Taken from a concept that had been shelved for over a decade, Lady and the Tramp premiered in Cinemascope during the middle of the 1950s, well into the predictable complacency of a post-Cinderella Disney renaissance. Befitting its middle-ish chronological position, it’s not surprising that the serviceably cute but mundane Lady—a turn-of-the-century ditty about two love struck dogs from opposite sides of the gated community—might be the most ignorable, least assertive production of their golden era. Which is shocking considering the directorial team of Geronimi, Jackson, and Luske would only six years later inject an angular, brashly jazzy sensibility into Disney’s staling empire with another canine romp: 101 Dalmations. With apologies to Dumbo and two or three of the segments from Fantasia, Dalmations is maybe the one immortal masterpiece of Walt Disney’s entire feature filmography, or at any rate the only one that wouldn’t melt off the wick under a hot lamp like the rest of the studio’s waxworks. It’s a vivacious, fizzy, low-stakes fable in which the only discernible lesson being taught is that, given the chance, the high-cheekboned wealthy would buy your surrogate children’s skin right off their backs. And that you’ll still love them provided they’re simply fabulous about the transaction.
Lady, on the other hand, continues in the vein of Bambi‘s neutered guide to sex non-education, an illustrated manual on twitterpat in which students are expected not to break off into small groups after the film and not to discuss any topics therein with their peers. After all, won’t the title refrain of the central ballad “Bella Notte” translate to most kids ears as “Better Not-ee”? (Unless of course they hear “Better Naughty.”) But, at least this time around (and unlike in Bambi), we’re actually shown a hint as to how little goombas come to be. Apparently it involves the male pushing a meatball across the plate so that the woman can eat it and, upon reaching her stomach, convert the protein RNA polynucleotides into an amino acid that will then reorganize into chromosomal alleles. The alleles are later belched into the air where they bond with the chemical compounds found in air, forming X and Y chromosomes that pair off and transcribe, resulting in the double helix structure of DNA. The vaporized diploid cells go off into a corner and gestate, emerging nine months later as fully formed baby animals with flaxen, fluffy hair. Monozygotic triplets like Lady’s three Springer Spanielettes seen in the film’s final tableaux are a result of a surplus remainder of oregano ribosome proteins within the original meatball’s breading. This is why Tramp leads Lady down the alley of Tony’s Italian eatery. He wants a large family and knows Tony’s fertile recipe.
So, as a primer, Lady carries the baggage of scads of footnotes. Parents used to having their kids explain films to them will have their hands full on this one. But, getting onto a completely aesthetic tangent, comparing Lady against Dalmations calls to direct attention why the former pales. It lacks a bitch. Though it’s not for lack of aim. There’s a dried up old poon-granny: the celery-voiced Aunt Sarah, whose attempt to put a muzzle on Lady’s maw constitutes this film’s approximation of a chastity belt. There’s a used, played-out, triflin’ ho-bag: the Mae West-impersonating pooch Peg, whose torch for Tramp’s tricks burns nearly as out of control as her case of doggy venereal disease. And, most spectacularly, there’s a stereophonic serenade of hissing pussy: the Siamese twin cats Si and Am, whose flactured Engrrish diction and syntax enliven Lady’s prissy existence for three verses (and would later spring back from the subconscious of 1969’s draftees while navigating the fine art of negotiating with Vietnamese sookie-sookie girls). But a bitch there’s not. Cruella De Vil wouldn’t make a pelt of this film’s pitiful litter even for a line of knock-off couture destined to line racks at Montgomery Ward’s. The color bland will never be the new black.