Thursday, September 17, 2020

Why the Lady's Not a Tramp

Romance has always been a frequent component of Disney's animated canon but, arguably, none of their films actually portrayed a relationship until 1955's Lady and the Tramp. Within a beautifully designed portrait of turn of the twentieth century America, Disney used a star-crossed love story as a platform to discuss social class. Given Walt Disney's own political point of view, the argument unsurprisingly favours a society stratified by income. It doesn't pursue its ideas with great vigour, it comes across more as an inevitable consequence of its attack on the cynicism which would threaten a world where finer sentiments can be nurtured.

The role of the Prince Charmings in Snow White and Cinderella is minimal because, although romance is certainly a feature of both films, it's more of an aesthetic in Snow White and a context for another kind of story in Cinderella. With Lady and the Tramp, the participants in the romance represent opposite perspectives in an argument about society. Lady (Barbara Luddy), raised in wealth and privilege, represents a comfortable and even opulent middle class while Tramp (Larry Roberts) is of the resentful rabble.

The source materials for the film are two different stories. One was an in-house script developed at Disney about a dog inspired by one writer's experience as a new dog owner. The other was "Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog" by Ward Greene, a short story that, despite my best efforts, I've been unable to find a copy of. But from the title, one might guess it works primarily as the source for the Tramp. The combination of two stories form the materials for an argument probably independent of both sources.

The film's not the most sophisticated argument but it's a fair portrait of how cynicism motivates communists and socialists, as far as it goes. Tramp lives on the wrong side of the tracks and he takes pride in how he gets by on begging for a variety of scraps at different restaurants. When entering Lady's neighbourhood, he mocks the fences around the trees, among other things, and when he comes upon Lady and her friends he mocks the reassuring words they use to tell her that life will be fine after her humans have had a baby. Tramp insists that she will be replaced in their affections by the baby. In other words, he can only see life in terms of those with unearned privilege and of those who are made to suffer by this system. For him, the possibility that Lady might find her place rewarding in the family even when she takes less prominence than the baby--or even because she does--is unthinkable. The film makes clear its consciousness of the argument it advances when Jock (Bill Thompson), one of Lady's friends, accuses Tramp of trying to corrupt her with "radical ideas".

Tramp makes his views clearer when he wakes up on a hill beside her and they share their different perspectives on the houses below them. Where Lady sees an environment of nurturing comfort, Tramp sees prisons and cruelty. He's completely deluded, as might be guessed from his caustic tone throughout the sequences where he's introducing relatively innocuous things to Lady or the audience.

One wonders about Tramp's past. Perhaps he was a victim of abandonment and that it was so painful for him, such a blow to his pride, that he couldn't imagine a world where any good dog could avoid the same fate as himself. To do so might lead him to contemplate the possibility of his own unworthiness. This is not territory explored by Lady and the Tramp--something more in this vein can be seen in Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs--but something of this pain does seem to lie under Tramp's story, especially since, in the conclusion, he accepts life in the house with Lady. The end of the film glides over a lot very quickly but the impression is clearly given that in recognising Tramp's value for killing the rat attacking the baby, Lady's owners rescue him from the pound and reward him with the comforts of their household for the rest of his life. Tramp could only arrive happily at this point if he accepts the houses aren't prisons and the humans aren't tyrants.

Lady is placed in the pound herself, briefly, at one point, and there she encounters an assortment of bad seeds--the insane, the lazy, the promiscuous, and the criminal. Among the group is an intellectual Russian dog (Alan Reed) who quotes from Gorky's The Lower Depths, "Miserable being must find more miserable being. Then is happy." He offers it as an explanation of why Tramp sleeps around so much (he really is a tramp!). It makes a lot of sense--how hard would it be for Tramp to maintain a view that sees the world divided between the corrupt in power and the good in chains if he wasn't surrounded only by people who are as miserable as he is? When he talks to Lady and her friends at first, he can only address them as though they are hopelessly deluded slaves.

But the other dogs in the pound don't seem as resentful as Tramp. Mainly they seem to be more of the film's cast of simplistic caricatures fitted for relatively cheap gags--the improbable diversity throughout the film gives us a Cockney bulldog, a Scottish Scottish Terrier, a Mexican Chihuahua, a Russian Borzoi, and an old bloohound who sounds like he was from the American south. And, of course, the infamous Siamese cats.

I honestly feel like everyone hated that song long before the term "cultural appropriation" was popularised. As with "What Made the Red Man Red", Disney shows a predilection for lame gags like this you didn't tend to see before the 1950s. Obviously racial stereotypes can be seen in films before the '50s but there's something more puerile about it, even more than the wartime propaganda shorts Disney produced in the '40s.

In any case, the dogs Lady encounters in the pound are nothing like the characters in The Lower Depths. Akira Kurosawa's adaptation of Gorky's play was released two years after Lady and the Tramp and if you wish to see a masterful, deeply insightful portrait of the psychological effects of poverty on a small community or the relationship between poverty and psychological conditions, it would be difficult to find a better film. What is Disney trying to do by referencing Gorky's play? Perhaps to point the audience to a story that is able to better expand on the same topic Lady and the Tramp only touches on. The love story in The Lower Depths is about the need for two lovers to construct a sort of mutual delusion in order to have a successful relationship. This is what lies behind Tramp trying so hard to change Lady's perspective.

Usually in stories where a privileged individual is cast down among the rabble--The Thief of Bagdad or The Prince and the Pauper, for instance--he's taught a lesson about respecting the struggles of the poor. But Lady had never shown any such arrogance or malevolence and by the end of the film she doesn't seem to have any desire for a change in the status quo. Bizarrely, in another scene, she only follows Tramp in his design to chase chickens (tellingly, he calls the chickens "fat, lazy biddies." He's almost like Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt) after his promises they won't kill any of them. Does she not know where her meat comes from? Maybe not.

Tramp, like Toad in Ichabod and Mr. Toad, has to show his worth in order to have a place in the big, beautiful house. Lady also shows her worth, not only in protecting the baby and having humility, but in her innocence, her absolute lack of malice. When she's carried out of the pound because she has a collar, the keeper says she's "too good" for a place like this. Part of the film's argument is that only the world of beauty, comfort, and security could produce someone like Lady. Of course, this is also why her very existence is contrary to everything Tramp needs to believe.

The message is underlined by Trusty's (Bill Baucom) attempt to save Tramp at the end. As a former member of law enforcement and a respected elder in the wealthy community, the bloodhound is a symbol of the institution and his readiness to sacrifice himself for someone who lived outside the borders of that institution implies not only his own worth but that of the world in which he lives. He and Jock both act as voices of authority for Lady, both immediately deciding how to be tactful and comforting the morning after she has spent the night with Tramp.

Obviously, we don't have any direct evidence that Tramp and Lady had sex in the park (or if the offspring we see later are a product of that coupling) but all the usual window dressing is there. Even though it's ostensibly about Lady breaking the taboo of staying out late, we get the idea pretty clearly, which goes to show how subtly morals can be perpetuated from one generation, or one group, to another.

Lady and the Tramp doesn't fully grapple with the ideas it introduces, instead settling for being a simple romance. In this, it's satisfying enough, partly because of he surprising depth of the subtext. The visual design certainly doesn't hurt, either.

Lady and the Tramp is available on Disney+.

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