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Lady and the Tramp Celebrates 65 Years

June 21, 2020

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June 1955 magazine advertisement for the release of Lady and the Tramp. THF145583

Although this animated feature film received mixed reviews when it was first released on June 22, 1955, Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp has since become a classic.  It is beloved for its songs, its story, its gorgeously rendered and meticulously detailed settings, and its universal themes of love and acceptance—not to mention that scene with the spaghetti!  Numerous story artists and animators contributed their talents to creating this film, but it would take years before Walt Disney would finally give it his nod of approval. 

Unlike other Disney animated films of the time, Lady and the Tramp is not based upon a venerable old fairy tale or a previously published book.  Its origins can be traced back to 1937, when Disney story artist Joe Grant showed Walt Disney some sketches and told him of his idea for a story based upon the antics of his own English Springer Spaniel named Lady, who was “shoved aside” when the family’s new baby arrived.  Walt encouraged Grant to develop the story but was unhappy with the outcome—feeling that Lady seemed too sweet and that the story didn’t have enough action.  For the next several years, Grant and other artists worked on a variety of conceptual sketches and many different approaches. 

In 1945, the storyline took a drastic turn, which ultimately led to its final film version.  That year, Walt Disney read a magazine short story called, “Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog.”  Here, in the story of a cynical, devil-may-care dog, Walt found the perfect foil for the prim and proper Lady.  By 1953, the film had evolved to the point that Walt asked Ward Greene, the short story’s author, to write a novelization of it.  It is Greene—not Joe Grant—who received credit in the final film.  Walt couldn’t resist adding a personal tidbit to the story.  According to his telling of the story, the opening scene came from his own experience of giving his wife a puppy as a gift in a hat box to make up for having forgotten a dinner date with her. 

Interestingly, the spaghetti-eating scene was almost cut, as Walt Disney initially thought it was silly and unromantic.  But animator Frank Thomas had such a strong vision for the scene that he completed all the animation for it before showing it to Walt, who was so impressed he agreed to keep in the now-iconic scene.

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1955 charm bracelet of the dogs in Lady and the Tramp, likely a souvenir obtained at Disneyland. THF8604

Since the dogs were the main characters of the film, it seemed only natural to both show and tell the story from the dogs’ point of view.  The animators studied many real dogs to capture their movements, behaviors, and personalities, while the scenes themselves were shot from a low “dog’s-eye-view” perspective.

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A depiction of Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland from the 1955 Picture Souvenir Book to the park. THF205154

The film’s setting—early 20th century small-town America—referenced Walt Disney’s own return to his roots, particularly his growing up in the small town of Marceline, Missouri.  As the setting was coming to life on film, a real live 3D version of it was being constructed at Disneyland, Walt Disney’s new park in Anaheim, California.  Disneyland opened a mere three weeks after the film was released.

Although the setting hearkened back to the past, the filmmaking technique that Walt chose was typically state-of-the-art.  As Walt marked the growing interest in widescreen film technology, he decided this would be the first of his animated films to use CinemaScope.  To fill in the extra-wide space of this format, the animators extended the backgrounds—resulting in settings that are unusually breathtaking, detailed, mood-setting and, when the story called for it, filled with dramatic tension.  Unfortunately, many theatres were not equipped with CinemaScope, so Walt decided that two versions of the film had to be created, forcing layout artists to scramble to restructure key scenes for a standard format as well.  CinemaScope ultimately proved too expensive and did not last past the early 1960s.  But its influence on Lady and the Tramp lives on—a testament to Walt’s commitment to filmmaking innovation.

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Although souvenirs related to Lady and the Tramp are hard to come by these days, I was thrilled to find these salt-and-pepper shakers and collectible pins over several visits to Walt Disney World.

I saw Lady and the Tramp when it was re-released in theatres in 1962.  I was nine years old at the time and I was completely enraptured.  The details and setting—from the frilly ladies’ dresses, dapper men’s suits, and overstuffed furniture inside Lady’s house to the horses’ clip-clopping down the cobblestone streets—seemed like old photographs come to life.  Taking in these details on the big screen as a girl, I was transfixed.  Is this where my interest in history began?

After seeing Lady and the Tramp at the movies, I also became obsessed with wanting a dog.  Not just any dog.  I wanted Lady, or a cocker spaniel as close to Lady as I could get.  I dreamed of her, drew pictures of her, transferred her personality onto the stuffed dogs I inevitably got as presents.  When I was in eighth grade, my parents finally relented.  One day my Mom surprised us and took us kids down to the animal shelter to get a dog.  It wasn’t a cocker spaniel.  But we did find a little golden-haired puppy that was a fine substitute. 

I don’t know that I thought much of Tramp when I was a girl.  He was wayward, a nuisance, too different.  But from my older perspective, I see that Lady meeting, and ultimately falling for, Tramp was really a symbol of what happens in your life.  Forced out of your comfort zone, broadening your horizons, seeing things from new perspectives, taking life’s curves with grace until, rather than resisting it, you accept it—even embrace it. 

Who knew, when I was a girl, that this movie was not just about dogs but about life? 

Note: The complete story of the making of Lady and the Tramp, including Joe Grant’s contributions, can be found in the bonus feature, “Lady’s Pedigree: The Making of Lady and the Tramp,” in the 50th Anniversary DVD of Lady and the Tramp.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. 

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