Saturday, November 19, 2011

DATE Night: Lady and the Tramp

Color inspiration for The Help?
I am so excited that for this week's DATE Night we get to watch a real, honest to goodness romantic comedy! I don't feel like Lady and the Tramp is given enough credit for being such a bold creative departure for the studio and I've been looking forward to revisiting it. I watched it with my roommate Katie, who had never seen it before and Tom, my husband. It is one of his favorites and the first movie that he ever saw on the big screen. I've seen it several times and even still made new discoveries while watching it, which is one of the reasons why I feel like it fits neatly with the best of the Disney animated classics.

The Background:

The seed of Lady and the Tramp was planted by Joe Grant, the deservedly revered Disney story man and artist who created the Evil Queen from Snow White and played a major role in the creation of all the animated features through Dumbo, in the late thirties. He had done a series of sketches depicting his springer spaniel Lady's antics that had promise but failed to parlay them into a story that passed muster in Walt's eyes, so the idea was shelved by the studio. Early in the forties, Walt came across a short story by Ward Green in Cosmopolitan (whether it was before or after taking the quiz about whether he's just not that into you is unclear) about a dog who would later be morphed into Tramp.

Very early concept art by Mary Blair.
By the fifties, a story began to take shape incorporating sketches by Grant, who had already left the studio and would return in the late eighties to work on Beauty and the Beast, and Greene's story into a single narrative. Walt then had Greene write a novelization of the movie which was released two years before the film came out so that audiences would already be endeared to the story and characters by the time the movie came out. Pretty genius move in the humble opinion of someone living in the Age of the Spoiler Alert.

Disney released the film in 1955 as the first CinemaScope (aka widescreen) animated feature, and since not all theaters were set up to show CinemaScope features yet, they had to create a separate version of the film that could be shown on traditional screens. Despite tepid reviews, many of which remarked on a lack of artistry (Gasp! Lemme at 'em! I'll shred 'em to bits!), Lady and the Tramp became one of the biggest hits of the year and, after figuring in re-releases, is the top-grossing film of 1955. It it now very highly regarded by both critics and audiences alike.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 8: Lady and the Tramp. Disney leaves the world of fantasy and visits a lovely, small-town America. This movie is full of grace and is a gorgeous dog meets dog love story. Quite an grown up story, really. More detailed and wonderful artistry. Another lovely winner.
February 5, 2010 at 1:25pm ·

The Art:

Stunning landscape art. Wowza.
8/10. After a run of artistically bold, visually impressionistic films (thanks in part to our beloved Mary Blair who departed the studio after her work on Peter Pan), Lady in the Tramp is a startling change of pace. The look shifted from abstractly highlighting subtext to realistically supporting the story, which is exactly what this particular tale calls out for. We are no longer in Wonderland or Neverland, but rather we are on Main Street USA. There are so many lovely landscapes that look like they should be hanging on a gallery wall. The town covered in snow, the gorgeous fall colors, the park after "Bella Notte". I love the art is this film because it astounds quietly. It doesn't call attention to itself, preferring to render a world in such a clear way that you are completely enveloped by it without getting magpie syndrome making you look at all the shiny this'n'thats.

The morning after.
The art here is unadorned and simple but detailed and clean. There is imagination at work here, but, despite the fact that the dogs (and cats) can talk, it functions in a very realistic way. The squash and stretch and human characteristics of the animals, the silhouettes and flashes of color behind the fight when Tramp protects Lady, the calendar sequence, the shadows in the pound making the dogs look like they are in prison uniforms, the way that the lightning illuminates figures during the storm are striking visual elements that do not have to jump and down trying to get your attention. This movie is not showy for the sake of being showy and every artistic element is utilized carefully to support the story that is being told in a subtly immersive way. The look of the film is rich, familiar and cozy. You see artists who have perfected a craft at the top of their game here and it is thrilling.

The Story:

8/10. Lady and the Tramp is a simple story of pup meets pup. It's a swoon-worthy romance with flashes of action and profound sadness, truly frightening and tense moments and lots of warmth and humor. Of course what makes it so unique is that it takes a very human, very complex, almost adult story and tells it from a dog's perspective. Much of the film is actually shown at a dog's eye view, encouraging empathy for them. By telling the story with animals instead of humans, you have been allowed to more easily project your own experiences onto the screen. You aren't comparing yourself to glamorous Hollywood types, after all, but to relatable, anthropomorphized animals. Who doesn't love an adorable pup? And now here we are, seeing our own story reflected in theirs.
Double feature = double puns.

