Monday, September 3, 2012

Putting On the Dog: Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp”

Disney’s Fifteenth Animated Feature — 1955
The opening theme music to Lady and the Tramp is a full-blooded love song, “Bella Notte.” This love story happens to star dogs in all their simple and joyous honesty. As Josh Billings wrote (quoted at the top of the film), “In the whole history of the world there is but one thing that money can not buy … to wit—the wag of a dog’s tail.” To wit and to woo, as upper crusty cocker spaniel Lady is memorably wooed by the Tramp, a mongrel literally from the wrong side of the tracks. We meet him as he wakes up in a refuse heap at a train yard. The story is set in an earlier, quainter era. The opening moments of Lady and the Tramp show a horse-drawn sleigh similar to the “Once Upon A Wintertime” sequence in 1948’s Melody Time.

That's Jock, the Tramp, Lady,
and Trusty.
I must confess to having a bit of a love/hate relationship with this film. First the love: legendary singer Peggy Lee plays a big role here, providing the voice of Lady’s owner—known as “Darling”—as well as the voices of Siamese cats Si and Am and the street-smart fluffy dog, Peg. Barbara Luddy is the voice of golden cocker spaniel Lady and delivers a memorable performance (Luddy went on to voice the good fairy Merryweather in Sleeping Beauty). Larry Roberts’ single acting credit is as the voice of the Tramp and does a fine job. You may recognize the voice of Alan Reed as Boris the Russian wolfhound; he went on to create the voice of Fred Flintstone. And Warner Brothers voice legend Mel Blanc provides the voice of a Mexican Chihuahua, presupposing his iconic Speedy Gonzales. Disney go-to gal Verna Felton (Fairy Godmother in Cinderella; the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, and soon to be good fairy Flora in Sleeping Beauty) provides the voice of Aunt Sarah. So there’s a lot to love here.

Aunt Sarah's face is only seen
for a few seconds.
The story begins on Christmas morning. Darling thinks she’s getting a new hat but the box contains an adorable puppy, whom she immediately names Lady. “Princess” might have been a better name, as Lady refuses to sleep in the kitchen. Darling’s husband, “Jim Dear,” tries to be firm with the pup, but Lady is persistent and winds up in bed with the young couple, “just for tonight.” Flash forward to grown-up Lady still asleep in their bed. Parents will appreciate the image of these “parents” determined to be firm but really just a couple of pushovers. And this is also where we notice that Lady’s “parents” are known by the only names she has ever heard: “Darling” and “Jim Dear.” It’s a funny motif and establishes that this story will be told from the point of view and experiences of the dogs. Viewers only get brief glimpses of the humans, such as a quick peek at Aunt Sarah’s face; then we only see her from a “dog’s eye view,” generally her feet and skirt.

The story begins in earnest with grown-up Lady enjoying a very special day as she has just been given, “the greatest honor man can bestow; a badge of faith and respectability; a (dog) license.” Her neighborhood pals Jock, a Scottish terrier with a Scots accent, and Trusty, a bloodhound with a broad southern drawl, are thrilled for her. Lady doesn’t realize that her life’s about to change because Darling and Jim Dear are expecting a baby. And as all dogs know, this will mean a significant demotion for Lady. Jock warns her, “Babies are very expensive. You won’t be allowed to play with it.” All this is confirmed by the Tramp, who saunters into Lady’s yard, curious to see how the “leash and collar set” is doing. He’s immediately smitten with Lady, but affirms that she’ll be pushed aside when the baby is born. Lady refuses to believe it.

Si and Am, the Siamese cats.
The Tramp’s predictions come true when after the birth of Darling’s baby, Lady is no longer the spoiled child of the family (not by a long shot). Peggy Lee/Darling sings a charming lullaby, “La, La, Loo” that’s the sweetest mother/child moment in Disney since the “Baby Mine” number in Dumbo. But when Darling and Jim Dear decide to take a short trip leaving the baby and Lady in Aunt Sarah’s care, Lady is further pushed to the margins of the family. Aunt Sarah brings her two Siamese cats—Si and Am—along, and this is where my relationship with this film begins to strain. Peggy Lee voices the cats, so it’s hard to dislike them, but you’re immediately confronted with the hard-to-ignore racist stereotype in the characters. Si and Am’s kitty fangs are depicted as buckteeth and they speak in Pidgin English: “Plenty milk for you and also some for me.” Hoo-boy. Maybe it’s not as offensive a portrayal of an Asian character as Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but it’s pretty close. This is the type of casual, automatic, unquestioned racism that speaks volumes about our culture in 1955. And Disney and his team were hardly ahead of the social curve.

