Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Walt Disney, part XIX: The dog days are over


Maybe I'm just not a dog person, you know?

Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske

Spoiler alert: moderate

By 1955, Disney's Silver Age was humming right along.  There was some sign of Disney feature animation slowing down—for the second time in a row, Disney had spent two years between feature-length cartoons, and the production of Sleeping Beauty had by this point already become a slog—but there was no sign of it stopping, or of outrunning its audience's willingness to pay for it.  Cinderella had been a massive success, Peter Pan likewise (and Alice In Wonderland a bruising failure, but so it goes).  Now came Lady and the Tramp, which continued the general trend, and, in the years to come, reissues would ensure its place as Disney's second-highest earner of the 1950s, after Cinderella, which I think means that it stands as the whole decade's second-biggest film, too.  Moreover, one gets the impression that it's a bit better-liked than Cinderella nowadays: maybe not quite as iconic, maybe not as prone to merchandising, but you still see folks swooning like crazy over its gentle romance, and its cute little doggies, and putting it way high up on their Disney lists.

This was great news for Walt, and it justified Lady and the Tramp as the first animated feature to be sold directly to theaters by Disney itself, through its newly-founded distribution arm Buena Vista—and it justified it as the first animated feature to be shot in any of those newfangled widescreen formats, in this case CinemaScope.  (Famously, that latter decision led to a bit of a debacle when Walt, fearing that not enough theaters would be capable of projecting it, ordered a whole second version to be laid-out and photographed in ordinary Academy ratio.  I expect that the catastrophic release of Fantasia in just thirteen theaters in 1940 still weighed heavily on his mind, and damned if he'd have gone through that again.  But perhaps Walt recognized that while it was certainly a significant extra expense, and it doubtless added to the stress levels of his poor animators, with a second version at the ready, Walt Disney Productions would be getting a product tailor-made for its other ongoing imperial expansion: television.)

And that's all well and good, because I'm obviously very glad that Disney remained profitable throughout most of the 1950s—but it's been awfully difficult for me to understand why.  Once past Cinderella (and thank God for Cinderella!), the studio moved from slight misfire to all-time nadir.  The fourth film of Disney's so-called Silver Age is, of course, a big improvement over Peter Pan, but almost anything would be.  Maybe I'm heartless, but I just don't like Lady and the Tramp, and considering that "likeability" is the biggest thing the movie putatively has going for it, that's kind of the end of the analysis.  Well, not really; we do have a format to adhere to, after all.

Our plot, of course, is bookended by a pair of Christmases, 1909's and 1910's respectively, in a nice house in a nice neighborhood somewhere in the Midwest—probably a sop to Walt, whose nostalgia for what he thought of as his slice of America was fathomless—and it chronicles the first year of life for a cocker spaniel named Lady, presented as a gift from a husband (Lee Millar) to his newly-wedded wife (Peggy Lee).  Names are a slippery thing in Lady and the Tramp (it's probably the only thing about it that's even the tiniest bit sophisticated, or even not second-hand), and we can refer to the couple only as Lady knows them, based on their commonest affectionate names for each other: "Jim Dear" and "Darling."  Though then there's a sloppy little intrusion where a human adult calls the wife "Darling" too, so maybe it really is just her damn name.

Anyway, we meet Lady in an opening prologue that plays like a good-natured short film and which takes five minutes to get to the joke (Jim Dear doesn't want Lady in his bed, but, obviously, he doesn't have it in him to actually kick her out).  Lady grows to adulthood in the fullness of time, enjoying her high-class life and the companionship of her canine neighbors Jock (Bill Thompson) and Trusty (Bill Baucom), not to mention all the attention lavished on her by her loving owners.  But this ends the day a baby comes along, whereupon Lady becomes second priority, if any priority at all.  Which hurts, but she does come to understand and love the new addition in her own way, which is why she's annoyed when her owners take a trip almost the instant the thing's been birthed, leaving their offspring, their dog, and their house in the care of Aunt Sarah (Verna Felton), who is the closest thing Lady and the Tramp has to a villain, since it's Sarah's attempt to muzzle poor Lady that sends her flying off into the unknown, where, by good fortune, she runs into a mutt she'd made the acquaintance of before, a half-feral dog who accepts whatever name is convenient when it comes to begging for scraps from the half-dozen families he calls friend, but who is known amongst the canines only as the Tramp (Larry Roberts).