I also love the fact that the film is bookended for us. It starts with a winter scene at Christmas and the powerful "Peace on Earth", whose lyrics include the lovely sentiment "Spirit of love and child of peace / Love unending that shall not cease / Peace, my children of goodwill / Peace, my children, peace, be still." It reinforces the cyclical nature of life, the universality of the story and the theme of love. We end as we began and we can begin again on another street in another town and find the same story being told. It's a story that all of us at one time or another have lived out ourselves. The story of our search for love.

One storytelling device that was utilized magnificently in this movie is the transition. Instead of always having a typical fade to black / fade up on next scene or crossfade, they used these moments as opportunities to to tell the story in potent and interesting ways. Lady goes to sleep at the foot of the bed as a puppy and wakes up the next morning as a full grown dog. In that one moment you understand that she is older, she has learned how to get her way, and she has status in the household. The whole segment after Lady is smacked on the bum (where the background changes behind her) as Tramp is describing life with a baby (where her steak becomes baby food and her spot next to the fireplace morphs into a doghouse) and the calendar is literally deconstructing around her is brilliant. The transitions between reality and projected reality are jarring and give us empathy for Lady's delicate state of mind. They are also a wonderful showcase for the artists.

Most romantic. Ever.
Of course, the movie also has one of the greatest animated moments of all time. Heck, it's probably one of the greatest and most iconic moments in all of film. I'm speaking, of course, about the "Bella Notte" sequence. We all remember the spaghetti that leads to a kiss and the palpable way that feel the two characters connect. You may also remember the back alley and the adorable cooks singing or the lovely gesture of Tramp giving Lady the last meatball. But what about the lovely moment where Italian Tony says what we've all been longing to say when he tells Tramp to "settle down with this-a one." Or the sequence right after it where everything is bathed in moonlight and they are in the gorgeous park with lanterns in the trees and swirling fireflies. Or the nextmorning, where the landscape looks like a painting and Lady's ear draped over Tramp subtly suggests that they spent the kind of night together that could result in a litter of puppies. And the amazing moment where Tramp tells Lady to "Look down there!" and the camera shifts toward the horizon, visually opening up a whole new world for her. Her reason for not exploring it? Who would look after the baby? Tramp concedes that she wins the argument. Loyalty trumps all for these characters.

The Characters:

8/10. The characters in Lady and the Tramp sparkle. Each one from the protagonists to the smallest of background players is designed to have immediate and maximum impact so that you get a real sense of dimension in a simple and effective way. Unlike Peter Pan, where some of the smaller roles read rather flat, everyone in the background from the distinctively heartbreaking dogs in the pound (even Nutzy makes an impression and we only see his silhouette), to the whistle-talking beaver, to the disgusting rat, to the Italian restauranteurs is designed and animated in such a way that they do not just fade into the background. They contribute in a powerful way to the story and environment.

Since everything is from a dog's perspective, the humans aren't as dimensional as the animals. We barely get to see their faces, but we glean much from the way they treat the animals. Darling (voiced by Peggy Lee) and Jim Dear, the dogcatcher, the Italians, the baby and Aunt Sarah (voiced by Verna Felton of Fairy Godmother and Queen of Hearts fame) are all filtered through the dogs' perception of them. The way that Lady feels about them in the moment is also the way that we are made to feel about them, whether she looks at them with love, suspicion, amusement or fear, and as those emotions change from one moment to the next, so does how we see them.

Sneaky lil' buggers, huh?
One interesting thing I noticed is that there are no real baddie here in the tradition of Hook, The Evil Queen, or Lady Tremaine. Sure Si and Am (both voiced once again by Miss Lee), Aunt Sarah, the chasing dogs, the rat and the dogcatcher are antagonists, but there is not a central villain like we have in many Disney features. There is no need for one. This is not a story of good versus evil, but rather a story of love and loyalty conquering all. Si and Am are especially well designed. They are conniving and evil, just as a dog, their arch enemy, would see them, but in a playfully drawn way that is delicious to watch for an audience. They are characters that you love to hate from their emergence from the basket to their knowing tail-shake behind Aunt Sarah.

