Lady and the Tramp is a sharp turn from classic Disney film making, while staying faithful to the emotional and fantastical storytelling tradition. The film marks the first time an original story was told, as well as the biggest shift in animation technology since the multi-plane camera used in Snow White.
Walt Disney spent much of his childhood in Marceline, Missouri. He moved there from Chicago as a young boy and it was in Marceline that he made his first friends, began animating and fell in love with small town farm life. Marceline was a railway town, relatively prosperous, had a local cinema and shops along a downtown corridor. It was a piece of heaven in the middle of no where, connected only by dirt roads and the railway, and although never explicitly stated, many believe Marceline to be the inspiration for the town in which Lady and the Tramp was set.
In his animated version of Marceline, Walt also imbued the idyllic values of a town seen entirely through a child’s eyes: The adults always speak kindly to each other, pets have their own secret world and everything out of bounds is filled with a gravitating mystery, begging to be explored. What better setting for a story about two dogs who test their limits and fall in love?
The story development was, to say the least, complicated. In 1937, after Snow White‘s smashing success and while Walt was ramping up production on his next efforts, he was approached by Joe Grant, one of his writers and artists. Joe had a springer spaniel named Lady, who was a bit of a character. He’d put together some sketches and Walt, with his love of animals, encouraged Joe to develop a story about Lady. But the story stagnated. It never left the house and the central characters were an adorably sweet dog and a villainous rat. There was no fantasy. There was no energy. There was no Tramp. The project was shelved.
But in 1940, Walt read a story in Cosmopolitan — then a literary magazine — by Ward Greene about a cynical dog. Everything clicked together. Lady needed to fall in love with a cynical and wayward dog. A tramp. The war threw everything off schedule. But in the early 1950s when the project was revived, Ward Greene’s story was front and centre. They had their source material. But Walt’s obsession with basing his films on pre-existing stories led him to authorize a novelization of Lady and the Tramp to hit book stores a full two years earlier than the film’s release.
But though the story was Joe’s and Ward’s, the setting and tone are entirely Walt’s, and if Lady and the Tramp were to be wandering around a middle American town, he knew exactly how that town was going to look and feel.
“Tooting train whistles made Walt happier than collecting an armful of Oscars,” Ward Kimball, one of the studios longtime animators, said of his boss. There are trains encircling each of Walt Disney’s parks around the world, and even a miniature choo-choo at his house. So when Tramp is introduced, he is of course in middle of a rail yard in Walt’s hometown.
Most interesting from a modern perspective is how the film deals with sexuality. Pregnancy, childbirth, sex and love are strong themes through the film and yet must be handled with the grace appropriate of a children’s movie. Darling is only discovered be pregnant when she’s too “delicate” to take Lady for walks anymore, and the neighbourhood dogs explain that she must be expecting a baby. Later, John Dear darts into a blizzard in the middle of the night because she’s craving watermelon and chop sui (perhaps a joke only adults would understand), then a baby is introduced into the house. Then there’s the central characters themselves. They spend a night on the town, fall asleep together on a lookout and a few months later puppies are born. The subtext is always there, but subtle enough that for children it’s perfectly acceptable.
The film was panned by reviewers. The New York Times called it “below par” and “is not the best [Walt] has done.” The reviewer panned the “boy-meets-girl” storytelling and thought the Siamese cats were the winners of the show, though accused artistry of being drab and lacklustre, the dogs’ human characteristics more distracting than adorable. It was not kind, reserving its only positive words for the performances of well-known musical acts who lent their voice talents to the film.
Audiences, politely, disagreed. On a $4-million production budget, the film raked in $36-million in 1955. Re-released in 1962, 1971, 1980 and 1986 pushed the overall earnings to nearly $100-million.
From a technical perspective, this is the first time a Walt Disney animated feature was actually produced in widescreen format, called Cinemascope at the time. In fact, the decision to go widescreen was made late in the production process and many of the backgrounds had to have the sides expanded with fresh art accommodate the new frame dimensions. The studio even went a little bit overboard: Modern widescreen ratio is about 9:4, or 0.44:1, but Lady and the Tramp was presented in the extraordinarily wide 2.55:1, and remains to date the widest animation ever produced by Disney. But the new format was not supported by all cinemas and a traditional 4:3 release was also distributed for those locations. The original 2.55:1 is included on the latest Blu-ray release.
Disney, by this point in the game, had a strong stable of regular voice actors. The voice of Lady was Disney regular Barbara Luddy, who’s credits include Kanga (Winnie the Pooh), Mother Church Mouse (Robin Hood) and Merryweather (Sleeping Beauty). Aunt Sarah, who brings the dreaded Siamese Cats into the house, was voiced by Verna Felton who previously brought the Queen of Hearts to life in Alice in Wonderland, and perhaps most famously the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella.
The film has continued to do well over time, proving that even New York Times film reviewers can misjudge and a movie-going public can make up their own mind. The American Film Institute ranked Lady and the Tramp as the 95th greatest love story of all time, one of only two animated films to make the list (Disney was also responsible for the other: Beauty and the Beast at number 34). It remains one of the most outstanding windows into Walt’s mind, showcasing how his vision of idyllic middle America, with white-picket-fence values, fit into his entire film making process.