Aunt Sarah (Vera Felton, whom we last saw as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella). Sarah hates Lady, and tries to fit her with a muzzle, but Lady escapes, only to be cornered by three vicious dogs. The Tramp steps in to rescue her, though, and the two eventually end up falling in love over that spaghetti dinner I mentioned earlier.

The rest of the narrative is a character exercise between Lady, The Tramp, and the other supporting characters. The film gives the characters time to develop, rather than forcefully shuttling them from plot point to plot point, and the relationship is surprisingly well-developed for a canine love story.

The story takes place over a few days span, but there are enough pockets of sweetness to make it work for my Boy Money.

One small touch I liked about Lady and the Tramp's story is how the first act neatly sets up everything we need to know about the rest of the movie. The movie introduces us to all sorts of characters who appear later in the movie, including Tony and his restaurant, the dog catcher, and even the primary antagonist. Not one element in the entire third act feels deus ex machina, and the story’s twists and turns always feel earned instead of arbitrary.

Lady and the Tramp was Disney’s first film shot in 2.55:1 Cinemascope and WOW! does it look gorgeous. The action feels crisp, the characters are given more room to breathe, and the backgrounds are staggeringly beautiful—several shots in the movie look straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Forget the Full Screen; you'll want to soak in every brushstroke and backdrop in this one.

Talking animals are nothing new to Disney flicks, but the characters in Lady are some of the closest to real animals that I’ve seen in an animated movie of this sort. The characters in Lady act more or less like actual dogs, walking, digging, and behaving in a realistic manner, helping sell the audience that these guys could be someone’s pets (it certainly works better than wanting it both ways).

One totally non-PC element I found consistently entertaining throughout the film was its liberal use of ethnic stereotyping. Each of the different dogs has an accent according to its breed; the English bulldog speaks in Cockney, the Chihuahua has a Mexican drawl, and the Borzoi sounds like Boris Badenov. There’s also an Irish police officer, Italian chef, and a German family that serves the Tramp Wiener Schnitzel (jawohl!). Fortunately, the characterization of all of these side players is pretty nice, without the generally tasteless depictions that were around more in the 40’s and 50’s (with one exception that I’m cringing about even now).

This is Pedro. Tito from Oliver & Company's great grandfather? You decide, dear readers. You decide.

Even though “Bella Notte” is the main song remembered from Lady and the Tramp, the movie has a fair few catchy numbers. The opening Christmas carol, “Peace on Earth,” does wonders for setting up the mood of the film, while “The Siamese Cat Song” is another non-PC bit of catchiness (though, let’s face it, it could be a lot worse). My favorite, though, is Peggy Lee’s own “He’s a Tramp;” I’m a huge Peggy Lee fan, and she brings her signature sizzle to the tune that makes me ooze into the carpet.

Lady is a fine film, but if I had to find something to pick on, I’d choose the narrative and pacing. The movie definitely takes its time ambling about and setting up story, and, as such, it seems to drag from time to time. The lack of an overarching goal or conflict also adds to the pokey pace, and the film only really picks up during the middle of the second act.

Still, these are piddly critiques in the face of a great piece of animation. Lady and the Tramp boasts some stunning backgrounds, entertaining characters, appealing songs, and a well-realized (if slightly overrated) love story. In short, it’s what you’d expect from a certified Classic from the Disney Silver Age.

Favorite Songs:

  1. “He’s a Tramp”
  2. “The Siamese Cat Song”
  3. “La La Lu”

Favorite Character:

  • The Beaver (seriously. I’m a fan of Gopher from the Winnie-the-Pooh series, and that’s basically this guy. The character design, the workman-like nature of him, and even the whistled “S” speech pattern are all the same)

Favorite Scene:

  • “Peace on Earth” opener (the camera slowly pans over a picturesque, snowy town, while the viewer is warmly serenaded by a tenor and choir. It’s lovely)

The Jar Jar:

  • Trusty

How I Watched It

After receiving the Bootleg DVD runaround that I also got from Cinderella, I was finally able to get a copy of the Lady and the Tramp 2-Disc Platinum Edition. The first disc has both the Full Screen and Wide Screen versions of the movie, which is convenient to have, though I’m not sure how often I’ll be using the Full Screen version.

The second disc is chock full of the requisite Platinum goodies, with a hefty Making Of documentary being the main course. There are also a few miscellaneous features, such as some spots from the TV show Disneyland. Though not quite as overstuffed as some Disney DVDs, Lady and the Tramp’s bonus material is more than sufficient for fans of Lady.

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