Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

By Publius

Disney occupies that special place in my heart reserved for puppies, small children, and my mother's Thanksgiving dinner. Growing up, I loved every Disney film we owned, and watched many on multiple occasions. I suppose my opinion of this particular film might have been different if I had owned it.

All that to say, I seriously dislike this film. Hate is too strong a word to use for an animated film about dogs, but even that was a close call. The songs are good, if not particularly memorable ("Bella Notte" being the obvious exception). The voice talent is, as Thunder Fist points out, stellar.  And the spaghetti scene is positively iconic. Rather, it's the story I find atrocious.

I hadn't given "Lady and the Tramp" much thought until I saw Whit Stillman's "The Last Days of Disco" (which I've previously reviewed). That film treats the lighthearted Disney flick as a prism into the love triangle between the three leading characters, and by the same token as the source of everything wrong with the world today.  The leading lady, Alice, found "Lady and the Tramp" depressing.  So did Josh, the leading man.  So do I.

Their problem with "Lady and the Tramp" is simple. Lady is a vapid and totally passive "princess" figure, who relies entirely on her big-eyed innocence and good looks.  Meanwhile, the Tramp is a self-confessed chicken thief and scoundrel who seems to have won the heart of every female at the pound.  How can any self-respecting... canine of a female persuasion...  listen to a song like "He's a Tramp" and not think, "Hmm, perhaps he ain't nothing but a hound dog after all"?

In "The Last Days of Disco," it's only the scoundrel Des who sticks up for the film, and it's pretty clear why. He makes the case that the ending redeems the film:
"But isn’t it clear that the moral of the story is that Tramp changed, that he gave up his chicken-thieving ways and becomes a part of this rather idyllic family with Lady in the end?"
This is his defense of the film, and simultaneously a plea for Alice's affection. He admits that he's been an amoral wretch so far, but suggest that by Alice's influence he might learn to be good.

But if this is true to the film, it can hardly be called a defense, for it is an awful life-lesson. Josh notes: "The film programs young girls to be attracted to the bad element." This is indeed a fatal flaw of almost every romantic comedy, and is probably one of the worst aspects of our cinema-trained cultural sensibilities.  We have enshrined the myth of the romantic scoundrel. Our culture teaches us to identify love with The Bad Boy, the misunderstood scoundrel with a heart of gold, whose cynicism and bitterness are mere defense mechanisms of a shy and vulnerable soul. Han Solo, eat your heart out.

The problem with this is that it can easily lead girls and woman into abusive relationships, and can push to keep them there for the sake of their poor abuser's heart. It's almost as bad as the "angel of the house" ethos that Virginia Woolf eviscerated in the Victorian era.

Josh, the hero of "Last Days of Disco," prefers to identify himself with the Scottish Terrier, Jock, who is described as "the only sympathetic character" and one who genuinely cares about Lady.  He is the noble soul, the concerned neighbor, the loyal friend.  Yet what happens to him in the film?  The Tramp gets the girl, and Scotty dog is shunted to the side with his crippled bloodhound friend Trusty.

I found myself laughing through Thunder Fist's review yesterday, not because what he wrote was absurd, but simple because we interpreted the film so diametrically. "Lady and the Tramp" is a cute film with good visuals and decent entertainment value, but as a story and as a moral exercise it falls far short.


  1. Preach it, brother! And let me add that as a child I found large sections of the plot--particularly when Lady gets neglected and then harassed by those Siamese cats--to be depressing, and that I found the dog catchers and certain other characters and scenes to be frightening. To say nothing of how emotionally crippling it was to see Trusty get run over. This is most emphatically not a kid-friendly movie.

  2. Blame Henry Fielding. The archetype for the Tramp and all the other Bad Boys With A Heart Of Gold is Tom Jones.

  3. "Josh notes: "The film programs young girls to be attracted to the bad element." "

    he is wrong, nice guys always finish last.