June 22nd, 1955 – it’s the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, the threat of nuclear warfare, the fight against communism, and Walt Disney releases this nostalgic vision of what American could or should be. Walt based the setting for Lady and the Tramp on the small town of Marceline, Missouri, where he grew up on a farm. There are hints of modernity like the home telephone and the motor cars, but the world presented in this film is still of a past era. Up until then, Disney movies had been based on well-known fairytales and classic children stories. They were the small cottages in the forest and prince charmings. They were boys made of wood, and lands where children never grow up. Comparatively, Lady and the Tramp is a realistic portrayal of a New England family, but still captures that magical escapism Disney is all about.
It took a surprisingly long time for Lady and the Tramp to finally come together. Original notes for the project date back to 1939. Beloved Disney Pictures animator, Joe Grant, had been inspired by his cocker spaniel when he developed the character of Lady. However, Walt hated the storyboard and put the project on the back burner. Years later, he discovered a children’s book about a cynical dog. He realized one of the problems with original storyboard was that Lady was too sweet and charming to be interesting. There was no real conflict there. That’s when he asked children’s author Ward Greene to write a book based on this idea. Published in 1953, Lady and the Tramp was the primary source material for the film.
Many of my favourite elements of this film were lost to me as a kid. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens when I bought the Blu-Ray edition and realized how good it really was. A quick lesson in film history: in the 1950s, people thought that television was going to kill the film industry. From this fear, came the development of cinemascope! In other words, movies started to be shot in widescreen in an attempt to make going to the movies novel again. Lady and the Tramp was the first animated feature to be developed in cinemascope. Because the frame was so much larger in widescreen, the backgrounds had to be interesting all across the board. As a result, absolutely beautiful hand painted backgrounds were created.
The attention to detail in the patterns and texture for the carpet and wallpaper is incredible refined. They successfully capture the elegance of the Victorian era. And the darker scenes conjure up just the right amount of eeriness and intensity that helps give the story more dimensions.
Because it’s a story about dogs, told in the perspective of dogs, the entire film is set at a low angle. Many of the shots consist of the lower half of landscapes. We rarely see humans’ faces; instead, we see their feet. There’s a scene when Lady’s owners are hosting a baby shower. Lady is feeling neglected and unwanted as she tries to push her way through a crowd of skirts and suits. The frame isolates Lady and visually depicts her loneliness.
The other reason I love this film is how accurate they portray dogs. The animation of their movements and facial expressions is on point. It wasn’t the first time animators studied animals in order to capture their behavior accurately, but it’s certainly one of the best examples of the practice. In a documentary about the making of the film, animation historian John Canemaker reminisces about the first time we see Tramp waking up by the train tracks and stretches; “his stretch is so extreme you feel the tension and the bones popping.”
After having raised two puppies, I can tell you that the first ten minutes of the movie when Lady is a little puppy is highly relatable. Every time I watch it, I get overwhelmed with the memory of baby Copper refusing to stay in his little bed and crying at the foot of the stairs wanting to be with his new family.
Lady and the Tramp is a charming romance that eloquently portrays a simpler time in American history, a golden era that Walt himself believed we could still attain with a little magic and imagination. Part of that magic is the animation and cinematography of this movie. The detail down to the texture of the wrapping paper, or the lace on the nursery bassinet is a work of art that makes this movie stand out amongst the rest of them. Escapism is about seeking relief from unpleasant realities through entertainment; it’s more often related to fantasy stories, but Lady and the Tramp, while the main characters are dogs, the story is not a fantasy. This is what makes it so effective. It takes one of the most comforting and familiar realities and depicted in in this picturesque world: the insurmountable love between a human and their dog. The opening credits features this quote by Josh Billings: “In the whole history of the world there is but one thing money cannot buy… to wit – the wag of a dog’s tail.” I hadn’t even noticed this quote until I was much older and I love it. At its core, Lady and the Tramp is about all sorts of love and what is a more simple and unconditional type of love than that of dog?