65 Years of Walt Disney’s ‘Lady & the Tramp’

For the most part, the average person tends to associate classic Disney animation with princesses and fairy tales. Every Disney theme park across the world has gigantic monuments to these films, and a handful of the company’s most well-known leading ladies make up its most profitable merchandising line. Of course, despite their popularity, princesses and fairy tales don’t make up all of Disney’s filmography. Although not quite as popular as their human counterparts, two likeable pups made their mark in Disney history in 1955, and their story has since cemented itself into the popular imagination, being parodied by the likes of ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘My Little Pony,’ ‘Two and a Half Men,’ and ‘Futurama.’ Dubbed Disney’s “happiest motion picture” at the time of its release, ‘Lady & the Tramp’ turns 65 this year.

Eighteen years after the release of their landmark animated feature, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, the Walt Disney Company continued to dominate the field of feature-length animation. The company’s success could have easily led them down a road of stagnation. As is clear from Disney’s current output, it’s safer to bank on more of the same than to constantly invent new ideas and techniques. Fortunately, with Walt Disney at the company’s helm, there was always a push for innovation, particularly in the company’s animation department. This was particularly the case for ‘Lady & the Tramp,’ the company’s fifteenth feature, which would make history as the first animated film “shot” entirely in CinemaScope. 

Although ‘Lady & the Tramp’ was initially planned to be filmed in a full frame aspect ratio like the company’s film’s before it, Walt was intrigued by the growing interest of widescreen films among audiences and urged animators to employ the technique with their feature in-progress. Although the change in aspect ratio proved difficult for animators who were used to blocking characters and setting up scenes in a more confined space, their hard work paid off. The elongated backgrounds make the world of the film feel more “real” and lived in. Characters no longer had repeated backgrounds that passed behind them, they really walked across the street or down grassy hills.

Two dogs, a golden brown cocker spaniel and scruffy grey mutt, make their way down a grassy hill. The environment is prominent and the dogs small and far away. A sunrise tints the image with purple hues.
Image Courtesy of Animation Screencaps & Walt Disney Productions

Claude Coats, the film’s key background artist, took a series of photos at a dog’s eye-level to inspire the look of the film.1 The inspiration is clear while watching the film, with the CinemaScope aspect ratio helping in the creation of a larger than life version of a 1900’s New England suburb and neighboring town. The biggest thing distinguishing the film from a real dog’s eye view, however, is its use of colors. The world of ‘Lady & the Tramp’ is full of lush, candy-colored backgrounds that artfully indicate the central pair’s growing romance as well as more subdued, dreary backdrops to illustrate the dog pound featured in the film’s second half.

In addition to the film’s unique aspect ratio, the 1955 animation also holds the distinction of being one of the most original Disney films at the time of its release. Although the 1994 release, ‘The Lion King’, holds the official title of Disney’s “first original film,” it’s important to note that the only aspect of ‘Lady & the Tramp’ borrowed from a source material was the concept of a cynical mutt character – borrowed from a short story titled “Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog” by Ward Greene – who Walt thought would be a good match for animator Joe Green’s concept for a film based on his own excitable English Springer Spaniel.

The pairing was nothing short of genius, allowing the prim and proper Lady (Barbara Luddy) to be confronted with a dog from the other side of the tracks who teaches her a little bit about the world outside of her white picket fence. The pair’s evening out, for those who still haven’t seen it, ends with their iconic spaghetti dinner – a scene which seems incredibly silly in concept, but one which is executed with a surprising amount of class and emotion. The viewer really believes that these two dogs are falling in love, with the enchanting musical number ‘Bella Notte’ setting the tone for their shared dinner.

Of course, not all of ‘Lady & the Tramp’ is mesmerizing animation and candlelit doggie dinners. The 50’s film, like a striking number of early Disney films like it, is hampered considerably by the inclusion of characters that amount to racist caricatures. This is a fact that Disney themselves acknowledged in their 2019 remake, which used real animal and human actors to retell the story of the classic film. The point of contention for the original film is the inclusion of two siamese cats named Si and Am (Peggy Lee) who terrorize Lady, causing her temporary caretaker Aunt Sarah (Verna Felton) to believe that she is a menace. The cats’ scene is accompanied by a song that is not only racially charged, but incredibly uninspired, wherein the two cats use “engrish” (i.e. “there are no finer cat than I am”) to sing over a traditional Asian score. The cats design further complicates the poor representation, with both Si and Am sporting two buck teeth – a commonality in racist caricatures of Asian people and one that would appear again in Disney’s ‘The Aristocats’ fifteen years after the release of ‘Lady & the Tramp.’

Despite the fact that the song was covered as recently as 2005 by two white women for the second Radio Disney album, the aforementioned 2019 remake of the film reworked these characters, giving the pair a new design and song while keeping the spirit and purpose of their scene the same. It’s a rare acknowledgement by Disney of their problematic past, something that seems to be happening a lot more frequently nowadays as fans become vocal on social media about the glaring issues in some of the company’s classic films. 
Even with recent, founded criticisms about the film’s racist musical sequence, ‘Lady & the Tramp’ has remained a beloved classic feature with many fans focusing their appreciation on the dynamic of the film’s leads rather than the pair of antagonistic cats. The classic 2D animation holds up spectacularly, looking even more stunning in recent restorations, and music by Oliver Wallace, George Bruns, and Peggy Lee adds a certain Disney charm to scenes such as the spaghetti dinner and Lady’s encounter with a group of dogs in the city pound. Although it is certainly not without its troubles, ‘Lady & the Tramp’ is a wonderfully unique Disney animation and one certainly lives up to the claim that it is  “Disney’s happiest motion picture.”

1 Lady and the Tramp Platinum Edition DVD – “Disney Backstage” (Bonus feature). Walt Disney Home Entertainment. 2006.