Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis
Episode Artwork ∷ Lily Meek
Look, there's a great big hunk of world down there, with no fence around it. Where two dogs can find adventure and excitement. And beyond those distant hills, who knows what wonderful experiences? And it's all ours for the taking, Pige. It's all ours.
On Christmas eve 1909, Jim Dear (Lee Millar) gives his wife Darling (Peggy Lee) a cocker spaniel puppy in a hatbox wrapped in a ribbon. They decide to call her Lady, and after some first-night jitters, the three fall into a happy rhythm with one another. Six months later, Lady (Barbara Luddy) begins to notice her owners acting strange, and her friends, a Scottish Terrier named Jock (Bill Thompson) and a bloodhound named Trusty (Bill Baucom) explain to her that Darling is having a baby. Once the baby is born, Lady becomes attentive and protective of it, but while Jim Dear and Darling are on a trip away, their Aunt Sarah (Verna Felton) comes to stay, bringing with her two siamese cats, Si and Am (both Peggy Lee). In the meantime, Lady begins to fall for Tramp (Larry Roberts), a stray mutt who tries to convince her to join his life of freedom, but after chasing a flock of chickens, Lady is impounded, where she hears more about Tramp’s reputation. Retrieved by Aunt Sarah, Lady is tied up and refuses to speak to Tramp, but when she sees a rat sneak into the baby’s room, the two of them have to stop it before it harms the baby. Aunt Sarah believes that Tramp was after the baby himself, and he is collected by the pound to be put down, but after a heroic effort by Trusty, Tramp is saved and Lady reveals the truth about the rat. Jim Dear and Darling adopt Tramp, and the two dogs begin their life together by starting a family of their own.
Despite being credited to a book by American writer Ward Greene, 'Lady and the Tramp' is in fact the first traditional Disney animated feature to have begun from an original idea. As with many of the films in the first half of the Silver Age, the idea date all the way back to the late 1930s, and is the work of one of Disney’s greatest story men, Joe Grant. In the midst of developing story ideas based on pre-existing material, he whittled away at an idea of his own, based on his cocker spaniel Lady.
Like the other Disney features of the 1950s, 'Lady and the Tramp' had a long and tempestuous development, passing through many hands before ultimately landing on the film we know now. Its significance within Disney history though is far greater than its gentle romance might suggest, marking a number of firsts for the company - their first original concept, their first proper romance, their first animated film released in CinemaScope and their first animated film released under their own distribution arm, Buena Vista.
Perhaps most important though is that 'Lady and the Tramp' is a film almost entirely driven by the Disney artists themselves, with Walt Disney mostly uninvolved or ambivalent towards the project. The film would offer a whole new set of challenges, not least of which was working in a format that resulted in the most significant shift in animation in decades, but after the trickiness of 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Peter Pan', the Disney artists would prove themselves more than capable on their own with this technically impressive, deceptively adult and beautifully simple story of two dogs finding love and finding home.
What happened next is unclear. One version of the story says that Grant then took the story sketches to Walt, with the idea of developing it into a feature. In another version, Walt saw the sketches while he and Lillian were having dinner at the Grant family home, and suggested to Grant that he should develop them. Regardless of which is true, Walt was charmed by the sketches, and in November 1937, the studio registered the title Lady, the tentative name for Grant’s dog project.
The work on 'Pinocchio' and later 'Fantasia' was considerable, but whenever he had a moment, Grant worked out the mechanics of the story for Lady. Between July and October 1939, he collaborated on the project with Jack Miller, Bill Cotterell and Ted Sears, and in 1940, took advantage of his new working relationship with Dick Huemer by bringing him on for further ideas. Though Grant would not see the film to completion, a significant amount of the final film originates from those early treatments. From the beginning, they featured a mother-in-law character that would eventually become Aunt Sarah, with a pair of siamese cats named Nip and Tuck that terrorise Lady and cause problems with the baby. Other neighbourhood dogs and the rat were also included, but the latter was initially for comic effect, and was only later changed to a menacing presence to amplify the tension. What was not in that original treatment was the character of Tramp. The action of the treatment revolved around Lady getting used to having the baby in her life, not any kind of romance.
