What makes Lady and the Tramp so charming?
That was the question I asked myself as I watched and re-watched this 1955 Disney classic. How did the Disney crew come up with such a story that transcends time? Seriously, five, six decades later and this thing still stands up, holding its own.
I have a hunch that it has to do with the honesty of the story. That's right. It hits right in the feels.
I imagined what this story might be like if it were a live-action film with human characters – Cary Grant as the Tramp and Audrey Hepburn as Lady. My mind is filled with lavish gowns from the Edwardian era, a beautiful young lady, and then a scruffy scoundrel shows her a different way of life. And in the end the guy falls for the girl anyway.
Indeed, Lady and the Tramp is a romance where the guy is living life fancy free, while the girl is right at home with family.
The core of the film revolves around this notion of love and family. Disney even put hints of family in unexpected places. For example, the zoo animals that react to Tramp's barking - they weren't just a giraffe here or an elephant there. It was a family of giraffes and a family of elephants.
I particularly like the little sequence when the Tramp interacts with some cute puppies at the pet store. It shows that the Tramp doesn't have a personal vendetta against helpless things like babies or puppies. The scene also primes the audience to believe that he would be let go of his fancy free life to be with Lady and subsequently start their own family.
Centering on something so human as the choice to be within a family or not provides a backbone or, what Brian McDonald would call, an armature for a great story. I think once this was established, the artists could more easily establish a time, setting, and characters for such a story.
How the Setting Influenced the Style
Earlier I mentioned the Edwardian era. That's because I took particular notice to the backgrounds, layouts, and scenery of the film. In some places, it is almost as lush as Sleeping Beauty (which was released four years later.). The clothes the Darlings wore, the furniture populating their house, the house itself... everything was referenced on things from the years 1900-1909. Check out this chair from that time period:
The Use of Framing
Another part of why this movie sticks after decades is that it's so appealing. It's a story about dogs, which already gets people in the door, and then it's so gosh darn appealing to look at. Nearly every scene is beautifully composed. There are SO many shots that have the characters framed so well. Below are just a few.
I love the scene where Lady is 'in the dark' about babies and she's literally in shadow while everyone else is in the light. Genius.
Oh! And check out this transition!
Shadows and Silhouettes
One thing about this film – they were not afraid to use dark shadows and silhouettes. Especially to tell the story. This one shot gives me goosebumps.
It's the climax of the film. The baby is in danger. Tramp is risking his neck to save it. He's in a place he shouldn't be. This is one HECK of a shot. We've seen the layout before, under different circumstances and lighting with Lady. But this is different. It's dark and intense. All we can see of Tramp is his silhouette and dashes of highlights from the lightning.
All of these things, the characters, compositions, and Edwardian style are muscle and finish to the armature laid out by the story artists. The one about family and how belonging to a family might be of great importance. Without it, the beauty of the film wouldn't mean as much or feel as much.