Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

By Thunder Fist

Lady and the Tramp is one of Disney’s finest films. I never owned it as a child and so I didn’t watch it very often, but it always made a deep impression on me whenever I did. Partly, I think, it was because the voices are so well-cast. Disney movies should win an honorary award for superb vocal casting throughout its run of films. We may not be able to recall these voices off the tops of our heads, yet who can really forget the voice of the Fairy Meriwether or the voice of Lady, the voice of the Mad Hatter or the Sheriff of Nottingham? The moment we hear these characters speak it is like meeting old friends again. Disney films are rich in distinguished voices that you recognize time and again as you listen to them bring various characters to life.

Lady and the Tramp glows with this vocal acting. From Lady herself to the little Scotch terrier, Jock, to Jim Dear and the marvelous assemblage of strays at the pound, including the philosophical Boris, this film is full of subtle Disney magic. There are no spells, no evil witches or beautiful princesses, but there is that genius for comic detail, particularly in the secondary characters, that no other film studio but Disney can quite create. This story in particular is rich in its cast of minor characters, some of them onscreen for only a minute or two—like the Gogol-quoting Boris—but partaking in a sparkling ensemble that alone makes the film a favorite.

But I must speak of Lady, as this is a princess-themed review. Lady is an interesting protagonist. She is safe within the upper crust and really has no need except for love. This is her quest: to keep the hearts of her masters, Jim Dear and Darling. When a new baby comes along, her place in the family seems to be threatened, but not for long: Lady becomes quite attached to the baby and is continually included in the family circle. She is indeed a princess, but her journey is one to protect the palace rather than be taken from it. The Tramp offers her a view of a world “without fences” at one point in the film, and she summarily rejects it in favor of family duty. The outside world does not truly appeal to her; she wants to get back home to protect the baby and her kingdom.

Lady and the Tramp is foremost about protecting the people one loves. The point of the film is not even Tramp and Lady’s romance: the film is powered by friendship, loyalty, and duty, ugly as the word ‘duty’ has become in our world, where it has somehow become caught in opposition with our concept of self-fulfillment. The movie might easily have gone like this: Lady meets Tramp, Tramp educates her about the world and opens her eyes to the great “outside” beyond the family gates, and in a move of self-assertion Lady severs herself from the past, from all duty, and runs off with Tramp into the wild. But the story barely brings us to the point of this possibility before Lady completely rejects it.

It would be easy to see Lady as sheltered and protected—because she is. The point, however, isn’t her experience of the world but her values, which drive her actions in it. Lady goes through some tough experiences when she is muzzled by an unsympathetic baby-sitter and ends up running away, only to be chased by wild strays and finally captured and put in the pound for a while. Through it all she remains somewhat naïve and frightened, and the dogs around her are compelled to care for her because, as Boris points out, she is “fragile and delicate.” I was surprised, on seeing the film again, that Lady undergoes no supreme character transformation into a stronger and tougher spaniel. But the emphasis is not on Lady acquiring a new and improved personality, but on using the personality she has. It’s rather touching to see that even a character without a big personality can still be brave. I feel like our focus on strong-willed characters for both men and women have led us to sneer at those who, yes, in some ways are more fragile when they are exposed to the world, but who still know where their hearts ought to be.

And what of the Tramp? Opposites are definitely attracted here. The scruffy Tramp at first seems to be a blend of Bad Boy and Idealist. He is completely free of constraint, comfortably disillusioned with relationships and society, and lives where and how he chooses. By the end of the film, however, he is securely ensconced in Lady’s Park Avenue world, a world he claims to despise. Has Tramp been domiciled? Not really. The theme of the film is loyalty and friendship, not personal freedom; the characters are matured through commitment. Tramp might have continued living any life he chose, but he did choose Lady and accepts his place with her in her home. I would say that Tramp chose Lady precisely because she was of this world: he is very proud to be a licensed pet in the end, and even more proud of his own family within Jim Dear and Darling’s family.

The catalyst for action in Lady is the baby. Infancy is a very strong point in this film: Lady comes to her masters as a puppy, and there is some evidence that Tramp was once owned as a puppy and then cast out when his masters had a baby of their own. There is frequent reference to fragility, delicacy, and helplessness, and while Tramp is partly drawn to Lady because of her need for protection, so Lady is drawn to her masters’ baby. Rather than a hierarchy of strength and weakness, however, we find that this need for protection is circular, and that everyone is helpless at some point: in the end, it is the Tramp himself who needs saving and protection as he is dragged off to the pound after valiantly rescuing the baby from the invasive rat.

Lady’s friends, the small terrier Jock and the big old hound dog Trusty, are two of the finest characters in the film, and it is they who bring the film’s point home. They are friends of Lady’s and are genuinely chivalrous and kind. They at first dislike Tramp because he is a little arrogant and because Lady has some reason to be angry with him, but the moment they hear of his desperate fight with the rat and his subsequent “arrest” (so to speak) by animal control, they mobilize for action.

This is the heart of the story: a high value for justice and loyalty that would urge two old dogs to rush out and save another whom they hardly know. It is a simple but haunting climax, with the dogs chasing the impoundment-carriage through the slush of the streets at night, old Trusty howling and desperately trying to use his aged sense of smell. Eventually they catch up with the carriage and manage to stall it, though in the commotion it tips over against a lamp-post. Lady, following in a car with Jim Dear, rushes out to set the Tramp free, but the last image of the scene is the most poignant: Trusty has been partly crushed by the carriage wheel and is lying in the street while Jock stands faithfully with him, grieving over his friend.

Lady and the Tramp makes its deepest points through showing and not telling. None of the characters talk about their ideals except the Tramp, and those play no vital part in the film’s most revealing moments. What matters most isn’t what is said but what is done, the deep-seated beliefs that spur real action and overpowering feelings. Lady and the Tramp is about a common nobility within a set of very different characters. Lady’s “princess” identity is really a matter of her values: at heart she simply wants her home and family to be protected and for right to be done. To me, those are regal desires.

Lady and the Tramp has a great deal of charm to offer aside from these more affecting things. Though it is essentially not a romance, it is still very romantic. Indeed, I find films to be more romantic when they aren’t all about love and lovers. It makes the moments that are about love more special, as in the wonderful Bella Notte scene, which is justly famous. Most Disney romances are sustained by their brilliant comedy, particularly among the secondary characters. Lady and the Tramp is enriched not only by its comedy but by the strength of its minor characters, and how they face their odds together. In this Lady joins them not by being the perfect heroine but by being the caring, valiant-hearted lady she is.

To purchase this film, check out
Lady and the Tramp (50th Anniversary Edition)Kids & Family Adventure Movies)

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