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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Lady and the Tramp

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Lady and the Tramp

Year: 1955

Source materials : Happy Dan, The Whistling Dog by Ward Greene

Budget: $4 million

Box office: Estimated $7.5 million in rentals at the North American box office in 1955. $93.6 million lifetime

Background: 1937, Disney story man Joe Grant came up with an idea inspired by the antics of his English Springer Spaniel Lady, and how she got “shoved aside” by Joe’s new baby. He approached Walt Disney who commissioned Grant to start story development on a new animated feature entitled Lady. Walt read the short story written by Ward Greene, “Happy Dan, The Whistling Dog”, and thought Grant’s story would be improved if Lady fell in love with a cynical dog character like the one in Greene’s story and bought the rights to it. Greene later novelized the story for publication.


Originally, Lady’s owners were called Jim Brown and Elizabeth. These were changed to highlight Lady’s point of view. They were briefly referred to as “Mister” and “Missis” before settling on the names “Jim Dear” and “Darling”. To maintain a dog’s perspective, Darling and Jim’s faces are rarely shown. The film’s opening sequence, in which Darling unwraps a hat box on Christmas morning and finds Lady inside, is inspired by an incident when Walt presented his wife Lily with a Chow puppy as a gift in a hat box. In 1949, Grant left the studio, but the Disney story men kept working based on Grant’s storyboards and Greene’s short story.


Plot: On Christmas morning, 1909, Jim Dear gives his wife Darling an American cocker spaniel puppy that she names Lady. Lady enjoys a happy life with the couple and befriends two local neighborhood dogs, Jock, a Scottish terrier, and Trusty, a bloodhound. Meanwhile, across town, a stray mongrel called the Tramp lives on his own, dining on scraps from Tony’s Italian restaurant and protecting his fellow strays. One day, Lady is saddened after her owners begin treating her rather coldly. Jock and Trusty visit her and determine that their change in behavior is due to Darling expecting a baby. While Jock and Trusty try to explain what a baby is, Tramp interrupts the conversation and offers his own thoughts on the matter. As Tramp leaves, he reminds Lady that “when the baby moves in, the dog moves out.”

Eventually, the baby arrives and the couple introduces Lady to the infant, of whom Lady grows fond. Soon after, Jim Dear and Darling leave for a trip, with their Aunt Sarah looking after the baby and the house. Aunt Sarah’s two trouble-making Siamese cats, Si and Am, deliberately mess up the house and trick her into thinking that Lady attacked them. Aunt Sarah then takes Lady to a pet shop to get a muzzle. Terrifed, Lady flees, only to be pursued by a trio of stray dogs. Tramp rescues her and finds a beaver at the local zoo who can remove the muzzle.


Later, Tramp shows Lady how he lives “footloose and collar-free”, eventually leading into a candlelit dinner at Tony’s. Lady begins to fall in love with Tramp, but she chooses to return home in order to watch over the baby. Lady is captured by the dog catcher and brought to the local dog pound. While at the pound, the other dogs reveal to Lady that Tramp previously had multiple girlfriends and feel it is unlikely he will ever settle down. She is eventually claimed by Aunt Sarah, who chains her in the backyard as punishment for running away.


Jock and Trusty visit to comfort Lady, but when Tramp arrives to apologize, Lady angrily confronts him about his past girlfriends and failure to rescue her from the pound. Tramp sadly leaves, but immediately thereafter a rat sneaks into the house. Lady sees the rat and barks frantically at it. Tramp hears her barking and rushes back, entering the house and cornering the rat in the nursery. Lady breaks free and rushes to the nursery, where Tramp inadvertently knocks over the baby’s crib before ultimately killing the rat. The commotion alerts Aunt Sarah, who sees both dogs and thinks they are responsible. She pushes Tramp in a closet and locks Lady in the basement, then calls the pound to take Tramp away.


