1955 was a hell of a year for Walt Disney Productions to even think about releasing an animated feature. This was right after their distribution deal with RKO had ended, replaced by the in-house Buena Vista Distribution, though that was probably the smallest issue facing the studio. For in 1952, the company had officially announced plans for Disneyland, a theme park of a scale never before attempted anywhere in the world, and the development of this park, and the TV series created to help advertise it, took most of Walt Disney's attention away from the animation division for many years. That lack of attention had immediate ramifications for the studio's next fairy tale project, Sleeping Beauty, which was being storyboarded as early as 1951, the first year in a staggering eight-year production that is the longest time devoted to the active development and animation of single film in the studio's history before or since.

The actual process of animating Sleeping Beauty began in 1953, and perhaps idiotically, Walt decided to put another film into production around the same time: Lady and the Tramp, a project whose roots stretch back all the way to the 1930s, when the legendary story man and character artist Joe Grant first proposed to Walt a project centered around dogs. The idea went nowhere at the time, but it was one of those concepts that kept drifting around the studio, never totally forgotten. In 1943, Disney acquired the rights to a short story by Ward Greene titled "Happy Dan the Whistling Dog", and promptly failed to do anything with it, but somewhere along the line the two canine projects merged - by which time Grant had left the company (he'd return in the 1989, at the hearty age of 81) - and by 1953 things were ready to enter production.

But wait! I didn't finish stacking the deck against the film. In addition to entering production in the shadow of Disneyland, and in addition to sharing resources with the benighted Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp got to be the test pilot for a new toy Walt wanted to try out: CinemaScope (a decision made after production had already started). The first animation ever produced in that format was 1953's "Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom", which was quite explicitly designed as an experiment: Walt gave Ward Kimball a free hand to do pretty much whatever he liked with an educational music short, just so long as it proved that the anamorphic widescreen technology could work in a cartoon. Of course, Kimball was a psychotic genius, and his Oscar-winning effort didn't necessarily demonstrate how widescreen photography would work in the far more collaborative environment of a proper feature, with dozens of animators all used to working in the Academy aspect ratio, 1.37:1, trying to figure out how to adjust to the new frame. Keep in mind, that composing for such a wide image (Lady and the Tramp was filmed at 2.55:1) isn't just a matter of extending the same image to the left and right; it dramatically changes the vocabulary of close-ups and inserts. An added wrinkle in animation is that the discipline of how to move characters across the screen is completely different when the screen is so many more character-widths across - a problem that can be solved by on-set experimentation in live-action, but that Disney had to work out months in advance.

Oh, and since there was some question as to how many theaters would have CinemaScope projectors when the film was completed, Walt also ordered that a backup second version of the film had to be animated in regular old 1.37:1. Let's just run over this again: Disneyland, Sleeping Beauty, widescreen, two complete versions of the movie.

And they had just a bit more than two years to make it.

Given that cavalcade of problems, it would have been more than impressive if Lady and the Tramp managed to scrape itself up to the quality of Cinderella or Peter Pan. So I don't even know what word to use to describe how the film turned out to be better by far than either of them, better as well than Alice in Wonderland - easily the most beautifully-animated piece to come out of the Disney Studios since the Golden Age ended with Bambi. Perhaps it is just that a bit of pressure was needed to get the animators to give their best work. You would never know to look at a frame of it that Lady and the Tramp was the first widescreen animated feature ever produced; nor would you expect from the extraordinarily detailed movement of the canine cast that they hadn't been fiddled with for months or years. Just about the only element of the film's animation that I can think of that possibly betrays any kind of haste or cheapness or stress is that, as far as I can tell, there is not a single mutliplane camera shot in the whole 76-minute running time; even some of the package shots boasted some pretty elaborate multiplane, making its absence here quite stunning (and there are more than a few shots where its absence, once you start thinking about it, is quite harmful as well). It occurs to me that I do not know to a certainty that there is any multiplane work in Alice in Wonderland, but I suppose that will just have to be a mystery forevermore.

It shocks me to learn that in its initial release, some of the most important film critics in America - writers who did not have a pre-established biased against Disney animation, mind you - saw fit to take Lady and the Tramp to task for two things above all else: its gooey romantic sentimentality, and the clumsy design of the animated dogs. It could just be that I'm too easily pleased, but to me, neither of those things seem to apply at all; indeed, I would call the film's love story and its character animation two of its greatest successes (the songs and - naturally - the backgrounds are the other two). Nor are these things all that readily separated, for is there a finer moment in the movie - indeed, is there a finer moment in Disney's Silver Age - than the spaghetti dinner? Supervised by Frank Thomas, this sequence typifies everything that makes people adore Disney animation. First, there is the wonderful love ballad "Bella Notte", written by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee; in a film full of great songs (top-to-bottom the best Disney soundtrack since Dumbo), this is the standout; it's also one of the very best love songs ever written for a Disney movie. Then, there is the customarily great design of the backgrounds; at a certain point the perspective pans up to reveal a lightly-stylised depiction of an alley with an impossibly lovely sky full of stars, and while it may be a touch corny, I think it takes a pretty mean person to not find it at least somewhat moving. Best of all is the character animation, a tour de force for Thomas, the MVP of Disney feature animation throughout the '50s. Like all the best character moments in Disney films, this scene is based in the simplest of emotions - some would argue, dangerously simple - and to be perfectly fair, the implication that Lady and the tramp are destined to fall in love comes from out of left field. But as Thomas presents their body language, it seems so incredibly right that they're in love that I would never dare to complain. The way they both look around, and at each other is instantly believable and recognisable - and my God, I'm talking about dogs - and of course the "eating the same strand of spaghetti" kiss is iconic for a reason. But I like the little gesture of the tramp nudging the last meatball towards Lady even more; it is quite probably my favorite moment in Thomas's career, innocent and a touch embarrassed and so very sweet.

