Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Fifty

#50 — Lady and the Tramp (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske, 1955)
Everything I know about romance I learned from Lady and the Tramp. I’m not sure when I first saw it. Maybe it was during its 1980 rerelease or maybe it was some television showing, an encounter facilitated by The Wonderful World of Disney. Regardless, it was early and it was foundational. Surely any identification I have as a scruffy ruffian comes more from transposed qualities of Tramp, the stray mutt of the title, than from any actual inclination towards danger and malfeasance. And there’s no mystery as to why I have a deep down tickle that tells me an Italian restaurant is the perfect place for a tender date.

Officially considered the fifteenth film under the Disney Animated Classics banner, Lady and the Tramp was in rough development from the very beginning of the studio’s storied excursion into feature-length storytelling, first pitched by Joe Grant in 1937, the same year Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was released. It took years before, in more modern parlance, the story was broken, the various creative personnel figuring out how to carry the notion of a refined English Springer Spaniel dog feeling anxious and neglected upon the arrival of a new baby in the house to a fully-formed story, with the requisite drama, action, and opportunity for song. A key step came when Walt Disney read and acquired a short story called “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog,” written by Ward Greene, correctly determining that what the film really needed was a endearing bad boy recklessness of a stray, giving the whole endeavor a bit of Romeo and Juliet, wrong-side-of-the-tracks friction. Disney didn’t have everything right, though. He reportedly argued against the scene of Lady and the Tramp sharing a plate of spaghetti, one noodle leading to an unexpected smooch. The boss thought it would looks silly. Instead, it’s one of the most iconic moments the studio ever created.

In all honesty, it’s now been years and years since I’ve seen it, although I can claim at least one adulthood viewing that passed muster, indicating that its not wholly nostalgia that accounts for my lingering affection. It has clear high points within the music (especially Peggy Lee’s performance of “He’s a Tramp”) and the character design (notably the most villainous figures, always a Disney specialty, with the creepy Siamese cats and a truly creepy rat). Then there’s that Disney studio assurance that would finally start to wobble a bit in the next decade before falling apart altogether, coming to the cusp of shutting down Disney animation ventures altogether somewhere around the mid-eighties. Lady and the Tramp looks like it was made with care and yet has some of the appealing roughness that came from pencils, ink and paint working in concert without the bolstering benefit of computer enhancement. The film emanates the same complicated care that the title characters feel for one another. It’s warm, moving and memorable. And a hungry, alley-dwelling dog who’s willing to generously nose the last meatball over to his new love? If that ain’t love, I don’t know what is.

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