**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A
animated; screenplay by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Ralph Wright, Don Dagradi
directed by Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronomi, Wilfred Jackson
by Bill Chambers Given that it may have the most famous scene in the Disney oeuvre, it's odd that Lady and the Tramp doesn't enjoy a better, or at least bigger, reputation. The first animated feature in CinemaScope, as well as the studio's first original story1 and its first dog movie (various Pluto-starring shorts notwithstanding), the film, despite earning the highest grosses of any Disney production since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, seems to have been eclipsed in the public consciousness from a genre standpoint by 101 Dalmatians and from a cinematographic standpoint by Sleeping Beauty, each of which followed so closely on Lady and the Tramp's heels as to reduce history's perception of it to a dry run. It's a bit better than that, but, coveted "Diamond" status to the contrary, frankly not one of the greats.
Marinated in Disney's memories of turn-of-the-century Missouri, Lady and the Tramp is an understated period piece that tips off its nostalgic bent with yuletide bookends. It begins with Darling Dear (voice of torch singer Peggy Lee, who will also lend her pipes to the impounded Peg and cats Si and Am) receiving from her husband Jim (Lee Millar) the Christmas gift of a puppy promptly christened Lady. Jim and Darling agree to let the restless spaniel sleep at the foot of their bed for the night, whereupon winter becomes spring and Lady's coat grows a few inches in an impressive pre-CGI morphing effect. A surrogate daughter for this childless couple, Lady (Barbara Luddy, often misidentified as Peggy Lee) proudly accepts and parades the collar license that authenticates her as a member of the family. But soon enough, Jim and Darling learn they're expecting, and Lady is demoted in the argot of her suddenly-specist masters to "that dog." Everyone adapts once the baby appears, but the arrival of horrid cat person Aunt Sarah (Disney mainstay Verna Felton) results in Lady being literally muzzled and fleeing into the streets in panic. Cue Tramp (Larry Roberts), a charismatic, confident stray mutt happy to assist her in freeing her snout; perhaps it will facilitate stolen smooches over a moonlit spaghetti dinner at his favourite bistro.
From its opening dedication to the Dog, Lady and the Tramp puts the viewer at a certain remove. Although Lady's anxiety over the impending birth of her masters' son is palpable, an effective portrayal of/analogy for first-child syndrome, to finish anthropomorphizing the rest of it is to confront the fact that it's about a sheltered young woman who falls for a homeless guy with the reputation of a lothario--surely an even skeevier notion now than it was then. And so the instinct is to not let your mind go there, and consequently to never fully engage with the material. I think Walt tries to help the process along--that is to say, I think he tries to turn his audience into dogs--by blotting out or otherwise obscuring most human faces (with the curiously definitive exception of the Italian waiters who serve up the spaghetti dinner; does ethnic = canine?), but the effect is doubly suffocating because people are still there, just on the margins: out of reach and implicitly grotesque, as a hidden visage in film grammar generally indicates deformity. It's often a struggle to identify with anything on screen in Lady and the Tramp.
Of course, the picture makes a few wilfully evasive manoeuvres, starting with a Pollyanna-ish ending ("[Disney's] Happiest Motion Picture!" trumpeted the one-sheet) that severely diminishes one character's noble sacrifice2 and pairs Lady with Tramp--complete with litter--with moronic disregard for the complexities of this living arrangement, not the least of which Jim and Darling's obvious sense of propriety. Meanwhile, evil Aunt Sarah is at once vanquished and casually redeemed by a line of offscreen dialogue; it's seeing movies like this in childhood that ruins adult moviegoers for anything remotely honest. The finale's dumb uplift is far more offensive to me than the Siamese cats (the aforementioned Si and Am), who emerge from a basket like cobras charmed to soil the Dears' pristine abode, all the while singing of their plans to annex the joint ("Now we lookin' over our new domicile/If we like we stay for maybe quite a while") in me-Chinese-y voices. It's weird that Eastern occupation is even on this movie's mind, however unconsciously, but it wouldn't be A Walt Disney Production without a soupçon of xenophobia. Truthfully, those cats have such a galvanizing effect on Lady and the Tramp that their appearance can only really be considered too brief. Slender and slinky where the dogs are stocky and lumbering, malicious where the dogs are benign, the cats' taffeelike bodies and their coordinated hijinks--which reduce Lady to a harried Tom, putting out fires set by particularly fiendish twin Jerrys--exploit the widescreen frame better than anything up to that point.
