Lady and the Tramp (1955) remains one of Walt Disney's most exuberant and innocently joyous animated features. On the heels of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt asked his story editor and idea man Joe Grant to come up with an original concept for the studio’s next feature-length cartoon. Even then, Walt was perhaps cognizant that animation could be so much more than simply a way of bringing time honored fairytales to life. Yet, to Grant’s ever-lasting dismay, he was initially stumped by this assignment until Walt visited his home one evening, only to be mildly accosted by Joe’s Springer Spaniel – Lady. Enchanted by the animal, Walt suggested that Joe develop a story about his own dog, and so the project began.
However, after viewing preliminary sketches and story boards for Grant’s proposed film Walt's verve for the project cooled. With Fantasia already in his creative hopper, Walt effectively cancelled Grant’s project until 1948, after the two had a falling out over Alice in Wonderland. Grant departed the studio, leaving Walt to his own accord with both Alice and the, as yet unnamed, project involving Lady. Not long afterward a rather gregarious dog story written by Ward Greene for Cosmopolitan Magazine was brought to Walt's attention. At Walt's behest Greene agreed to work on a totally original novel that heavily 'borrowed' from Grant’s original concept. The resulting book ‘Lady and the Tramp’ (with Walt choosing the name for the male himself), became a publishing phenomenon amongst children. It was finally time to turn the book into an animated feature.
In many ways, the filmic Lady and the Tramp is an eclectic blend of adult situations grafted onto Walt’s own idyllic remembrances of small town America circa 1900. Lady (voiced by Barbara Luddy) is a Cocker Spaniel given as a Christmas gift to Darling (Peggy Lee) from Jim Dear (Lee Millar). For a while, all is calm and bright in the household. However, with the arrival of a human baby, Lady is cast aside – leading to doubts about her importance within the family unit. At this point, Greene's book introduces the character of Tramp (Larry Roberts); a no account mongrel from the wrong side of the tracks, who courts Lady under the watchful eye of her two loyal friends, Jock (Bill Thompson) and Trusty (Bill Baucom). Tramp introduces Lady to all sorts of wild-eye adventures and romance; the film’s spaghetti eating sequence at Tony’s Restaurant being the memorable highlight.
Returning home, Lady discovers that her domicile has been invaded by Darling’s nattering, though well intentioned Aunt Sarah (Verna Felton) and her two mischievous cats, Si and Am (both brilliantly vocalized by Peggy Lee). Removed from the home after conflict with these devious kitties, Lady is muzzled and tied out back. Tramp frees her from her restraints but the escape is short lived when Lady is captured by a dog catcher and taken to the pound – resulting in the film’s second most fondly remembered sequence. Lady is introduced to Peg' (again, voiced by Peggy Lee); a sultry stray who informs her of Tramp's slightly naughty past. Lady is eventually freed from the pound and taken home. Only now she is confined to her doghouse in the backyard. When she spies a rat attempting to enter the nursery - and thereby hurt the baby - Lady barks for Tramp who kills the rat and saves the child. Unfortunately, Aunt Sarah believes it was Tramp who was out to hurt the child. She calls the pound and Tramp is captured and taken away.
Rusty and Jock rescue Tramp from the pound's paddy wagon while Lady rushes to the nursery to expose the dead rat's remains caught behind a dresser, thereby establishing Tramp's innocence. Our story concludes with Tramp celebrating Christmas as Lady's husband, surrounded by a quartet of puppies. Originally, Rusty was to have perished under the paddy wagon wheels during the attempted rescue of Tramp from the pound - a sobering moment indeed, but one that Walt understandably recognized would be too intense for his younger viewers. In the final cut, Rusty and Jock come to visit Lady and Tramp at home, with Rusty showing off his bandaged leg to the puppies.
Peggy Lee and Sunny Burke collaborated on the film's brilliant songs – few, but memorable with Lee’s ‘He’s a Tramp’ and ‘Belle Notte’ being the standouts. Resident Disney composer, Oliver Wallace made the most of his orchestral score, perfectly complimenting Lee/Burke’s contributions. The first animated movie to be shot in Cinemascope, necessitated a complete rethinking of all layouts and backgrounds. In the end, Claude Coats’ beautifully designed compositions took advantage of the entire girth of each expansive frame. Indeed, as widescreen movies were still relatively new, with many theaters slow to equip themselves in the new technology, Walt’s brother Roy encouraged the release of two versions of Lady and the Tramp – one in Cinemascope, the other in the conventional aspect ratio of 1:33:1. In the final analysis, it didn't matter. The Cinemascope version was preferred and seen by most audiences.
Viewed today, one continues to admire the meticulous layout and design craftsmanship to the piece, so beautifully composed that it simply fills the widescreen aperture with an abundance of interesting detail that never seems superfluous, cluttered or confining. While the fairytale would remain the Disney Studios bread and butter for the many years to come, Lady and the Tramp pointed animation in another direction with increased regularity. It is safe to say that if Lady and the Tramp had not been a success there would have been no '101 Dalmatians or 'Aristocats' or even Oliver & Company further down the line.
Disney's Blu-ray is, in a word, sumptuous. Meticulous restoration has yielded a flawless image. The visuals are so crisp that we can actually see artist's brush strokes in deep background information. Textures applied by hand, ink and paint now leap from the screen with superior clarity. Colors are richly saturated. Truly, there's absolutely nothing to complain about here. This is a reference quality disc and one to surely bring years of enjoyment to both the young and young at heart. The audio has been given an upgrade to DTS 7.1. For purists, Disney has also restored the original 3 channel stereo mix. Personally, I thought that the new 7.1 did a much better job of conveying spatial separation between channels (as, no kidding, it should) but without altering the experience so as to make me aware that this wasn't the way the film was originally intended to sound in 1955.
Disney has also added a few choice extras - exclusive to Blu-ray - to compliment the wealth of backlog extra features included from their original 2 disc DVD. The new features include a picture in picture audio commentary that is not to be missed. Diane Disney Miller offers a glowing tribute to her father. There's also something called Puppy-pedia that gives us factoid information on the canine stars of the film and dogs in general, plus never before seen deleted scenes and a deleted song. We also get the lengthy set of extras from the 2 disc DVD, the best of the lot being the monumental 'Lady's Pedigree: The Making of Lady and the Tramp' - a comprehensive documentary feature. Bottom line: I've always loved Lady and the Tramp. But I found myself falling in love with the film all over again - as if for the very first time. On a lovely belle notte or any other time of the year, Lady and the Tramp on Blu-ray is a winner. Kudos to the Walt Disney Company for all their fine efforts once again.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)