Jim Dear and Darling return home as the dog catcher departs, and when they release Lady, she leads them to the dead rat. Overhearing everything, Jock and Trusty chase after the dog catcher’s wagon. The dogs are able to track down the wagon and scare the horses, causing the wagon to crash. Jim Dear arrives in a taxi with Lady, and she reunites with Tramp, but their joy is short-lived when they find Trusty pinned underneath the wagon’s wheel, motionless, with Jock howling mournfully.

That Christmas, Tramp has been adopted into the family, and he and Lady have started their own family, with three daughters who look like Lady and a son who looks similar to Tramp. Jock comes to see the family along with Trusty, who is still alive and merely suffered a broken leg, which is still healing.

Animation: The animators studied many dogs of different breeds to capture the movement and personality of dogs. Although the spaghetti eating sequence is probably now the best known scene from the film, Walt Disney was prepared to cut it, thinking that it would not be romantic and that dogs eating spaghetti would look silly. Animator Frank Thomas was against Walt’s decision and animated the entire scene himself without any lay-outs.


Originally, the background artist was supposed to be Mary Blair and she did some inspirational sketches for the film. However, she left the studio to become a children’s book illustrator in 1953. Claude Coats was then appointed as the key background artist. Coats made models of the interiors of Jim Dear and Darling’s house, and shot photos and film at a low perspective as reference to maintain a dog’s view. Eyvind Earle did almost 50 miniature concept sketches for the Bella Notte sequence and was a key contributor to the film.


The score for the film was composed and conducted by Oliver Wallace. Recording artist Peggy Lee wrote the songs with Sonny Burke and assisted with the score as well. In the film, she sings “La La Lu”, “The Siamese Cat Song”, and “He’s a Tramp”. Bella Notte” (Italian for “Beautiful Night”) was also written by Burke and Lee.


Originally, Lady and the Tramp was planned to be filmed in a regular full frame aspect ratio. However, Disney decided to animate the film in CinemaScope making Lady and the Tramp the first animated feature filmed in the process. The expansion of space created more realism but gave fewer closeups.Layout artists essentially had to reinvent their technique. Animators had to remember that they had to move their characters across a background instead of the background passing behind them. Since not all theaters had the capability to show CinemaScope at the time. Upon learning this, Walt issued two versions of the film: one in widescreen, and another in the Academy ratio. This involved gathering the layout artists to restructure key scenes when characters were on the edges of the screen.

Voice Cast:


Barbara Luddy as Lady. She started her career in vaudeville and later on the radio. She will appear in later Disney films Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Robin Hood and Winnie-the-Pooh. Larry Roberts as Tramp. He was best known for his roles onstage with the Circle Theatre and the Player’s Ring. Bill Thompson returns as Jock, Joe, Dachsie, Policeman, along with Verna Felton as Aunt Sarah. Bill Baucom played Trusty.

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George Givot as Tony. He started his career in vaudeville, and appeared on Broadway in shows by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Mae West.


Singer Peggy Lee as Darling, Si and Am, and Peg. She started as a vocalist on local radio to singing with Benny Goodman’s big band. Throughout her career, she sang jazz, pop, and rock and roll. She is most famous for her 1958 cover version of Little Willie John’s “Fever”.

Critical Reception: Despite being an enormous success at the box office, the film was also initially panned by critics: one indicated that the dogs had “the dimensions of hippos,” another that “the artists’ work is below par”.

Legacy: Disney Television Animation released a direct-to-video sequel to the film entitled Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure.


The Magic Kingdom features an Italian restaurant called Tony’s inspired by the film. Large statues of Lady and the Tramp are located in the 50s section of the Pop Century resort, and topiaries of the couple appear during the Flower and Garden Show in the Italy Pavilion at Epcot.


My take: The film is a great example of the animators really establishing a location. Early on, you really learn the layout of the house, especially how to get from the upstairs bedrooms, through the kitchen, basement and then outside, and that knowledge pays off when Tramp needs to run through the house to catch the rat. “He’s a Tramp” is a great song.

Next Week: Sleeping Beauty