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Wednesdays with Wade: Going to the Dogs

Wednesdays with Wade: Going to the Dogs

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I wrote an extensive article about the creation of "Lady and the Tramp" last year in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the release of this film. It is one of my favorite Disney animated features and I am happy that this week it is being re-released again on DVD.

The film was released on June 16, 1955, just one month before the opening of Disneyland. And -- as I mentioned last year -- the artists who worked on that film set at the turn of the century were pulled in to help with Disneyland's Main Street and I can certainly see some strong influences. Of course, there are strong influences at Walt Disney World as well. Which is why there is a "Tony's" restaurant on Main Street.

Did it ever bother anyone that on an All-American Main Street that there would be an Italian restaurant? Well, it is because Tony's restaurant is such a strong image from "Lady and the Tramp" set during the same time period. Tramp eats at other ethnic restaurant locations in the movie but it is "Tony's" where he is known as "Butch" and the spaghetti eating scene that stands out in people's minds.

In fact, Walt wanted to cut the spaghetti eating scene from the film, feeling that it would be awkward at best. It was animator Frank Thomas who experimented in his backyard with his own dogs eating spaghetti and came up with some sketches that finally changed Walt's mind and resulted in one of the most romantic moments in American films. Thomas was lucky. Before animating the intense fight between Tramp and the rat, animator Woolie Reitherman kept rats in a cage next to his desk to study their actions.

The picture required four years and cost four million dollars to make which was quite a sizeable investment when Walt was so strapped for cash with the development of Disneyland. "Lady and the Tramp" was the first Disney animated feature to be released in CinemaScope as well as the first Disney feature to be based on an original story created at the studio.

As early as 1937, Walt Disney was intrigued by a story outline by the late Disney Legend Joe Grant about a cocker spaniel named Lady who had to deal with the arrival of a new baby in the household as well as a mother-in-law with two devious Siamese cats. Grant had used his own dog, "Lady Nell" as well as the birth of his first child as the inspiration for the story and for the concept artwork that he showed to Walt. All of the basic elements of the story, except for Tramp and the supporting cast of canines, were in Grant's treatment.

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Although Walt liked the story, like many of the other stories under development (from "Beauty and the Beast" to "The Little Mermaid"), he felt there was something missing. Walt always liked to "plus" a story rather than settling for the obvious plot formulas. In the mid-1940s, he read a story by Ward Greene, an executive at King Features Syndicate, entitled "Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog" and he felt the roguish dog in Greene's story would give the story of "Lady" a little more "bite" and conflict as well as a romantic angle.

Walt -- in his best press release mode -- claimed that he got in contact with Ward and that they " ... exchanged doggish anecdotes and family experiences involving our own pets. It wasn't long before Ward had whistled up the Tramp and it didn't take much urging to incite Ward to write a book about their amazing adventures."

Walt loved dogs. That little white poodle we saw with Walt on some of the introductions to his weekly television show was named "Lady" but she was just one of a long line of dogs that Walt loved from his earliest days in Marceline to his success in Hollywood.

In fact, the classic story of one of Walt's dogs -- a small chow puppy named "Sunnee" -- inspired one of the scenes in "Lady and the Tramp." Walt's wife, Lillian, didn't care for dogs because she felt they were dirty, had fleas and shed fur. So Walt researched and found that the "cleanest" dog was the chow.

So one Christmas, he bought a chow puppy, put it in a hat box with a big ribbon and presented it to Lillian as a gift from Santa. Lillian was angry because she felt Walt had gotten her a hat and she felt that Walt had terrible taste in hats. However, when she opened the hat box, the little puppy popped out its head. After a quick scream from a surprised Lillian, she fell in love with the dog and insisted it sleep in the bed with her and Walt. That scene of a puppy popping out of a ribboned hat box at Christmas was later re-created in "Lady and the Tramp".

Actually, it was Walt who came up with the name of "Tramp" against objections from Greene and the film distributors and just about everyone else who felt the name was too "adult" for a Disney film. At different points, Tramp was called Homer, Rags and even Bozo. It is hard to imagine Tramp being called anything but Tramp.

The live action reference model for Tramp was found at a local dog pound by Disney story artist Erdman Penner. He rescued the dog only hours before it was to take the "long walk." The dog was less than a year old and a female. After she finished modeling, she lived out the rest of her life happily at Disneyland's Pony Farm, a wonderful anecdote that Disney Historian Jim Korkis shared with me in last year's article.

Larry Roberts who did the voice for "Tramp" retired from show business in the Fifties and returned to Cleveland where he reassumed his last name "Salters" and went into the ladies' clothing business. He first worked for Bobbie Brooks, Inc., a company founded by his uncle, Maurice Saltzman. He then moved to New York City and was a designer for Russ Togs, another ladies' clothing manufacturer. Larry died of AIDS-related causes on Fire Island, New York sometime around the late Eighties. He was chosen to play the role of Tramp in "Lady and the Tramp" when a Disney storyman discovered him performing onstage. Roberts was extremely active in the Hollywood theater scene. He created and was part owner of the Players Ring, a prominent Hollywood theatre group of the day. "Lady and the Tramp" is his only film credit.

