Disney Film History: Lady and the Tramp

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A movie about being replaced, feeling alone, and about knowing your place in the pecking order. No, I’m not talking about Toy Story here. I’m talking about a film that first got it’s legs in the late 1930s with Joe Grant, n writer at the Disney Studios, drawing caricatures of his dog Lady. He presented the drawings to Walt Disney but ultimately there were no good stories to match the wonderful drawing that Joe Grant provided. It wasn’t until 1943 when Walt read a short story in the Cosmopolitan by Ward Greene entitled “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog”. Disney bought the rights to the story and over the next decade the story was worked on and shelved repeatedly with use of Grant’s original drawing of his dog, despite Grant having left the studio. By 1953, a real screenplay was written and then adapted by Ward Greene as a novel. (Somewhat of a preview for the film to come.) Now in production was this dog movie that would become of one of Disney’s greatest love stories, Lady and the Tramp.

The animation to Lady and the Tramp came about the same way Dumbo and Bambi did, by studying the animal stars of the movie, in this instance, dogs! Many dogs were brought into the studio and drawn as animators needed to know the movements and reactions dogs would have. Claude Coats, who replaced Mary Blair as the set designer on the film shot several photos and took film from a low perspective to get the feel of how a dog saw the world. That gave animators a better feel for what they should be drawing.

Walt also decided that Lady and the Tramp would be Disney’s first film in widescreen Cinemascope. this brought new challenges to the animation team. Jump cuts were less frequent because constant motion of the camera would seem annoying. Characters who would previously be seen as “offscreen” had to be drawn in which gave less presentation for close ups. Backgrounds became more important as characters had to move across them instead of the background moving while the character stayed in one place on screen. The other big challenge to go along with Cinemascope is that not all theaters were equipped to show widescreen film. Not to lose out on movie goers not being able to see his film, Walt demanded his team of artists cut the film so that there would be two versions, one in widescreen and one in standard ratio. This meant that some characters were cut out and made “offscreen” again. Some scenes even had to be redrawn to fit the different ratios.

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Two scenes tend to be the most remembered from the film. The first being where Darling opens a hat box to see her new puppy for the first time. The scene was directly pulled from a true life story in which Walt gave his wife Lillian a new Chow puppy inside of a hat box.

The other scene being the infamous spaghetti scene. In the storyboarding stage, Walt was ready to cut the scene from the film but animator Frank Thomas saw something in the scene and decided to animate the whole thing himself. After showing Walt it was left in the film and was even stretched longer by adding in-between drawings to the scene.

Barbara Luddy would make her voice talent debut as Lady, going on to do voice work for four more Disney films. Larry Roberts, a well known comedian and voice actor on radio, voiced Tramp. Most improtantly however was Bill Thompson whose versital voice gave him 5 roles in the film (bringing him an eventual star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his body of work.) and Peggy Lee who voiced Si and Am, Darling, and Peg, a dog modeled after herself. Peggy Lee was also a famous singer at the time and lent her musical abilitlies to the film singing 4 of the films songs and composing the score along with Oliver Wallace and the Disney Studios Chorus. Peggy Lee would later take Disney to court as she felt she was owed money after owning partial rights to the transcription of the music. With Lady and the Tramp coming out on VHS, Disney did no feel that they owed her money for the home video sales but the dispute was later settled out of court with Peggy Lee being rewarded $2.3 million.

Peggy Lee and Oliver Wallace working on the music to Lady and the Tramp.

Peggy Lee and Oliver Wallace working on the music to Lady and the Tramp.

The film was released on June 22nd, 1955 and had the highest grossing box office for a Disney animated feature since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It would go on to be a big hit in future theater releases and home video releases as well. It holds spots on several AFI lists and TIME magazines “Top 25 animated movies of all time” list. Despite it’s monetary accomplishments, critics initially criticized the film saying that the animation wasn’t at the level a normal Disney film was animated. This could be speculated as animators feeling uneasy with the widescreen adaptation of their style. Currently the film is considered a classic and one of Walt’s best films.

Recent criticism has come of the film in regards to the two cats that terrorize Lady named Si and Am. (Siam?) The two cats are horribly stereotyped as Asian from the way they talk to their physical features. Remembering the time period the film was originally derived from (much of the 1940s) it isn’t hard to recognize that Disney was using caricatures to show the “evil” Japanese of World War II. Out of context these characters might seem racist, but we have to see the film as a period piece with the United States at war with Japan during the 1940s. It made sense for the time period and is unfortunately too important to the story of the film to just cut out altogether in future releases.

Lady and the Tramp isn’t an overly popular film in terms of merchandising or over-saturation. (A straight to video sequel was made in 2001, but we don’t talk about that.) That being said, it’s lack of overexposure may be the reason it continues to stay classic and appreciated for it’s actual animation and story and not for it’s cute stuffed animals. It’s a wonderful film and I honestly can’t tell you of a more famous animated film scene than the spaghetti sequence. I hadn’t seen Lady and the Tramp since I was a small child yet I remembered most of it and it was just as amazing as it was when I was a child.

Josh Taylor
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Previous Film: Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier
Next Film: The African Lion

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Posted on July 16, 2014, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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