Another early story suggestion came from Walt himself. In 1925, Lillian had been upset with Walt for missing a dinner engagement, so he decided to surprise her. For Christmas, he gave her a hatbox wrapped in a ribbon. Lillian was initially upset at him for buying her a hat without her input, but was delighted to find inside, not a hat, but a chow puppy, which they named Sunnee. Twenty years later, this story would enter Disney folklore as part of the publicity campaign for 'Lady and the Tramp', one of many instances where Joe Grant’s involvement in the story was diminished by Walt’s self-oriented myth-making.
Work on the story continued through to 1943, when Walt was presented with a fully-storyboarded treatment. His response was negative. He thought that Lady was too sweet, and there was no action or tension in the story to sustain it as a feature. Despite all of Grant’s work, Walt’s lack of enthusiasm, combined with the ultimatum on feature film production from Bank of America, resulted in the film being shelved.
In the meantime, Walt asked Grant and Huemer to continue development work on Bongo, the adaptation of the Upton Sinclair short story that was eventually released as part of 'Fun & Fancy Free'. Both Grant and Huemer were not convinced the story would work, and tried to pivot themselves off the project. “You yourself have called our attention to the value of holding up a mirror to man,” they wrote Walt in a memo on June 10 1943, “to which we would like to add that post-war man is going to be pretty critical of himself and we can contribute a lot to his analysis in an entertaining way. Lady presents much more of an adult appeal in our minds, as witness the reams of dog stories and books written over the years. Everybody loves dogs or a dog.” Instead, Walt had them begin work on 'Cinderella'.
That same year, Roy Disney was contacted by American writer Ward Greene, the head of King Features Syndicate, which had published a number of Disney cartoon strips. Greene had written a collection of four comic short stories, and thought some of the characters might interest Walt. They were published by Cosmopolitan in 1945, and amongst them was the short story 'Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog'. When Walt read the story, it struck him that a character like Dan, a scrappy mutt with a wisecrack, cynical attitude, would be a great foil for the sweetness of Lady, and bought the rights to the story, asking Greene to work on a treatment that combined the two characters.
Greene’s initial treatment, given the unwieldy title of 'Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog and Miss Patsy, the Beautiful Spaniel', was 77 pages long, and Grant and Huemer were unimpressed. They didn’t think Greene had contributed much new material to the story except the idea of a romance, which they both found “distasteful” and “utterly contrary to nature”. They countered Greene’s treatment with a new one of their own in January 1944, and over the next two years, several other story artists took a crack at developing it into a workable concept. In the meantime, Grant continued to work on the other features in development, as well as pulling together Make Mine Music as production supervisor.
By 1949 though, Joe Grant had grown tired of working at Disney, and on the 13th of April, he left the studio, leaving his passion project unfinished and unrealised. It didn’t help that Walt’s enthusiasm for the project had certainly waned, and the Disney artists were now distracted with 'Cinderella' and 'Alice in Wonderland'.
The Lady project was rescued, of all people, by Roy Disney. In 1952, he convinced Walt to give the project another go rather than resorting to another package film, seeing potential in the idea but stipulating that it must be delivered on a reasonable budget and released in first-run theatres, where it could play for a longer run. Walt was uncomfortable with the idea of releasing a film based on a story the public was unfamiliar with, and commissioned Ward Greene to write a novelisation based on the treatment that would be published in 1953, years before the release of the film.
It was around this time that a final title was settled on - 'Lady and the Tramp'. Greene and distributors RKO Pictures tried to talk Walt out of the title, concerned about the colloquial connotations of the word "tramp", and that audiences would think it was connected to the popular show tune by Rogers and Hart, ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’. “That’s what it’s about though,” replied Walt, “a lady and a tramp.” The name stayed.
