Friday, September 29, 2017

That’s Why the Lady’s Not a Tramp

Not sure how to pay tribute to the late Hugh Hefner, a figure about whom I have strongly mixed emotions. So I’m going to go the opposite route and discuss a movie that, despite its could-be-Playboyish title, is actually family fare at its finest. Yes, I’m talking about Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. (I guess it’s fair to say that in Hefner’s insulated Playboy Mansion world, the lady IS a tramp. But I digress.)

I watched Lady and the Tramp again just last week, after more years than I’d like to count. It was a family occasion, and the film enthralled viewers whose ages ranged widely. The littlest ones (5 1/2 and 3) were a trifle unnerved at times: Disney animated features are not without their dark shadows, in this case involving a muzzle, a dog-catcher, and an ominous trip to the pound. But that’s as it should be. Even little kids respond to suspense and the threat of jeopardy. And in any Disneyesque tale, the darkness makes the sunshine seem all the brighter.

Lady and the Tramp was originally released back in 1955, in an era that gloried in hand-drawn animation. So it’s no surprise that the film is lovely to look at. (To my mind, old fogey that I am, the beauty of the hand-drawn line is still superior to the admittedly hipper style of today’s computer-animated features.) Making this valentine to the canine world all the sweeter, the storytellers set Lady and the Tramp back in time, in some vaguely post-Victorian era when people lit gas lamps, rode in horse-drawn vehicles, and dwelt in wonderful houses both quaint and noble. And Christmas always seems just around the corner.

Though the supposed date of the story is 1909, its ideology very much reflects the 1950s, the era of Disneyland’s opening, and a decade when Disney values reigned supreme. (The commercial strip shown in the film is not so different from Disneyland’s famous Main Street U.S.A., a place reflecting Walt’s own dream of the wholesome midwestern childhood he’d like to have led.) The Fifties were a time that exalted domesticity, and Lady and the Tramp certainly does its share of promoting home and family. The central human couple, Jim Dear and Darling, are paragons of domestic bliss, as their names imply. But of course the central point of view in Lady and the Tramp belongs to the canine set.

Lady, a cute cocker spaniel with floppy ears and big brown eyes, is ultra-feminine and a homebody. She’s proud of her collar and of her central place in the household of her human companions. She views Tramp, a cocky mutt with no fixed abode, as disreputable and a bad influence. She’s happy to have a human family, even when a baby comes to stay. (Lots of sentimental music at this point.)

Of course all this happiness can’t last, thanks to a visit from Aunt Sarah and her wonderfully evil Siamese cats. Lady flees, cruelly muzzled, only to be rescued by Tramp, who takes her on a romantic dinner-date (yes, the spaghetti scene). For a while the vagabond life seems fun, but serious danger lurks. After a flurry of excitement highlighted by the threat of danger to the baby, Tramp proves his mettle and is accepted as a full-fledged member of Lady’s household. They marry, presumably, and produce several adorable pups. And Tramp now proudly wears a collar of his own. This movie was released in the same year as Rebel Without a Cause, But in a Disney movie, monogamy and home sweet home are things to be cherished.

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