Peg and Company.
The supporting cast of dogs are all surprisingly dimensional. Peg (you get three guesses who voiced the character of Peg and the first two don't count. ***coughpeggyleecough***) is the flip side of Lady- a world weary broad from the wrong side of the tracks sharing her wisdom with someone who doesn't know any better. It feels without malice, as if Peg is genuinely trying to do Lady a solid. Her pound-mates are made very distinctive with very little screen time and the whole pound scene is really quite sad. Many "awww"s were uttered in our apartment throughout that sequence.

Canine Bennetton ad. 
That brings us to Lady's protectors, Jock (voiced by Bill Thompson, who also voices three other dogs and a policeman in the film and voiced the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland) and Trusty. We love them right off the bat because of how loving and protective they are of Lady. How can you not be smitten after seeing Trusty going after that cute lil' caterpillar or Trusty hopping up and down to shoo Tramp after he is perceived to have wronged Lady? When Trusty puts his life on the line to save Tramp from being put down, it's enough to bring tears to your eyes. There is an innate desire in both of these characters to do what is right by those that are close to them that makes them both noble and empathetic.

I love a guy who's good with kids.
Of course, above all else we have the title characters who are so magnetic that you fall in love with them in their first moments (Lady in the hatbox and Tramp stretching the most satisfying stretch that's ever been stretched) and root for them through the inevitable happy ending. They beautiful melded instantly recognizable canine actions with relatable human emotions. What's brilliant about these characters is that despite the opposites attract angle, they really do a beautiful job of showing how they are a perfect fit beneath the surface. We very quickly see their loving nature early on with Lady's taking care of Darling and Jim Dear and Tramp's sweet reaction to the puppies in the window.

Talk about making an entrance.
The performances and animation on both Lady and Tramp are pretty much perfection. There's a sexy, roguish quality to Tramp, who was voiced by Larry Roberts. He's the ne'er-do-well bad boy with a heart of gold. He is funny, charming, adventurous and a perfect foil for a slightly pent-up, sheltered girl. It makes for a quintessential love story when he is paired with Barbara Luddy's performance as Lady. I love the slight rasp and warmth in her voice, especially in her imperfect singing on "What Is a Baby?" We watch her grow from a baby to a woman to a mother. We coo over her as she whines to be let into bed and struggle up the stairs. We laugh at her gardening skills. We swoon when she falls for Tramp. We cringe when she's referred to as "that dog". We well up when she's thrown in the pound and is relegated to the doghouse. we see her transformation through the course of the film. In the end, I would argue that she is one of the most layered female protagonists in the Disney canon.

The Music:

9/10. Lots of noise is made about the songs of Lady and the Tramp, and rightfully so, but I want to take a moment and give a quick shout out to the fantastic score that was, once again, beautifully done by Oliver Wallace. He scored more than a hundred films over his time as a house composer for Disney and every one that I've heard so far has been a winner. (Just last night I was watching People and Places: Disneyland USA on the Walt Disney Treausres Disneyland: Secrets Stories & Magic DVD when I realized that he wrote the iconic score for that as well. Listening to that music transports me into the park instantly and I love it.) No wonder the studio kept him on staff for decades. He was able to balance dramatics, playfulness, humor and suspense while never failing to support the action of a film. Genius.

Trippy, album cover. Trippy.
Think about the jaunty theme that often plays when we see Lady and how much it helps to define that character, much in the same way Peter Pan had his three note theme. It has a sense of controlled but exuberant joy sprinkled with upright propriety. Now think of how brilliantly it is used in collaboration with songs written by Miss Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke, who were already well-known jazz / pop artists. We hear the tentative "What Is a Baby?" showing Lady's unsure state after her world has shifted in the wake of the new arrival, which is cut short by Jim Dear whistling her theme as if he has co-opted her joy. Then the melody is overtaken by the lullabye "La La Lu" to shift focus to the baby and how everyone now relates to it, and to each other in new ways because of it. By marrying score and song with wonderful animation they told a complex emotional story with very little dialogue.