In other words, they introduce a dynamism the film sorely lacks--one that returns only in fits and starts after their hasty exit.3 It's why I wish Lady bristled more in her early dealings with the presumably flea-bitten Tramp: The title broadcasts their class differences like a marketing hook (which, as centuries of fairytales and decades of romcoms will attest, it is), yet the movie proper can't bring itself to capitalize on them in any meaningful way. The snobbish pose that Lady's neighbour pals Jock (Bill Thompson) and Trusty (Bill Baucom) strike up around Tramp, for instance, has more to do with their brotherly devotion--and maybe latent romantic attachment--to Lady than with their higher social standing. Meanwhile, Lady could clearly get away with murder at the outset of the film, but because she's barely sentient of her place of privilege, her lifestyle contrasts with Tramp's in mostly academic terms. She's a cipher, really, with so few biases to overcome that her scenes with Tramp are missing the spark that ignites, at least in screen romances, as chemical attraction erodes indoctrinated beliefs. The movie resorts to contriving conflict by giving Tramp a sexually sordid past, something Disney presumably finds less distasteful than saying anything marginally disparaging of the wealthy.
Still. Handsomely, seductively drawn, Lady and the Tramp owns its place in the canon as the last movie animated in the classic Disney style (pejoratively but nonetheless pithily described by animation historian Greg Ford as a "nineteenth-century sense of illustrated art"), before cost-cutting measures, Xerox photography, and Modernism encroached on the studio's dedication to elegant realism. If the picture's ephemeral, its pacing is exceptionally well-judged--its lulls are less pronounced than those of indisputably superior entertainments like Pinocchio and The Jungle Book--and its quasi-Victorian trappings are cozy like an old blanket. Too, there are grace notes unsullied by the ending, such as a grim shot of a pup (heartbreakingly named "Nutsy") idiotically walking the proverbial green mile in silhouette during Lady's brief stay in the dog pound; however all-consuming the film's empathy for its canine characters, it can swiftly conjure sympathy for them just the same. And while the characterizations are a little trite, the voicework is probably the best a Disney feature enjoys prior to the golden age of Phil Harris, with Peggy Lee lending so much smoulder to her canine alter ego, a fittingly-chosen lhaso apso (the way their bangs droop over one eye was the look of vamps pre-Bieber), that it's all the animators can do to soak it up like a sponge.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Disney brings Lady and the Tramp to Blu-ray in a characteristically immaculate 2.55:1, 1080p transfer. Retaining the slightly muted, mud-toned colour-timing of the Platinum Edition DVD while boasting considerably more 'pop,' the image seems to come from a fresh scan. Grain is minimal with animation (because the environment is stable and the exposures can be optimized) and even more so with anamorphic photography, so the cleanliness of the picture isn't suspicious and doesn't seem to have come at the expense of fine detail. As with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, things occasionally slip out of focus in a manner resembling a processing glitch, owing to cel damage within a multiplane camera move. It can be disorienting, but I presume the alternative is to cut those frames or otherwise foist revisionism upon the film. Anyway, it's a very nice presentation, one unfortunately not complemented by the 1.37 version of Lady and the Tramp shot simultaneously to accommodate theatres not yet equipped with CinemaScope projectors. Presumably, bringing both incarnations up to snuff for Blu-ray would've broken the bank, but I'm sure that collectors would've settled for a print with minimal restoration work simply for the novelty. Before you go trundling off to eBay, note that the 1.33:1 "full-frame" option on the previous "Platinum Edition" DVD was in fact a pan-and-scan abomination created expressly for that release, although the genuine article did come out on THX-approved LaserDisc, to some fanfare, back in 1998.
The attendant 7.1 remix, offered in DTS-HD MA, is a fairly pointless corruption of the 3.0 mix from 1955--on board, too, in the same lossless format. Like most early 'scope titles, Lady and the Tramp sounds aggressively stereophonic as originally mixed, but this is somehow preferable to the arbitrary imaging and trumped-up effects of the 7.1 alternative. Extras begin with "Disney Second Screen," which wasn't live when I put the supplementals portion of this review to bed but surely is by now. It alleges to provide access to "Walt's Story Meetings." Next, in "Diane Disney Miller: Remembering Dad" (8 mins., HD), Walt's eponymous daughter wistfully reflects on her parents' lovingly-preserved home away from home: an apartment above the firehouse on Main St. in Disneyland, furnished in high Victorian style by no less than the legendary Emile Kuri, who designed Nemo's digs for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Recent video takes stock of the various bric-a-brac around the place, while vintage documentary footage of Disneyland in crystalline HD opens a dreamlike window into the past. "Deleted Scenes" reconstitute three elided sequences using thumbnail sketches and uncredited vocals, the most interesting of which finds Jim Dear talking about his son in gender-chauvinist terms that would, I imagine, have significantly diminished the movie's "timelessness."
