At some point in my early childhood, I saw Lady and the Tramp (1955). I am not sure how, or why, but it was probably one of those things parents put on to entertain their children while they fall asleep. I believe my sister and I watched it together, and for whatever reason it made us really enthusiastic to get a dog. My mom had always been a cat person, and ironically (you will see why) we had a Siamese cat already named Taio. My memory tells me that shortly after seeing the film, we got an American Cocker Spaniel, the breed of Lady (voiced by Barbara Luddy) in the movie, named Missy. I loved that dog. She would sleep with me at night. Given where we lived, in a small neighborhood surrounded by cornfields, you could let her out to roam and she would come running from wherever she had wandered. Our time with Missy was too short lived as we moved the next year to a house that did not allow pets (though my mom snuck the cat anyway), and we gave Missy to my grandparents. While it would have been better to keep her, my grandparents adored the dog and gave her a happy life. Anyway, in memory of that beloved pet, I give you this review.
In a small town on Christmas Day, Lady and the Tramp has the first of our title characters bursting out of a gift-wrapped box. Lady is a present from Jim Dear (voiced by Lee Millar) to his wife Darling (voiced by Peggy Lee). Before things get too confusing, it should be noted that the story is told from Lady’s perspective, and she only hears her owners refer to each other by these words. Moving on, Jim Dear attempts some early discipline for Lady, trying to get her to sleep in a dog bed downstairs instead of in bed with his wife. Lady’s cuteness and howling prevail, and she is allowed to sleep upstairs with her owners. Yes, she is spoiled, but she gives back to her owners for the great life they provide by being excited whenever Jim Dear gets home from work, chasing away rats she sees in the yard, and generally being adorable. Things are going swimmingly until one day Darling has some news for Jim Dear that will forever change their priorities: Darling is pregnant. In trying to make sense of the sudden change in their attitude towards her, Lady asks the neighbor dogs Jock (voiced by Bill Thompson) and Trusty (voiced by Bill Baucom) for advice. They know what is going on with Darling and try to calm Lady’s fears, but they are exasperated when their conversation is interrupted by Tramp (voiced by Larry Roberts). He had grown up with none of the benefits of Lady, and thus has a jaded view of humans and their intentions. He tells Lady that it will soon be the doghouse for her. Still, when the baby is born, Lady is given a close look at the child and decides that she will help protect it. This would seem to settle the matter until Jim Dear and Darling decide to go on vacation and call upon Aunt Sarah (voiced by Verna Felton) to watch the baby while they are away. Aunt Sarah does not like dogs. To make matters worse, she brings her two Siamese cats, Si and Am (both voiced by Peggy Lee). They cause a great deal of trouble, including attempting to steal milk from the baby, all of which is blamed on Lady. In response, Aunt Sarah purchases a muzzle for Lady at the pet store in town. Though Aunt Sarah manages to get the device on, Lady runs off. In her flight, she encounters Tramp, who shows Lady the supposed advantages of living a carefree life without owners. After managing to get the muzzle removed with the assistance of a helpful beaver, Tramp takes Lady to a nearby Italian restaurant whose operators have taken a liking to Tramp. What follows is the famous scene from the movie with Lady and Tramp sharing the last noodle, their snouts touching, and Lady looking away bashfully. As much as she enjoyed their evening, Lady chooses to go home to do her part for the baby. Unfortunately, Tramp entices her to scare some chickens before leaving, which leads to her being captured by the local dogcatchers. She is eventually claimed by a reluctant Aunt Sarah, who banishes Lady to the outdoor doghouse. Tramp comes to apologize, but during it Lady sees the rat from before trying to get into the house. She believes the rodent means to harm the baby, and sends Tramp after it. Eventually, she gets free of the leash binding her to the doghouse, and gives chase, too. They corner the rat in the nursery, killing it, but not before inadvertently knocking over the crib. Aunt Sarah, awakened by the commotion, locks Lady in the basement and has the dogcatcher come and take away Tramp. At the same time, Jim Dear and Darling get home from their travels, wondering as to the reason for the hullabaloo. Lady tells Jock and Trusty what is about to befall Tramp, and they manage to stop the wagon before it gets to the pound. Jim Dear and Darling decide to adopt Tramp, and by the next Christmas they have puppies as the film closes.
Lady and the Tramp is another Disney movie that was made at a time when there were different sensibilities when it comes to race. Ergo, there is a disclaimer at the beginning about how there are negative racial stereotypes in the film, and how wrong they are then and now. One could make the argument that this pertains to the Italian restauranteurs. As with many Latin peoples depicted in cartoons of the time, they have swarthy complexions, big noses, and wide, toothy grins. There is also, of course, the outrageous accents. The worst, though, are the Siamese cats. Like black face, yellow face was, and is, a thing, and it is in the movie in feline form. Aside from the exaggerated, anthropomorphic features and accents, they get into mischief to a vaguely Asian musical number. Now, keep in mind that this is 1955. Ten years before the United States defeated Japan to end World War II, and had fought Chinese forces during the Korean War that finished that year. The average American then (and probably now, if only judging by the menus at Asian restaurants) has no conception of the differences from country to country when it comes to Asian culture. Like so many “other” peoples (read as not white), they are all of a piece, and not a good one at that at this moment in history. The Siamese cat routine and the Italians are two unfortunate blemishes on an otherwise classic film, though I do not know if they need the disclaimer at the beginning. Adults should know racism when they see it, and they should have open, honest discussions with their children on the subject.
Having taken care of the disclaimer in Lady and the Tramp, let me praise Lady for her loyalty to her family. She is presented with a choice, a life of adventure on the road or helping to look after the baby. She chooses the latter, despite evidently enjoying the taste of the former she got with Tramp. Her decision is made clearer when she learns of Tramp’s reputation while in the pound. Either way, she opts for her family out of a sense of duty. I would say “Christian Duty,” but I acknowledge that families are not the sole purview of Christians. At the same time, especially for us Catholics, God calls each of us to a purpose, and denying it can be problematic. There are some, too, that are called to the life of a tramp, but it becomes apparent that this Tramp had designs on a more settled life. And that works with how God guides each of us, too. I have heard many priests say, as they grew up, that firmly believed that they were meant to get married. Yet, there is some seemingly innocuous event that leads them to the priesthood. It works the other way around for Tramp, but it took the care he felt for Lady to tell him that he is meant for something different. I pray that each of you have that moment that brings you to where you are meant to be.
The problematic moments in Lady and the Tramp are brief, though they should be acknowledged. And there, I have done so. As for the rest, it is fine. I find that it is better than the live-action remake that came out in 2019, even if that one does not have the overt racism. So, here is to you Missy, and I hope that you are resting in peace.