And those songs! Wowza! I always knew that Lee and Burke had written the songs for the film, but this time the scope of their contribution really hit me. The songs stylistically run the gamut from swelling Italian romanza to lullabye to musical theater to jazz to Asian-influenced to holiday music. That's quite an impressive range for a single picture from a single writing team, especially when each and every one is pitch perfect. "He's a Tramp" is now a standard because it works brilliantly outside of the context of the movie. What people don't always remember is that within that context it's a showstopper for a group of supporting characters that not only establishes their identities, incorporating their howls and scratches as part of the music, but tells us about the protagonists and moves the plot along as well. The other songs are just as well-crafted even if not as oft-covered (see The Miscellanea). Why "Peace on Earth" is not a Christmas Classic and "La La Lu" isn't on every sleepytime children's album I will never know. Each and every song here is a gem and Lady and the Tramp still easily stands as one of the best Disney animated features musically.

The Gay Scale:

Topiaries are pretty gay. And fully amazeballs.
7/10. To be honest, on the surface this seems to be one of the less queer Disney animated features and, though is planted pretty squarely on this side of the rainbow, for some reason the gays adore it. I've done some contemplating and come up with a few reasons. Gays love a romantic comedy, even before the era of the straight heroine's-gay-bestie archetype. Gays love snuggly, adorable animals (especially when they don't have to clean up after them or remove their hair from the couch in clumps). Gays super-dee-duper love a swingin' jazz diva and Miss Peggy Lee is one of the most iconic of them all.

But above all else, I think that gays can appreciate a story about loving someone that you're not supposed to love despite the dangers. We see the two main characters falling in love with someone solely because they were going where their heart led them, despite what was proper or expected, despite what others said and despite trepidation about venturing into the unknown. That's a story that has a lot of resonance for a gay audience and proves that you don't need to uncover an effete villain or camp sensibility to find a potent queer read. As a culture who didn't see themselves portrayed overtly, gays and lesbians learned to read between the lines. This movie would have given them a fascinating mirror to see themselves reflected in during the mid-fifties. And best of all, they got a happy ending.

The Bottom Line:

8/10. In case I hadn't already made it clear, I love this movie. I think it's a welcome and artistically solid shift for the studio in an era when they were not afraid of taking big risks. In this case, the pay off was huge. It has left us with one of the greatest cinematic love stories of all time. It has all of the basics of a great Disney animated feature: great music, beautiful art, strong storytelling and great characters, but what really sends this film towards the top of the heap is it's gigantic, beating heart. This movie has the kind of warmth that wraps around you like a blanket.

At it's core, it's a story about loyalty. We can learn a lesson from these dogs, who go to great lengths to protect each other and their humans. It shows how at the center of our beings the greatest asset we posses is the kindness that we show to others whether they be our children, friends, caretakers, families, pets, strangers or lovers. By sharing this one specific story of profound goodness happening on Main Street in Anytown USA, we hopefully see that stories like this can happen everywhere, every day. It also reminds us to open our eyes, seeing goodness affect others and open our hearts, actually letting goodness come from us.  

The Miscellanea:

I managed to dig up some really fascinating nuggets for y'all this week. Once again, not quite as many old-school song covers as I would like (though the interwebs are teeming with modern-day amateur covers, which proves how sturdy the songs from this film are) and sadly, no "La La Lu" covers at all. First off are two clips from a promotional piece (that is also on the Platinum Edition DVD) with Walt and Peggy Lee. The first features Miss Lee singing singing "He's a Tramp" and the second focuses on "Siamese Cat Song" and the process they used to record it. Both are quite interesting and it's a blast to see Peggy Lee herself performing the numbers. Va va voom!

This next video is part one of an episode of the Disneyland TV series called "A Story of Dogs" which was aired to drum up interest for the film and show some behind the scenes footage of the artists at work. It also branches out to cover Pluto and other early Disney pooches.

In 2001, a sequel to Lady and the Tramp was released straight to video. It was called Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure and is apparently a role reversal in which Lady and Tramp's puppy Scamp decides he wants to get in touch with his bad boy roots and encounters a girl pup from the wrong side of the tracks. I have yet to see it and though I never have very high expectations for these releases, I have heard tell that it's one of the better ones. Some great singers (Jodi Benson, Susan Egan, Roger Bart) were involved and there are several "stars" in the voice cast. Alyssa Milano! Scott Wolf! Remember them? Here is a trailer. Doesn't look vile, but doesn't look stellar either.

Ooh goody! Time for some covers! This first video is of the Disneyland Band doing a Lady and the Tramp Medley. Fantastic arrangement. These guys never disappoint.