Care for a few other examples of stereotypes in Lady and the Tramp? How about an Irish policeman with a red drinker’s nose? (Speaking for my Irish immigrant parents, thanks a lot, Walt!) An effeminate intellectual? A stern, humorless old maid? A shaddup-a-you-face Italian (that’s an actual piece of dialogue, by the way)? A soulful, dour, philosophical Russian (wolfhound, that is)? A skin-flint Scottie dog? How old do you have to be to understand that these characterizations are patronizing at best and racist at worst? With a world of choice in children’s media, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t share something with your kids if it makes you uncomfortable. Do the depictions in Lady and the Tramp make it a no-go? Only you can decide. Frankly, I think this film could be a great topic for a teen’s essay on stereotypes. It’s worthy of discussion—with a child who’s old enough to understand the conversation. Personally, my four-year-old is way too young for this children’s film. FYI: you can see this film for free on YouTube before you consider a purchase of the dvd.

2005's Kronk's New Groove parodies
the spaghetti dinner scene. 
But back to the narrative at hand: Aunt Sarah grows increasingly frustrated with Lady and actually purchases a muzzle for her, which is the straw that breaks the spaniel’s back. Lady runs away and finds the Tramp. Then, (virtually) all is forgiven in one of the most iconic scenes in ANY Disney feature: Lady and the Tramp have their spaghetti dinner, serenaded by the staff of Tony’s Restaurant, who are obviously dog lovers of the highest order. The dogs are utterly adorable (you’ve already been warned about the Italian stereotypes) and the love scene is a legitimate cultural touchstone, evidenced by the countless parodies and homages it has inspired. You don’t have to look for them; just stand still and they’ll come to you. My daughter and I were watching the sequel to The Emperor’s New Groove, called Kronk’s New Groove and they parodied the moment very effectively.

The Tramp and Lady on their "date."
Lady and the Tramp take a romantic walk through a park filled with animal and human couples. They wake up the next morning (suggestively?) side by side. They’re clearly in love but their lives don’t mesh. The Tramp loves the adventure of the open road while Lady wants to go home to her family and help protect the new baby. But a series of mishaps sees Lady taken to the dog pound where she finds out a few things about the Tramp. Peggy Lee gets another character turn as Peg, a streetwise dog who sings about her own history with the Tramp in the jazzy, “He’s a Tramp.” Thanks to Lady’s dog license, she is quickly returned home.

The happy family; notice
the Tramp's dog license.
Relegated to a doghouse, Lady’s pals Jock and Trusty both propose marriage to her, since her “reputation” has been compromised by staying out all night with the Tramp (in a scene that kids can’t possibly comprehend). The Tramp reappears and tries to make up with Lady, but she’s too proud to take him back. But when a rat sneaks into the baby’s room, Lady and the Tramp work together to save the child; but their efforts are misunderstood by the humans. The Tramp is sent off to the dog pound with orders that he be destroyed. Jock and Trusty get the Tramp released and we flash forward to another Christmas day; this one finds Lady and the Tramp happily ensconced in the home of Darling and Jim Dear with their own brood of happy puppies. The Tramp even sports a dog license, having given up his 1950s-style beatnik life for the conventional pleasures of hearth and home.

The circle is completed and reflected in the happiness of the holiday season as the importance of family, love, and friendship is celebrated. I don’t mean to sound snarky, but if it weren’t for all the stereotypes, this would be a great little film. As it stands, it’s in turns wonderful and cringe-inducing, like a lot of media created in 1955. It’s a time capsule of its era; but nonetheless a story that carries the most oft-repeated Disney theme: that every dog has his day. Nah, I’m only kidding. If you’ve been following this series, you know that the theme that appears in most Disney films is the message that true love conquers all. And as we always say in Ireland, faith and begorrah, t’is a fine message, that. ☺ Sounds pretty ridiculous when you put it that way, don’t you think?


  1. My 2-year old is obsessed with Lady and the Tramp right now. She loves dogs and all things dog-related. You did a great job of summarizing the story and I cringe right around the same time too (with the cats).

    1. Except for those moments, it's a cute story. And the dogs are adorable. There's a lot to love there.

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