Naturally, they fall in love, and then Lady rejects him as uncouth, and then there's an actiony climax, starring an evil rat that apparently wants to eat children, wherein Lady's obliged to forgive the Tramp and Sarah is revealed, I guess, as a bigot against strange, snarling dogs.  With this, the most rigid and joyless of Disney's multitude of gender-role primers for children is complete; its formative influence on young girls ensures George Clooney's stardom; and all along it's kind of exhausting to think about how plot point A is supposed to insert into plot point B as the thing just fucking unfolds before your eyes, in such totally arbitrary ways you'd be prone to describe it as "naturalistic" if it weren't for all the talking dogs.  Lady and the Tramp is sometimes described as Disney's first romance, and often held as one of its best and most down-to-Earth.  I suppose the first part has a ring of truth to it: if they still haven't given the male lead a name, it's at least intentional this time, and the Tramp is still the first to have a personality.  (Though I find this overlooks the anti-romantic comedy of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.)

As for its best?  Well, to begin with, it's hard to say that Lady has much of a personality of her own: she's prim and proper and sweet in very vague ways, but exists mostly as just a mirror to the Tramp's independence, which Lady and the Tramp recognizes is attractive but also seems to hate, which is why he settles down despite there being no on-screen reason for him to decide that this lady is the one for whom he shall finally change his free-wheeling ways.  (Though the notion that he moved in with her because he knocked her up on their first date is made almost explicit.) In fact, the insistence on Lady's purity and specialness in dialogue is one of the film's several descents into the most artless and perfunctory kind of manipulation.  Likewise, the insistence on the Tramp's own coolness and irresistibility, in song—a bad song, because they're all bad songs in Lady and the Tramp except for the one that's pretty racist—is probably the single worst part of the film.  I don't know what people had against Poochie if this is the kind of talking cartoon dog they like.

Now, there is a genuine low-key romantic energy in Lady and the Tramp that I'd probably have to be totally dead inside not to respond to, but it really doesn't allow that atmosphere to abide: the most heart-melting gesture in the whole film (coming right before its most iconic), the Tramp's cute, almost-embarrassed little nudge of the last meatball across a plate to Lady, would easily be enough to make my soul smile—if, that is, it weren't being strangled to death inside "Bella Notte," a warbling tableside "Italian" serenade that I presume is deliberately parodying the moment while it's happening, since I can't imagine anyone believing that it actually set the mood.  As for the usual moment between Lady and her Tramp, it's delivered through genial confidence trickery and scalawagging that is (in fairness) pretty smart for dogs, but isn't impressive or entertaining in a universe where we have to accept that, as a baseline, dogs are already people.

And this not-entirely-enchanting courtship is contained within a slurry of stuff just happening, most of it nominally comedic, and more of it than you probably remember having no particular bearing on anything to follow.  Lady and the Tramp may be the guiltiest of all Disney's full-length narrative features of having no shape or structure, despite the illusion of a shape and structure provided by that "year in the life" conceit, and it's very close to just being a collection of arbitrary scenes.  (Alice In Wonderland probably beats it, as does Bambi, but each, and especially Bambi, has a better excuse.)  Lady goes to the pound, but it doesn't really matter; Trusty dies, but that doesn't really matter, either, because he's resurrected in time for Christmas 1910.  The most glaring expression of the film's "I think I'd like to animate this now" ethos arrives with its second-most-famous (or infamous) moment, when Sarah's Siamese cats come out to play in their vicious, feline manner, treating us to some good wholesome yellowface comedy in the process.  The thing is: where'd they go?  Because we never see them again.  Cats like to eat rats.  But they don't matter, so they don't exist, at least beyond the mechanical purpose they were invented for, namely putting Lady in a position where Sarah thinks it's a good idea to muzzle her nephew's beloved pup.  (Those other dogs in the pound don't matter either.  At best, the movie's saying they chose a life of freedom, and now they're going to get what's coming to them: death.  Lady and the Tramp is a worryingly conservative film.)

