As I’m prone to arbitrary superlatives, let me make a couple here. Lady and the Tramp is Disney’s sweetest, most sincere film yet. It’s a story that stretches willing suspension of disbelief to its furthest reaches – this is a tale about a dog in a rich family falling in love with a loveable street mongrel, taking in moonlit strolls and romantic meatball dinners, all without the slightest trace of irony. Disney have hardly been tongue-in-cheek so far, and all of their fairy tale films have been somewhat po-faced; yet by placing the action in the ‘real’ world, the big eyed dogs that form a relationship and break class barriers bring that magic to our own society. The closest in terms of tone is Bambi, it shares the DNA of cute, anthropomorphised animals and their difficult relationship with humans, but here the humans are much more present and active in the story than the distant hunters in the earlier film. By bringing the action to our doorstep, it could make the sweetness a little harder to swallow, but arguably it makes it warmer, like the loyal affection of a spaniel. This mixture clearly worked, because the studio repeated it with 101 Dalmatians and The Aristocats, which is an even closer repetition of the formula. Whether they match the charm of this film remains to be seen.
Part of the appeal is the colourful cast. Lady is our way into the film, her impossibly large eyes (have you ever seen a dog that is quite that expressive?) showing a constant curiosity that reveals the world as new, exciting and often frightening. She doesn’t develop much of a character beyond this curiosity, but it doesn’t matter because the world she explores is so colourful and interesting. Her collar-and-leash friends Jock and Trusty are enjoyably pompous and there is a nice cameo from a dim beaver, but the star of the show is Tramp. He’s a vagabond of the most caddish order, with reports of him suggesting that he is something of a player. He lives in a barrel by the train tracks and he plays by his own rules, scavenging food from various restaurants in town and always looking for adventure. His coat may not be glossy, and he may not have a license, but his heart is in the right place. Lady is our eyes to the world, but Tramp is our lovable, winning guide to it.
With these two explorers on the move, the audience is treated to Disney’s most beautifully animated film since Bambi. Just as with that film, the animators studied the movements of real animals and used them as a basis for creating the characters, so the dogs move and act like we expect dogs to. The backgrounds are even more impressive, capturing a combination of ragtag back alleys and restrained gentility with equal warmth and detail. He climactic scene where Trusty and Jock chase down the wagon carrying Tramp gives the city a much darker atmosphere, the streets becoming almost Gothic as the mutt heads towards his possible doom. The moonlit stroll has some stunning lighting, too, and is probably the most visually impressive sequence in the film. The whole thing is Disney’s first in widescreen, too, which isn’t necessarily better than the old aspect ratio, but does seem to fit the aesthetic of the film.
Lady and the Tramp is also one of the most emotionally powerful of all of Disney’s films, thanks to one scene in the dog pound. Lady gets caught, presumed to be a stray, and is taken to the most depressing prison ever committed to cinema. It’s a brief interlude before they realise their mistake and Lady is taken home, but it is deeply upsetting. A group of dejected dogs howl a melancholy tune, while their canine companions cry to themselves. It’s an assault on whatever part of your brain controls emotions, as each mutt looks even sadder than the last and you begin to realise their fate. One dog even gets led off, shown only in shadows, on ‘the long walk’ that only goes one way. It’s distressing, but not nearly as sad as the thought that all the dogs she meets there – including the sassy singer Peggy – are all confined to the same fate. It’s a pretty harsh reality for young audiences to face, but lends the film power and negates accusations that the film is all sweetness and light.
However, there is something quite problematic about Lady and the Tramp, and I’m not talking about the suspect Siamese cats that deserve two ticks in the ‘hints of racism’ category, or the dubious class politics that see Tramp integrated into the upper class snobbery of Lady’s world while the poor mongrels in prison are forgotten. No, I’m talking about exactly how far removed from reality the story is. If you think about it for a second, Tramp would most likely have mange, Lady would be inbred and the puppies would probably be drowned or given away. Yes, whilst the film is a heart-warming, lovely film it just doesn’t measure up to reality.
Take the famous scene where Tramp romances Lady by wooing her with a meal of spaghetti and meatballs, culminating in an accidental kiss after they eat the same bit of spaghetti. Firstly, there is no way that restaurant owners would like having flea-ridden dogs hanging around their kitchens; they are more likely to attack the dogs with a spade. Even if they did tolerate the customer-scaring canines, why on earth would they give them a full plate of spaghetti and meatballs? That’s a criminal waste of food, especially when you consider what dogs are prepared to eat. But let us just assume, for now, that this is a particularly benign chef with no good business sense, the actual process is still unbelievable. I’m a 23 year old human and I can’t eat spaghetti without getting sauce all over my face, imagine what it must be like for dogs – who are incredibly messy eaters. Tomato sauce would be all over their snouts, most of it wouldn’t stay on the plate… it would be the least romantic thing in the world. Then, you get to the bit where they kiss each other over a shared strand of spaghetti. This is gross. You have two dogs already slavering and coated in sauce who somehow, miraculously, both hold on to the same piece of spaghetti without it breaking off. Then they kiss each other, their mouths still presumably full of semi-chewed pasta. Romantic? No, utterly disgusting.
Of course, I’m entirely facetious here. Obviously it isn’t realistic at all, it’s a film about talking dogs who fall in love as if monogamy exists in the canine world, and you are never asked to see it as anything but fantasy. Yet this serves to show exactly what makes Disney so special when they are at their best; they take you on a journey that doesn’t bear much resemblance to reality, full of drama and romance, and the audience cannot help but buy into it. Lady and the Tramp is a beautiful form of escape that leaves reality behind and puts in its place magic, creating moments of real joy and wonder.