Before voicing Lady, Barbara Luddy was a radio actress well known to audiences of the "First Nighter" radio program. She also voiced Merryweather in "Sleeping Beauty">Sleeping Beauty" (1959), Kanga in the "Winnie the Pooh" featurettes, and Mother Rabbit in "Robin Hood" (1973). Finally, here's an interesting bit of trivia: Ms. Luddy had a single line role as the grandmother in the Carousel of Progress attraction shown at the 1964 New York World's Fair, at Disneyland Park and later at the Magic Kingdom in the Walt Disney World Resort.

As a kid, one of my favorite characters in the film was the feisty little Scottie known as "Jock." Jock's Scottish voice was done by the versatile Bill Thompson, well known to Disney fans as the voice of Mr. Smee in "Peter Pan" and the White Rabbit in "Alice in Wonderland" and the little Ranger in the Donald Duck cartoons. Thompson also supplied another Scottish voice for the Disney Company. He was the first voice of Scrooge McDuck in the short "Scrooge McDuck and Money." In 1957, Thompson joined the Los Angeles branch of Union Oil as an executive, working in community relations and unfortunately only occasionally doing voice work for animation. Jock is really not a black dog because it would have made him too dark to see any facial expressions. He is painted in a medium value with darker shades of grey and the backgrounds are always light behind him making him look like a black dog.

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Singer Peggy Lee supplies the voice not only of "Peg" the female dog in the dog pound but also the voice of both Siamese cats, "Si and Am", as well as the voice of "Darling," one of Lady's owners. The character of "Peg" was originally named "Mame" in the storyboards but since this was the Fifties, there was a concern that it might be considered offensive to President Eisenhower's wife, Mamie. Miss Lee very graciously allowed the character to be named "Peg" instead. Several characters in "Lady and the Tramp" went through name changes. Even "Si and Am" at one point were called "Nip and Tuck." Eric Larson who animated Peg claimed that when he animated "Peg" that she was based "partly on Mae West and a lot on Peggy Lee."

In 1987, Peggy Lee sued Disney over "Lady and the Tramp." Lee's lawsuit claimed that she was due royalties for video tapes, a technology that didn't exist when she agreed to write and perform for Disney. She only gave Disney permission to use her voice and songs for the original film and soundtrack recordings. She was eventually awarded $2.3 million, but not without a lengthy legal battle with the Disney Studio that negatively impacted her health. The lawsuit was finally settled in 1991 and set a precedent for future talent contracts at Disney. Lee was dissatisfied with the settlement and threatened that she was going to write a book about the entire incident but never did. She passed away in January 2002.

Beginning with "Cinderella," Walt filmed live action reference footage on minimal sets in order to help save time with the final animation by pre-determining angles and composition. I would love to see some of that film footage as well as the live action film footage from "Peter Pan." I've seen a series of stills from those films but never the actual live action footage. (Disney did live action footage as early as "Pinocchio." Ward Kimball shared with Jim Korkis that they had shot live action film of an actor portraying Jiminy Cricket including a scene where Jiminy warms his rear end by a fire. An excerpt of that film footage still exists.) With "Lady and the Tramp," it would have been difficult to get real canine actors to do what was needed to be done to provide the necessary reference action for the animators.

So one of Walt Disney's innovations in the making of the feature that few people know (and that I've never even seen reference photos of) is that Walt had his artists construct a miniature Victorian mansion just like the one in the final film. With Walt's love of miniatures, he made sure it was furnished to the last detail. Then, the artists used celluloid cutouts of the principal characters (especially the animal characters that were done in the appropriate scale) to move around the house to get an idea for composition of scenes and the relationship of the character to the background. It really helped the artists get a "dog's-eye view" of going up the stairs and through doors.

It was especially important to pre-plan scenes in "Lady and the Tramp" because this was the first cartoon feature to use CinemaScope. With the wider screen, the characters had greater freedom to move around through alleys, streets and even the house itself, rather than moving the backgrounds behind the figures as had been done in previous films to give the illusion the character was walking down a street. Unlike earlier animated features, fewer cuts and close-ups were necessary to conceal the lack of space for movement.

For such a wonderfully simple story, there were an amazing number of changes. When Trusty the bloodhound is crushed underneath the dogcatcher's wagon, he was originally supposed to die which is why Jock howls so mournfully. Walt, who had taken criticism for death of Bambi's mother, decided the scene was too intense and had the animators include Trusty in the final Christmas scene.

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Another scene was planned that was "inspired" by "Pink Elephants on Parade" from "Dumbo." In the scene, Lady would be fearful of the arrival of the new baby and would have a nightmare where a baby bootie would split in two, then four and continue to multiply menancingly until Lady wakes from her dream when she sees real shoes and the wearer happily announcing that the baby had been born. Another planned scene would have had Lady and the Tramp walking in the park and a song would have introduced a fantasy segment where the roles of dogs and humans would be switched where dogs are the masters and the humans are their pets.

© Disney. All Rights Reserved

I don't know whether any of this material will appear on this week's DVD release. But I just love the film so much I wanted to share some of the notes I've had in my "Lady and the Tramp" files that might help you see the film a little differently.

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