The Siamese cats are, inevitably, the most forceful expression of Lady and the Tramp's sense of humor, too, which is firmly committed to imposing broad-beyond-belief ethnic stereotypes on nearly every single animal based upon the geographic origin of their breed, which not only makes no sense if you think about it for even two seconds, it's also tiresome and annoying long before you get to the question of whether, in some cases, it's also offensive.  (But then, the humans are crazed stereotypes too.  There's the aforementioned Italians, and Jim Dear and Darling are such ridiculous caricatures of middle-class middle-America WASPs that they had a baby, then went on vacation.)  At least the Siamese cats have the film's one fun song and most of its genuinely funny visual gags, though in addition to being mean to East Asians for no reason, it is also a blood libel against cats.

Maybe some cats act like this.  Maybe your cats act like this.  You have bad cats.

And so if the romance barely works, and the comedy almost never does, what if anything is left for Lady and the Tramp?  Well, it's still a work of Disney animation in its Silver Age, which means there are considerable things to find interesting, in theory.  In fact, I'm not really blown away; but Lady and the Tramp does boast the most accurate-to-life animal animation since Bambi—the Tramp in particular is as fine an animated dog as has ever seen life on the screen, and those Siamese cats, racism and anti-feline sentiment aside, are lithe little beasts.  Sometimes it's arguably too accurate: when Tramp (and Lady!) have cause to get violent, their cruel snarls are legitimately frightening, bearing more resemblance to Bambi's hunting dogs than to the charming puppies we knew.  In any event, they're way scarier than the rat, because rats won't snip your femoral artery and then eat your guts while you bleed out.

Still, I appreciate that, because detail—even atonal detail at odds with the film's overall mood—is something to be interested in; and I appreciate it, even if the film uses that attention to detail to tell a story that could just as easily (or more easily) have been told with people.  If it's well-animated, it's maybe even more well-laid-out: the dog's-eye-level staging across the 'Scope frame is pretty flawless, and really takes advantage of the format's dimensions (it's downright miraculous, considering this was the first widescreen animated film ever made!).  And, as usual, Disney's background artists are doing great work, even in such a quotidian/boring setting as "Chicagoland 1909," with designer Claude Coats supervising one postcard-ready image after another, just abstracted enough not to draw attention away from the dogs.  (Well, mostly: I've remarked before about the curious technique of rendering animate objects as background paintings, instead of held cels, if they aren't going to be moving during the shot.  Firstly, I don't understand how that even saves money.  But Lady and the Tramp bears the absolute worst example of this I've ever seen: Lady's first encounter with the new child is rendered as an animated dog staring lovingly at a background painting, and it's impossible not to think, "Oh my God, that is a dead baby."  Meanwhile, by my count, there's not one single instance of multiplane in the whole film, and several scenes feel ineffably wrong without it, especially the introductory establishing montage of Lady's neighborhood that uses a series of dissolves to go from from one barbaric slow zoom-in onto a single-plane painting to another.)

Still: for all that I've complained about it, Lady and the Tramp isn't terrible, or even really that bad.  There's never a point while watching it where I said, "I hate this."  But it is, I think, the least-interesting Disney film to discuss; at least their massive failures give one something more to gnaw on.  (And I think rewatches have been unkind to it, particularly as one becomes becomes aware of how sloppily and randomly its parts fit together: if I ever do venture a third viewing as an adult, I really might graduate to "actively disliking it.")  Lady and the Tramp just seems disposable.  It's kind of cute, kind of sweet, kind of funny, kind of obnoxious, and kind of... dull.  Maybe more than "kind of," and it doesn't help that it comes in a run of Disney films where the best of them was merely okay.  Disney broke that streak with their next feature, and broke it hard, with their grandest picture since their Golden Age; and it didn't make nearly as much money as this one, essentially ending the Disney art form as it had been practiced since 1937.  Which is maybe another reason to be displeased with Lady and the Tramp's milquetoast nonsense: of the five chances that old-school Disney animation got between its resurrection in 1950 and its close in 1959, not more than two of them were truly worth the effort.

Score: 5/10

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