The final film bears the credit, “From a story by Ward Greene”. In the publicity at the time, Joe Grant’s name did not appear anywhere. As far as the public were aware, the story had come from Greene’s novel and the anecdote of Walt giving Lillian a puppy in a hatbox at Christmas. Grant’s many years of work had been erased from the history of the film, despite the fact that so much of what was on the screen had been developed by him and the other story artists he had worked with. It would be decades before Joe Grant would be recognised as, not only as one of its key artists, but as the original creator of Lady and the Tramp.
Born in Odgen, Utah in 1907, Clark was first of the Nine Old Men to join the studio. He was the eldest of 12 children to James Clark and Lute Wadsworth, and in the first few decades of his life, the family moved to both Salt Lake City and Twin Falls, Idaho, before settling in Los Angeles. Clark attended high school there, and also began a summer job at an ice cream store near the Walt Disney Studios at Hyperion. Walt and Roy would often visit the shop, and on one occasion, Walt complimented Clark’s lettering in the menus. Finally building up the courage, Clark asked Walt if he could have a job at the studio. Walt told him to bring some drawings for him to look at, and when Clark did, Walt told him he had a good line and that he should come by the studio. On the 23rd of February 1927 - the Monday after he had graduated from high school - Clark reported to the studio.
He began as a camera operator and an ink and painter, but at the time, Ub Iwerks had begun work on a new character named Mickey Mouse. He was assigned as an in-betweener on the first Mickey Mouse short 'Steamboat Willie', working under Iwerks’ guidance, and became an important voice in the development of the character. He was soon promoted to the role of animator, and worked again with Iwerks on the first Silly Symphony, The Skeleton Dance. When Iwerks left the studio soon after, Clark became lead animator on the Mickey Mouse cartoons, and would be responsible for some of the most important works in the character’s history.
Clark began the Golden Age of Disney animation as one of the lead animators on the dwarfs in Snow White, but it was in Fantasia that Clark delivered his masterpiece, animating Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It was here that Clark demonstrated the height of his particular skill with rhythm, musicality and remarkable emotionality.
Clark was a gentle, mild-mannered and humble man, but was also one of the most respected artists at the studio. He was often given the most technically challenging work, which he completed with consummate skill and attention to detail. Art Babbitt commented that Clark “never received the recognition he deserved. And he should have, because he was marvellous! Terrific animator, very inventive. But taken for granted.”
During the Wartime Era, Clark contributed to some of the most iconic moments in the package films. In 'The Three Caballeros', he animated the lively and gorgeous train ride in the Baía sequence, as well as the insane Araquan, and in 'Melody Time', continued his work with the South American characters in 'Blame It On The Samba'. His other work in the period included Brer Rabbit in 'Song of the South' and the iconic Bumble Boogie in 'Melody Time'.
When the team that became known as the Nine Old Men was established in 1945, Clark was one of the oldest members of the group, and the longest serving at the studio. He continued his incredible work throughout the Silver Age, animating such iconic characters as Cinderella, Alice, Peter and Wendy, and Aurora. On 'Lady and the Tramp', Clark worked on the character of Tramp, but perhaps the best demonstration of his skill, humour and humanity as an animator was his work on Lady as a puppy in the opening scenes. He perfectly captures the tumbling, reactionary personality of a puppy, bridging the delicate gap between anthropomorphising Lady and letting her be a realistic baby animal.
On the 12th of September 1979, Les Clark died of cancer in Santa Barbara, California. In his tribute to Clark in the Nine Old Men Flipbook set, Disney historian John Canemaker writes about his "mild-mannered, reticent, apparently ego-free qualities [that] belied his tremendous gifts as a masterly animator of surpassing skill. Everything he drew came alive with charm and personality." And you can see that in every careful frame of his animation. His work on 'The Sorcerer’s Apprentice' in particular is astounding, both in its free-flowing, finished form and in the delicate, shimmering pencil lines in its early stages.
