Lady and the Tramp, though not nearly as dark as some of Disney's earlier films, is one of the studio's most "adult" stories. It appeals to children, to be sure, with its talking animals and adventurous storyline. Yet much of that very appeal may be rooted in the way the film offers peeks into the adult world - using the dogs as both surrogate children (allowing young viewers to identify with their emotional tangled relationship to the owners/parents) and as more approachable versions of adults themselves (their animal appeal taking the edge off potentially "grown-up" concerns like romance, leaving home, and social awareness). Disney's next project, Sleeping Beauty, would be more adventurous as animation, although Lady and the Tramp is expansively framed, nice to look at, and able to effectively employ close-ups and "camera" movements in widescreen compositions (something live-action contemporaries had difficulty achieving). Yet Lady and the Tramp accomplishes more through story than visual presentation; the film represents a number of "firsts" for a Disney feature, most having to do with that aforementioned maturity.
For one thing, no other animated Disney feature had set itself in such a recognizable, close-to-contemporary world. The movie takes place in Connecticut of the early 1900s, but even those half-century-old Edwardian trappings make for a more familiar setting than the rustic Italy of Pinocchio, the medieval German forests of Snow White, or the glittery European castles of Cinderalla. Bambi takes place solely in the animal world, with humanity an offscreen menace, while Dumbo sets itself in the offbeat world of the circus (any people onscreen are kept comically exaggerated). Other 1950s fare, like Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan, comes within striking distance of the present, but only in fleeting framing devices - the bulk of each film unfolds in a fantasyland beyond time or place. Besides, both were based on infamous sources which precluded the relatability factor.
Lady and the Tramp, on the other hand, may feature talking animals (albeit ones whom the human owners cannot "hear") but it is firmly set in a recognizable world. Its pre-World War I setting would have been familiar firsthand to Ward Greene, who was born in 1892 and wrote a Cosmopolitan story ("Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog") that Walt Disney eventually incorporated into this movie (he also authored the novelization intended to legitimize this rare studio production without literary pedigree). Many of the writers and animators would also have remembered the days of early motorcars, stately bourgeois respectability, and a potpourri of recent immigrants. Walt himself was familiar with the mix between gentility and scrappiness, rural coziness and a hectic urban pace - his family moved back and forth between Midwestern farms and Chicagoan apartments, and as a hardworking newspaper delivery boy he would trip over shiny red sleds left carelessly on the doorsteps of mansions. This complex environment, at once nostalgic yet modern, was his world too.
Unsurprisingly, then, Lady and the Tramp's demimonde is not keyed into the music-box intonations of a half-dreamed fairyland, but rather to a socially observant, winkingly recognizable world of upper-middle-class domesticity and lower-class, quasi-bohemian street smarts. Of all the previous Disney films, the only thing comparable in tone is the penultimate scene of Dumbo, with its singing crows based on recognizable jive talk and minstrel conventions of the time. (Their politically incorrect presence is echoed here by deviously orientalist Siamese cats - as a kind of revenge against the limits of stereotypes, both crows and cats snag the catchiest, cleverest numbers.) Lady and the Tramp has more in common with the entirely new genre of sitcoms only just emerging on the nation's television sets; the friendly banter between Jim Dear and Darling (as well as their dramatic pregnancy) reflects a healthy balance between the cozy respectability of "Leave it to Beaver" and the wisecracking of "I Love Lucy." Above all, it is not much related to anything we've seen from Disney before.
But a comfy portrait of turn-of-the century privilege (Lady is pampered, the house is posh to the extreme, and Jim Dear is seen nailing a Yale banner to his unborn son's wall) is not all the film has to offer - indeed it's only the pretext for something else, an element perhaps even more surprising. The movie reserves its most acute nostalgia not for the vaguely remembered leisure of fifty years ago, but for a more difficult, yet also much fresher period two decades past. The banter of the stray dogs (each specifically and lovingly coded along ethnic lines) is straight out of fast-talking, working-class Depression era Warner Brothers. There's a sassy dame, a pack of scruffy streetwise pooches, even a Communist wolf hound who quotes Gorky, refers to dog-catchers as "Cossacks," and puns about a "red flag" (indeed, with the recent Red Scare - in which Uncle Walt enthusiastically participated - it's a bit of a shock to see a Bolshevik canine so lovingly portrayed!).
The leader of this gang, though he's stylishly absent from the pound while they all gossip and (memorably) sing about him, is of course the Tramp of the title. All-American, red-blooded but cool-under-pressure, unpretentious and charismatic, this mutt may also be the first working-class hero of a Disney movie, although he's a taker not a takee (in this he comes close to Cagney's gangster or Chaplin's you-know-what - see the scene where the canine criminal pranks a cop - than to the poignancy of the proletariat). Indeed, Lady and the Tramp is ultimately about class, not something you can say in reference to most Disney films. Even so, while the economic underpinnings are clear, class tension is treated as cultural issue rather than a financial one: the contrast between comfort and poverty spun as a difference between security and adventure.
