Lady and the Tramp was Disney’s first romance film. I know that Disney had dabbled in love before, but for films like Snow White, Bambi, Cinderella, and to a lesser extent, Peter Pan, romance was something that happened alongside the main action of the story. Romance was not what was propelling these stories’ plots and it was not the main focus of each of the films. Lady and the Tramp is a romance in the tradition of classic cinema and Jane Austen. It just happens to be a love story told through dogs.
It was also the studio’s first original story since Dumbo. Those who watched the Platinum Edition documentary know that it was Joe Grant who first planted the seeds of the idea in Walt for a story following a pretty Springer spaniel named Lady, but they could never get the right story off the ground. Since Grant left the studio in 1949, it was Ward Greene who created the story of Lady and the Tramp using Grant’s designs for Lady as the base. Mr. Disney insisted that Greene publish the novel for Lady and the Tramp before the film’s release so that audiences would be familiar with the characters (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048280/trivia).
This was also the first film to be distributed in house by Buena Vista, not RKO. I always considered the moment when Disney no longer needed RKO was the moment that the company realized that it was becoming an empire. It only took fifteen animated features to do it. On the monetary side of things, this was the most successful animated feature Disney had since Snow White. This was also the first Disney film featuring a singing super star.
You know I’m talking about Peggy Lee. And feature her they did. Not only did she have a hand in writing more than a few of the film’s songs, she also voiced a few of the characters: Darling, of course, but surprisingly Si and Am as well. But the character that had Peggy Lee written all over her from top to bottom was the pound bound bombshell, Peg. I used to not like that scene as a kid, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come to appreciate the kind of number “He’s a Tramp” was.
In fact, I appreciate a lot of things about Lady and the Tramp more now that I am older. It was a mature plot to say the least. It’s happened a couple of times in Disney films where a young hero and young heroine are shown having a romantic evening together and then we cut to the next morning with the two of them sleeping beside each other. Then when the ending rolls around – which we know happens in the not-so-distant future of the story – there are babies present with the proud parents. Similar circumstances occurred in Bambi, but unlike that film, Lady’s night with Tramp actually drives the story in the latter half of the film. Jock and Trusty both came to Lady with the proposition of marriage, the significance of which I admit is something that completely flew over my head as a kid. It’s amazing what Disney was able to get away with in a story featuring a cast of animals; I highly doubt they could accomplish this in a story entirely about humans.
But whether I am young child or a young adult, I still have to say that this was one of the most romantic films Disney has ever done. Animated by Frank Thomas, their date at Tony’s is so iconic and famous that all you need to do is set a plate of spaghetti in front of two lovers and you’re back to Lady and the Tramp. I’ve seen references to this scene on The Fabulous Beekman Boys, Glee, and the Josie and the Pussycats movie. I don’t know if it’s the most famous scene to come out of Disney, but I do know that it’s up there.
While my mother has always discouraged me from consuming any quantity of Italian food in the presence of a male friend, this film has made a simple plate of spaghetti with meatballs more sexy and romantic than a whole platter of oysters (sorry, Walrus). I don’t know what it is about this scene that makes it the signature scene of the film. It could be the wonderful song “Bella Notte,” the moment their noses touch, the way Tramp nudges the last meatball over to Lady with his nose, or their walk through the park where they immortalize the occasion with paw prints in wet cement. But this touching scene between two dogs (of different breeds no less) has become the pinnacle of the perfect date night.
But the film would not have been what it was if it had not been for the animation. Considering that the most famous dog Disney had animated up until this point was Pluto makes this film a giant leap forward for the studio. They did not settle for cartoon dogs in this film. These were real dogs. When Jock pushes debris with back legs roughly, I immediately thought of my pug, Max, who does the exact same thing. When Tramp is in that big dogfight defending Lady, he immediately goes for the neck, which is something dogs do to other dogs and their chew toys.
But if I had to give an award to a character that reaches into your heart and never lets go, it’s Trusty. I loved that his voice was a true Southern gentleman and I loved his design. Most of all, though, I loved his heart. When he and Jock run off to save Tramp, it’s Trusty who takes charge even though his nose isn’t quite what it used to be. And once again, a Disney film drove me to tears. I know that Trusty lives, but just hearing him be so determined to find Tramp and even risking his life to save him… yeah, I get misty just thinking about it.
This brings us to an interesting story development. Should Trusty have died? Honestly, I think they made the right call in letting him live. We wouldn’t have had that great final scene with Lady and Tramp’s puppies wagging their tails as they listen to their Uncle Trusty. If a grown woman can cry at just the thought of Rusty being hurt, then it would have been downright traumatic if he had died. This film is already traumatic enough.