We must treat these dog characters with the same respect we show human characters in a similar story, no condescension, no looking down, no breaking character for the sake of a gag. We must be true to the general audience's perception of dog psychology.
Coats had joined the studio in 1935, beginning as an apprentice background artist on many of the Silly Symphonies. It was here he met his wife Evelyn, who was in the Ink & Paint department. He was personally selected by Walt to work on the background on 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', and would work on every following Disney feature with the exception of Bambi. With Lady and the Tramp, he became one of the primary background artists and developed a new approach that evolved the techniques begun by Tyrus Wong with 'Bambi'. His backgrounds have a subtle amount of detail, enough to give definition to the environments without being overwhelming, and directing the audience’s eye with light and shadow.
He was also an architect, and built scale models of all of the sets to develop his ideas further. The most radical was that the film would be shown from a dog’s perspective. He placed small cameras within the models to see what the spaces would look like from a dog’s height. His work on the film is gorgeous, perfectly evoking the idealised vision of turn-of-the-century America that Walt was pushing for, a fantasy version of his memories of growing up in Marceline, Missouri. Another artist who worked with Coats was Eyvind Earle. His major contribution came with the Bella Notte sequence, for which he submitted over 50 small studies, and painted the backgrounds for the sun rising on Lady and Tramp the following morning.
At one point during production, Walt became frustrated with the work being done. The artists were becoming fixated on small details and losing sight of the characters. He decided to delay production for six months, and instead assigned all of the artists to work on 'Sleeping Beauty'. When they returned to 'Lady and the Tramp', they “tackled the project with new enthusiasm,” Walt said, “and whizzed right along with the film.”
Unlike the previous three films, they couldn’t shoot the entire film in live-action as reference, so the animators studied the anatomy and behaviour of real dogs. They looked at voice actor Verna Felton’s cocker spaniel Blondie as a reference for Lady, while a female dog that had been rescued from a local pound served as the model for Tramp.
The most controversial sequence during the making of the film was the spaghetti scene. Walt was convinced it wouldn’t work, thinking the sight of dogs eating spaghetti would look silly, and ordered the scene to be cut. Frank Thomas was convinced though that the scene would work, and decided to animate it himself without any initial layouts to prove so to Walt.
What Thomas delivered was one of the great masterpieces of animation, not only one of the most romantic moments in a Disney film, but one of the most romantic in any film. Walt was totally convinced. Reviewing the sequence, the animators decided it should be slowed down, so apprentice animators were given the task of making “half-numbers” between the original animation frames to give it more space.
For the music, Walt once again looked to the world of popular music, and approached songwriting team Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke. Lee was a popular singer, but most were unaware of her skills as a songwriter. She and Burke wrote all the songs in the final film, accompanied by a score from Oliver Wallace. Also an Oscar-nominated actor, Lee provided the vocal performances for Darling, Si and Am, and Peggy, the lounge-singer dog Lady meets in the pound. The character was modelled on Lee herself, though she had originally been named Mame, because her bangs were similar to those of First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. Walt was worried this might offend the First Lady, and asked Lee if they could name the character Peg after her.
Work on 'Lady and the Tramp' was going smoothly, and the work being done was strong. Just as it was nearing the finish line though, Walt made a sudden and significant decision that would send the production into chaos. A new film format had begun to emerge in Hollywood, and Walt wanted to cash in on it. Disney animation was about to go widescreen.
Spyros Skouras, head of Twentieth Century Fox, turned to their head of research development, Earl Sponable, to find a way to adapt the Cinerama process so it would be retrofitted to pre-existing cinemas with minimal cost. The final process, dubbed CinemaScope, offered an image nearly double the width of the Academy ratio, and adapted a process invented by French inventor Henri Chrétien in 1926. The first film released in CinemaScope in 1953 was 'The Robe', which was a huge hit. Fox offered to license the CinemaScope process to other studios, and Walt Disney Productions was amongst the first to do so.