Lastly, "Music & More" features the "Never Recorded Song" "I'm Free As The Breeze," with lyrics by Ray Gilbert and music by Eliot Daniel. Written in 1946, this was to be Tramp's anthem until it was decided he shouldn't sing. (Because it would emasculate him?) At this, we move onto "Classic DVD Bonus Features," none of which get an HD bump. "Lady's Pedigree: The Making of Lady and the Tramp" (53 mins.) interviews the scholarly John Canemaker, the ubiquitous Eric Goldberg, and many others, including friends and relatives of people who worked on the production. A concerted effort is made to restore the credit and reputation of long-time story editor Joe Grant, whose personal experiences as a dog owner were the true impetus for the film. The oft-told anecdote about Lady's "birth" scene being based on an actual event in Walt's marriage is all but dismissed as a bit of self-mythologizing in this admirably iconoclastic piece, which touches on Lady and the Tramp's concurrent development with Disneyland and the aesthetic synergy between the two. Aladdin animator Goldberg returns for "Finding Lady: The Art of the Storyboard" (13 mins.), a remedial lesson in storyboarding--its history as well as its utility--that sprinkles in a few 'boards from Saboteur so as not to imply that Disney pioneered the use of them for live-action in adapting his methodology to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It's prelude to the "Original 1943 Storyboard Version of the Film" (12 mins.), a reconstruction emceed by Goldberg and studio vet Bunny Mattinson that if nothing else--and in spite of Si and Am (here "Nip and Tuck") figuring much more prominently in the narrative--proves the wisdom of temporarily shelving the project to concentrate on the war effort.
"The Siamese Cat Song: Finding a Voice for the Cats" (2 mins.) is a rather useless storyboard compilation of Si and Am's siege on Lady's home, overdubbed with audio from an amateurish outtake of their song. The title suggests something more documentary-like, no? I think someone screwed up here. Best in Show's Fred Willard hosts "PuppyPedia: Going to the Dogs" (9 mins.), a kid-targeted, Disney-oriented overview of different dog breeds, and a music video for "Bella Notte" briefly and mistakenly employs Steve Tyrell, who's basically the worst. Three "Excerpts from 'Disneyland' TV Shows"--"The Story of Dogs" (17 mins.), "Promo Trailer for 'The Story of Dogs'" (3 mins.), and "Cavalcade of Songs" (22 mins.)--come with a 4-minute optional introduction from Goldberg that renders these inessential, at least compared to some of the "Disneyland" excerpts on other DVDs, though the "Cavalcade" segment's staged clips of Peggy Lee collaborating with Sonny Burke and Disney artist Joe Rinaldi on songs for the film are mesmerizing in their stiff cordiality.
Three more "Deleted Scenes" (12 mins. in toto) introduced again by Goldberg offer--in rough (ruff?) sketch form, natch--an alternate take on the Dear baby's arrival and a fantasy sequence in which dogs are masters of humans. Finally, the original theatrical trailer plus trailers for the 1972 and 1986 reissues fascinatingly, albeit incidentally, track changes subtle and not-so in advertising principles over a thirty-year period. Closing out the platter (or rather opening it) are startup trailers for the upcoming Cinderella BD, Brave, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 3, and Disney's Blu-ray slate. A retail copy of Lady and the Tramp on DVD rounds out the package. Originally published: March 5, 2012.
1. Even though Lady and the Tramp is purportedly based on a book (by Ward Greene, whose SATURDAY EVENING POST article "Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog" was one of many sources folded into the movie's development), that book was in actuality adapted from the screenplay and rushed to publication before the picture's release to lend legitimacy to the production. return
2. Thank meddlesome Peggy Lee for that: She lobbied hard to have Trusty live because the alternative was, duh, sad. Disney had, by this point, definitely lost his nerve. return
3. Seriously, what is the deal with the filmmakers putting so much energy into their entrance, only to never show them again? return