I’m a firm believer that the 1950s were the most important decade in the history of Disney. Sure, I see the billions of dollars made by their Star Wars and Marvel movies, but if they hadn’t been able to expand their brand in the 1950s past animated entertainment, they might not still be here today. The earlier part of the fifties had seen the company dipping their toes into live action entertainment with hits like Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with fantastic results. In late 1954, Disney launched a nighttime anthology series called Disneyland that brought Disney out of the theater and into the homes of millions. However, no company has ever owned a single year like Disney owned 1955: in that one year, Walt’s theme park Disneyland opened, The Mickey Mouse Club debuted on ABC, bringing new programming to kids five days a week, and Disney had a legitimate sensation on their hands with the first of two Davey Crockett films, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. You ever see pictures of kids from the fifties wearing coonskin caps? That was because of Disney and their show starring Fess Parker; they took footage from the Davy Crockett TV mini-series and cut it together into theatrical films, which were huge. HUGE! At the peak of the Davy Crockett fad, Disney’s merchandisers were selling 5,000 coonskin caps a day. I have 27!
Let me explain. Sleeping Beauty looks like no Disney film before or after it. It was a marked departure for the studio, with greater emphasis being placed on the backgrounds and a distinct medieval influence evident in every frame. Even most of the character designs in Sleeping Beauty are very different from the exaggerated caricatures that was a hallmark of Walt’s style. Sleeping Beauty was also so ambitious that it was ahead of its time and ended up losing so much money that it almost shut down Disney animation. To add even further context, after the failure of Sleeping Beauty, Disney entered the Xerox era of animation, which is exactly what it sounds like: machine-aided copying that saved animators hundreds, if not thousands, of man hours. The sacrifice was in quality, with a new, scratchy style that became a trademark of Disney for the next two decades. No Disney animated movie from the sixties or the seventies has the hand-crafted smoothness associated with the hand-drawn animation of the fifties. Even when the studio returned to their traditional style in the eighties, it was never the same again. Lady and the Tramp was literally the last Disney movie of its kind. It’s breathtakingly beautiful.
Unfortunately, Lady and the Tramp gets just as much bad press as praise these days because of its racially-charged portrayal of two Siamese cats, Si and Am. It’s hard to separate the movie from those two cats because they play such a key part in the story, and the song they sing is impossible to get out of your head. As far as I know, Disney hasn’t really backed down (i.e. apologized or hidden) the portrayal of these cats, which you can interpret yourself. I don’t really feel like I can speak about this movie without addressing the controversy, so I will say that I do disapprove of the characterization, but that I’m glad Disney hasn’t buried this movie or cut all the incriminating footage from its runtime like they have with some of their other cartoons. Furthermore, context is important, and this movie was made in a post-World-War-II America when Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor and Thailand (Siam) had united with Japan to declare war on the US and England. Many of the animators and creators who worked on this film had served during the conflict and lost loved ones to the Axis powers. It’s complicated, but it’s also not right. History can’t be whitewashed, but it can be learned from, and the Siamese cats of Lady and the Tramp stand as a record of who we were in 1955, for better or for worse. When we see where we’ve come from, we can hopefully do better moving forward.
Then there’s THAT scene in Lady and the Tramp, one of the most classic in all of Disney’s canon. Of course, I’m talking about the romantic segment where Lady and Tramp share a plate of spaghetti outside Tony’s Restaurant while they’re serenaded with “Bella Notte.” The scene is legendary. The song is unforgettable. Even if the rest of the movie didn’t work (it does, Siamese cats excluded), this one scene makes it worth your time. This one moment of film sums up the entire story: we understand what Lady sees in Tramp, why Tramp is drawn to Lady, and how much they care about each other. You forget you’re watching CARTOON DOGS and just go with the beauty of storytelling at its best. Bonus tip: next time you’re at The Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, look on the ground outside Tony’s Restaurant on the right side Main Street. There’s a Lady and the Tramp Easter egg from this scene that thousands of people walk right by every single day without noticing.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with no hand-drawn animation coming afterward ever looking quite as lush and smooth as this. It may not be my favorite Disney animated movie, but it’s a very important piece of history for Disneyphiles and animation fans. Lady and the Tramp is further evidence that 1955 was a VERY special year for movies.