One of their early successes with the format was '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea', their 1953 live-action adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, but their first attempt to use the format for animation was 'Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom'. Also released in 1953 and directed by Ward Kimbell and Charles A. Nichols, the short was part of their series on the history of music, and was an enormous critical success, winning the Oscar for Best Animated Short. Walt decided that they would use the format for their next animated feature, 'Lady and the Tramp'. The problem was, 'Lady and the Tramp' had already begun production in Academy ratio.
Just as he had done with the addition of Technicolor to 'Flowers and Trees' in 1932, Walt ordered a mid-production shift to CinemaScope. Layout and backgrounds were the most severely affected by the decision, now having to adapt the pre-existing background art to add three times as much material. New artwork was pasted to the backgrounds with the joins masked with trees and architecture, and the shift to CinemaScope necessitated longer celluloid sheets, which then required new production furniture. It also affected where in the frame the action needed to take place. Characters needed to be spread out in the frame rather than central and extra action devised for the new space on the left and right.
Roy was concerned though that not all cinemas could project in CinemaScope, and they might be losing revenue from those cinemas that were confined to Academy ratio. Walt decided they should prepare two different versions of the film, one for each format. In many cases, the artists were preparing two separate versions of scenes, some utilising the full width of the frame and others confining it to a smaller space. As a result, the film was delayed, and the cost of background art doubled, ballooning the budget to just under $3 million.
The film was also the first Disney animated feature released through Disney’s new distribution arm, Buena Vista Film Distribution Company, Inc. RKO Pictures had distributed their films since in 1937, but in 1953, they had refused to release 'The Living Desert', the first feature-length film in the True-Life Adventures series. In September 1954, Roy Disney announced the end of their partnership with RKO, and the launch of Buena Vista, named after the street onto which the Burbank studio faced. This gave them more control and autonomy over the distribution of their films, and for the first time, no longer required them to adhere to the demands of another studio. They would keep the name until the brand was discontinued in 2007, and renamed Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
The words "Buena Vista" would become synonymous with the Disney animated classics, and 'Lady and the Tramp', as well as being their first animated feature made for CinemaScope, would also be the first for Buena Vista Distribution.
Once again, the new Disney animated feature was met with negative reviews from critics. “The sentimentality is mighty,” wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times on the 24th June, “and the CinemaScope size does not make for any less awareness of the thickness of the goo. It also magnifies the animation, so that the flaws and poor foreshortening are more plain. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, the artists' work is below par in this film." Time was likewise critical, writing that "Walt Disney has for so long parlayed gooey sentiment and stark horror into profitable cartoons that most moviegoers are apt to be more surprised than disappointed to discover that the combination somehow does not work this time."
There were some who begrudgingly admitted that the film had charm, such as Virginia Graham in The Spectator, who wrote that by “returning to the animal kingdom, Mr Disney has recaptured the magic he was in danger of losing, and all the small ridiculous touches are here again to charm one into a state of cooing idiocy.”
Despite the reviews, the film was a huge success, the biggest since 'Snow White'. Its initial box office was $6.5 million, resulting in a healthy profit. Through subsequent rereleases, the film has been critically reevaluated, and is now one of the most beloved of the Disney animated classics. The spaghetti scene is regarded as one of the great romantic moments in cinema, and in 2011, Time named it one of the top 25 animated films of all time.
As with 'Dumbo' and 'Peter Pan' though, an unfortunate part of its legacy is a racial stereotype that has only gotten more ghastly with age. The two siamese cats, Si and Am, employ horrid Asian stereotypes, both in their character design, in Peggy Lee’s performance, and in their featured song. In the special features from the Platinum Edition DVD, you can even hear archival recordings of the evolution of their voices, where it becomes clear that this insensitive approach was always part of their development.