There were precedents for that sense of adventure, and not just in the wilder short subjects of the Great Depression era. Previously, Dumbo (with its drunkenness and hip black birds) and Pinnochio (with the beer-swilling, fist-fighting, cigar-smoking hooligans of Pleasure Island) had strayed pretty far into the territory of adult ribaldry, the former less moralistically than the latter. Meanwhile, Bambi had delved deeply into the rich minefield of hot-blooded sexuality (its horny beasts of the wood not so far as one might think from cat-calling Looney Tunes or Tex Avery's Big Bad Wolf, albeit in a more naturalistic vein). However, the tone of Lady and the Tramp is gently ironic rather than full-throated; at times, the film even seems to be taking 1940s melodrama as its model - centered as it is on a dreamy young woman's seduction, by both a handsome rogue and the dangerous world he represents (such a relationship would be immortalized in Mick Jagger's sardonic lyric for "Play with Fire"). Of course, this time there's a different outcome.
Lady is the classic, well-bred poor little rich girl who goes slumming for romance, falling for a charming scoundrel and letting him take her to bed. (No kidding, that floppy ear nestled over Tramp's snout at sunrise fits snugly into the rich tradition of Production Code-era post-coital positioning!) Following Lady's one-night stand and subsequent imprisonment, there's even a scene where her neighbors, concerned for her reputation, gallantly offer themselves in marriage to redeem her honor. (A modern gal, she politely declines.) The two older dogs are a squirely Scotch terrier, and a Southern bloodhound who can no longer smell (like ex-Confederate aristocrats of the time, he lives in the past and is tolerated for local color while regarded as harmless). They represent an older world, while Lady is restless and eager to break out of her gilded cage, even as she fears the consequences and cannot sever her ties to respectability. Eventually, she brings Tramp into her world rather than immersing herself in his, but this represents progress of a sort - perhaps reflecting the eventual assimilation of America's "mutts" into the WASPy middle classes?
Tramp is yet another first for the studio; most of their previous protagonists were women, and the exceptions were either children (Pinocchio, Dumbo, half of Bambi) or adolescents in the uncertain throes of first love (the other half of Bambi, perhaps Peter Pan). But this dog is a man, one of the guys who's been around the park and knows the score. He's "cool" - probably the first time this very contemporary term could be used for a Disney character (only Peter Pan comes close, but he's more the old-fashioned mischievous Tom Sawyer type than the modern hipster - in the original sense of that much-maligned term). Yet Tramp is a romantic too, a suave player without necessarily being a jerk (in the end, he heroically kills a rat to save the family's brat - and skirts martyrdom as a result). This still being a kids' movie, the Tramp eventually settles down with the Lady, but his personality remains the same and we are spared any mushy "aw shucks, I'm cured" moments with him. Does he still keep bitches (dog sense, of course) on the side? Lady better keep a tight hold on that leash.
When I was three or four years old, Lady and the Tramp was my favorite movie, not just favorite Disney but favorite period. Looking back, I can see several reasons why. I must have related to the arrival of a baby shaking up the "first child's" sense of priority, as right at this time my little sister was born. Entering preschool around the same time, starting to become more aware of my surroundings, I must have also related to the sense of feeling the conflict between the comfort of family and the approval of one's peers. The presence of Tramp was also a great boon - as other male viewers have said about preferring Sleeping Beauty (a "princess" movie in which the prince actually has dialogue and a personality) to Snow White, Disney tends to favor heroines over heroes, so little boys naturally gravitate to the movies that offer relief from this tendency. (While the Tramp reflects an idealized portrait of how a toddler will see himself, it's probably Lady's situation which comes closer to his own, with that aforementioned tug-of-war between familiar security and nascent independence. This gives the movie a double-edged appeal.)
Above all, though, what I think I liked about the movie was the way it offered the grown-up world as a microcosm, a gateway into that mysterious universe of adulthood (with half-understood conversations, intimidating responsibilities, mysterious conventions) - a universe the dogs observe with curiosity and confusion, before reenacting it in their own lives (albeit with more complications - in terms of romance, danger, and social awareness). The film offers just about everything within its seemingly narrow parameters - its storyline manages to distill and incorporate fifty years of American pop culture and mass society (from silent comedies to comic talkies, from the Saturday Evening Post to the gritty paperback, from vaudeville to sitcom). And it holds up today, watching it from the other side, because it speaks to adults as well as children - more successfully than most contemporary films which attempt to do the same, because it's not so much two separate levels operating here, but rather that parents and their kids are responding to the same things, each from their own perspective. In the final analysis, Lady and the Tramp intrigues because, unlike most Disney films, its story deals with human society. Which, when you think about it, is quite an achievement for a movie about dogs.
Coda: Another contributor bears mentioning - at last: Joe Grant, who had a falling out with Walt in the late 40s (he returned to the studio decades after the Disney's death) and whose authorship of the original story, which originally revolved only around Lady, went unacknowledged for half a century, until a DVD feature restored his attribution. Grant too was a very young child before World War I, though his original idea did not take place in that period. Incidentally, Grant's life spanned from that Edwardian era into the twenty-first century: he died in 2005 at 96. His career lasted almost as long, beginning with cartoon shorts in the early 1930s and concluding with work back at Disney on the 2004 release Home of the Range. He's credited not just with the genesis for Lady and the Tramp but the image of the swirling leaves around the heroine in Pocahontas, just to give you an idea of his range. Though unconnected to the general thrust of this article, this commanding breadth deserves a side-salute.