More broadly, the animation of the dogs throughout the film is of quite high caliber, speaking to a degree of study and observation that had not been seen since Bambi. The two leads were the work of Milt Kahl, who had also led the work on Bambi and Thumper in the earlier film, and would later turn his hand to Shere Khan the tiger in The Jungle Book, causing me to propose that, despite the high quality of his human characters, he really did his best work with four-legged creatures. Both Lady and the tramp are both so doggy-ish. The first few scenes with the tramp especially: the way he moves about is so perfectly natural, in even the smallest details (when he stretches, essentially the first action we see him perform, it never fails to put me into a state of awe). Naturalism is not, of course, the inevitable goal of all animation; but since that is the direction that the studio was taking Lady and the Tramp, I think it would be churlish not to mention that they succeeded.

At the same time, the film is quite unmistakably a cartoon - one of the things that does bother me about the first four Silver Age films is that all of the characters have a very specifically kids' cartoon look about them, with rounded lines and a certain quality to the coloring that I can't quite pin down: there's not really any shading to the color, if you follow me, like if a dog has a brown coat, then her whole coat is exactly that shade of brown. But that's not the point I was making. What I was going to say is, it is a cartoon in a way that only adds to its visual appeal, which I cannot say is entirely true of Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan; in the first and third of these, certainly, I find that I have to overlook these cartoony elements to fully engage with the film. In Lady and the Tramp, I enjoy them. Partially this is because, for once, the characters are given added personality that would be denied to them if they were more fully realistic: I think for example of how every single supporting character is a particular ethnic stereotype (Scottish, Russian, English, Southern, and notoriously the Siamese cats who are rather more Chinese), or how the film gets its bouncy energy from situations that are just to the side of real, without making Alice in Wonderland-style diversions into full-on animated surrealism or Looney Tunes physical anarchy. It is not, I suppose, tremendously sensitive to sing the praises of the Siamese cats' song, with its eyebrow-raising Engrish lyrics, but if you set that aside and consider how the music and the animation play together, with the heightened reality of the movements that don't ever become slapstick, it's a pretty fun piece (and for what it's worth, no matter how unfortunate those accents are, Siamese cats are undeniably peculiar, mayhem-loving animals). Also, the next time you watch the film, pay really close attention to the fish while its bowl is being dragged for one of the subtlest gags in all of Disney.*

Of equal importance, the specifics of the character design tie in very well to the background paintings. I expect that it's clear by now that I am a bit of a junkie for Disney backgrounds; well, Lady and the Tramp has always been one of my particular favorites in that regard. At heart, these are realistically drawn, without the graphic quality of Peter Pan or the painterly otherworldliness of Alice in Wonderland; but I'd never go so far as to call them straight-up realism. They are quite detailed, but indistinctly, as through the thinnest layer of diffusion; they are about as close to reality as the dogs are themselves: nearly, but just not quite. To my mind, it's about as perfect a match between the characters and the backgrounds as anything else in the studio's history, certainly between the Golden Age and the best use of CAPS in the 1990s.

Taken as themselves, the backgrounds have a fuzzy illustrated feeling that fits in quite perfectly with the story's time period; I think the right word for them is nostalgic. Which also fits, since Lady and the Tramp is an unusually nostalgic film, even for Disney. While the fairy tales and other "out of time" stories are nostalgic for the delights of childhood - magic and adventure, princesses and fantasy - and are thus an attempt to return to the myths of childhood, Lady and the Tramp is particularly nostalgic for a specific time and place and way of life. It is not hard to find this troublingly conservative - so much of Disney's output is, though! - but if we allow that this is the film's goal, it achieves it rather well (I am inclined to compare it to Meet Me in St. Louis, another film with similar arch-conservative goals that is nonetheless a masterpiece). What is really is a film that appeals to Walt Disney's idea of the best kind of simple life: an all-American small town before high tech came and crapped everything up, where dogs are wonderful, true companions and fervently honest beings and cats are Satan's helpers. Even the love story feels of a piece with this: it's one of the few in all of Disney where the romance isn't between two people thrown together by fate, but by virtue of living in the same community and crossing paths on multiple occasions: a small-town love affair if ever the studio ever made one.

Last but of course not least, Lady and the Tramp is an all-round entertaining film: anchored by likable characters, even if most of them are stock types, a genuinely effective love story (usually the weakest element in any Disney film), and great hummable songs (especially Peggy Lee's rendition of "He's a Tramp" coming a close second to "Bella Notte", and giving the film a brief kick of sex - she's the first Disney female who is plainly no virgin, including those we know to be mothers).

Above all else is the film very serious commitment to presenting the world of humans and pets from a dog's eye view. None of this would have been possible if it hadn't succeeded in so many ways from animation to design to story; but none of these things push themselves to forefront; the film is a very level thing whose impact is as a whole, not as the sum of its parts. While I have never completely warmed up to the simple, clean style of the early Silver Age, I cannot deny that this film uses that style to its greatest effect, and it remains one of the studio's strongest efforts. It would seem that audiences in 1955 felt the same way: Lady and the Tramp is the highest-grossing Disney film of the 1950s, and in that decade an unprecedented four of the annual top-ten box office hits were Disney animations.

The film premiered on July 16th, with its wide release on the 22nd. A little less than a month later, Disneyland opened. And so the identity of Walt Disney Productions continued to drift away from the animation company that Walt and his brother had created some thirty years earlier.