Seen within the context of the Disney canon, 'Lady and the Tramp' is one of their quieter and more mature films. It balances the romance with intelligent questions about the relationship between human beings and their pets, and we watch Lady grapple with the complications adult world far more than any other Disney character prior, such as birth, sex and mortality. Coming after the anarchy of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp is a much more centred, settled film, with characters that exist within a world evocative of our own, devoid of magic or the fantastical. It is amongst their most American films, and in that sense, it is no wonder it was such a success in 1955. In a way, 'Lady and the Tramp' perfectly captures the cultural pursuit of a wholesome new America after the war, one prosperous and celebrating the family and the home.
By the time 'Lady and the Tramp' was released, animation was only surviving at the studio out of habit and obligation, rather than any artistic drive, and many times, the staff had to convince Walt to begin production of projects just to give them something to do. Walt was entirely distracted by his work on Disneyland, which was due to open the month after the film, and had little interest in Lady. “You had to ask Walt to come into meetings on 'Lady and the Tramp',” said Frank Thomas. “I think he had really spent himself on what he wanted to do in animation.”
Walt still dreamed though, of returning to the glory days of the Golden Age and elevating animation to the status of high art. He decided to make one more push for the impossible, to craft a film that would achieve all his ambitions for the form. He was also determined to solve the riddle that Mary Blair had posed to him, to find a way to translate the work of his concept artists to the final film as faithfully as possible. Their next film would be one of the most ambitious animated feature films ever made, a simple and beloved fairy tale told on a magnificent scale, a masterpiece where animation would no longer be entertainment but a moving work of art. In the process, Walt Disney’s pursuit of perfection would irrevocably change the art form of animation completely and bring Walt Disney Productions to the very edge of catastrophe.
- Lady and the Tramp made its VHS and Laserdisc debut in the US in 1987 as part of the Walt Disney Classics line. By the time the film went into moratorium in March 1988, it had sold more than three million copies, making it the best-selling VHS of all time. Following the release, Peggy Lee sued the studio after CEO Michael Eisner refused to give her performance and song royalties on the VHS sales. The case was settled in 1992, with Disney ordered to pay Lee $3.2 million in compensation. The film was once again released on VHS in 1998 as part of the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection.
- It made its DVD debut in November 1999 in a limited sixty-day release.
- The film was restored for DVD and released as part of the Platinum Edition series in February 2006, and sold one million copies on its first day of release. The US release was advertised as having both the CinemaScope and Academy ratio versions of the film, but the latter turned out to be a pan-and-scan version of the former. The film was returned to the vault in January 2007.
- Lady and the Tramp entered the Diamond Edition line with its Blu-ray debut in February 2012, featuring most of the material from the Platinum Edition DVD, but without the pan-and-scan version.
- It was re-released on Blu-ray as part of the Walt Disney Signature Collection in February 2017, following its Digital HD release a few weeks earlier.
- The film is available on Disney+.
- Wikipedia on Lady and the Tramp, Joe Grant, Les Clark, Ward Greene, Claude Coats, CinemaScope and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
- Lady and the Tramp: Diamond Edition, Blu-ray, 2012
- Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler, 2006
- The Disney Studio Story, Richard Hollis and Brian Sibley, 1988
- They Drew As They Pleased: Volume III - The Hidden Art of Disney’s Late Golden Age (The 1940’s - Part II), Didier Ghez, 2017
- They Drew As They Pleased: Volume IV - The Hidden Art of Disney’s Mid-Century Period (The 1950’s and 1960’s), Didier Ghez, 2016
- They Drew As They Pleased: Volume VI - The Hidden Art of Disney’s New Golden Age (The 1990’s, 2000’s and 2010’s), Didier Ghez, 2020
- Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, Mindy Johnson, 2017