Here we have another Disney park institution, the Dapper Dans, doing a barbershop version of "Bella Notte". It's a bit slow for my taste, but, my heavens, what flawless harmony and that modulation gave me goosebumps! I eat this Main Street USA goodness up with a spoon.

I had nary a clue who Rolly was. A quick Google search informed me that he is a Japanese rock star who once fronted a band called Scanch and that he owns a Jack Skellington costume. The search also lets me know that since I can't read Japanese I won't be able to find out too terribly much else. That  search sure as shootin' didn't explain this clip wherein Rolly visits DisneySea about thirty seconds in and sings "Bella Notte" as Mickey and Minnie act out the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in Renaissance garb. It also doesn't explain why he's decked out in a white blouse, tight black pants and white platform shoes, has a fashionable bob and sports more makeup than Minnie does. Fascinating. (PS There's another version on YouTube where he's in a nightclub suspended in the nothingness stretching the song out to five minutes with the addition of an extended electric guitar solo. Yup. That happened, too.)

Here we have Edna Savage, a pop singer from the UK who never really had much of an impact, doing a cover of "Bella Notte". It sounds like something that should be playing at a fifties prom. Hands above the waist, make sure sure you're dancing a ruler's width apart, and enjoy, boys and girls.

Now all of a sudden we hit "He's a Tramp" covers and things get mighty queer. First off is a cover that Bette Midler did for her Peggy Lee tribute album, which I quite enjoyed. Then again Bette Midler could be doing just about anything and I would be riveted. (Side note: Tom, Katie and I watched two of Bette's classic Touchstone comedies from the eighties recently- Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Outrageous Fortune. Verdicts were that Down and Out was overrated, tonally odd and kind of meh while Outrageous Fortune was a hoot that really utilized both Bette and Shelley Long's personas perfectly.)

I don't know what this is from or why it exists at all. It seems like it's from a high school or college production of something or possibly from a showcase. It's two boys doing a very campy "He's a Tramp" and it makes me giggle.

This is my favorite find this week. It is Shirley Bassey doing a Disney Medley that includes "He's a Tramp" while wandering through the Main Street USA in costume. It is surreal and magical. Please soak in every moment of this wonderfully wackadoo weirdness. It is pure camp bliss.

If the "He's a Tramp" covers tended towards the gay, the "Siamese Cat Song" covers tend towards the odd. Here is a video that was made for a Bobby McFerrin cover from the early nineties Disney cover album Simply Mad About the Mouse. No, you're not high. It really is just that trippy, with it's acapella arrangement, CGI landscapes that have nothing to do with the lyrics, and chorus of Bobby-in-dashikis.

Here we have the Lennon Sisters on the Lawrence Welk Show singing the "Siamese Cat Song" in 1958 with their fur festooned heads peeking out from behind a cutout of four headless siamese cats on a sofa. They can smile, purr and lick their lips all they want, but you know that they couldn't have been comfortable.

Lawrence Welk must have really loved the song though, because he had three more ladies sing it in 1973, but this time in full on cat suits (not sexy, tight outfits, but full-on Halloween costumes) while in a huge basket. Just as weird, but at least this time the ladies didn't look like floating heads.

Last but not least is my favorite "Siamese Cat Song" cover by Freddie and the Dreamers from their In Disneyland album. It's very interesting to see how each cover tries to give their own spin to the obvious Asian influences of the number, filtering it through nineties world music, fifties and seventies white bread girl pop and, here, sixties British Invasion sounds. Apparently this band from England featuring 5'3'' lead singer Freddie Garrity incorporated crazy dancing into their stage act to set them apart from the pack. Without the visuals, all that is left is a completely unique track that is a playful time capsule of a specific musical era.

So there we have it! We've survived fifteen DATE Nights together. Hopefully you aren't sick of me yet. What did you think of Lady and the Tramp? Do you feel as strongly as I do that it's top-tier Disney or do you feel like it's more middle of the pack? (If you think it's towards the bottom then I'm afraid we can't see each other any longer. I want my Treasure of Matacumbe DVD back, please and thank you.) Next week we get to what is arguably the greatest Disney fairy tale feature of all time- Sleeping Beauty. I am especially excited because this is the first time that I am going to watch it on the Blu-ray that I acquired not too long ago! Can. Not. Wait!

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