He's a tramp, but they love him;
Breaks a new heart ev'ry day.
He's a tramp; they adore him--
And I only hope he'll stay that way .
One of the high points of Walt Disney's "Lady and the Tramp" (in re-release, citywide) is the torchy "He's a Tramp" number, performed by Peg, the shady Pekingese from the Dog and Pony Follies.
Jazz singer Peggy Lee, who co-wrote the song with Sonny Burke, supplied Peg's voice; Eric Larson, one of the group of key animators Disney called "The Nine Old Men," furnished the animation. Together they created a memorable portrait of a faded glamour queen: a canine Diamond Lil who's hit the skids, but still remembers the days when she played the Palace.
"It was all kind of a Topsy thing--it grew and grew," singer Lee said in a recent interview at her Bel-Air home. "I was on the demo tapes we made of the songs; Walt liked them and asked me if I would consider doing the voices.
"Walt asked if I would mind if they named the character after me, then explained the reason for the request," she said. "Mamie Eisenhower was our First Lady at the time, and she always wore bangs; in fact, there was a big controversy about bangs at the time. The little dog has bangs and her name in the script was Mamie, so Walt was afraid someone might think we were being a little less than polite about the First Lady. That's why I have the honor of having the character named after me."
Lee co-wrote all the songs in the film and supplied the voices for three other characters: Darling, the woman who owns Lady, and Si and Am, the malicious Siamese cats who wreck Lady's happy home.
The singer also served as a partial model for Larson while he worked out the animation of Peg. Additional research for the character's movements took him to places not usually associated with Disney cartoons:
"I figured I ought to go down to Main Street and see a good burlesque show," Larson said with a chuckle. "I thought it would be a lot better than the ones back home in Salt Lake City, but it was duller. The gals did the moves, but somehow their movements lacked the personality I wanted.
"I got a lot more of the personality from Peggy herself. She was always willing to tell you why she sang her songs the way she did--the inflections she was trying to get. She felt the character she was singing for. When she was doing Peg, you knew she was down in that Main Street burlesque house in her thoughts. She knew what we wanted--the biggest vamp we could get without being vulgar."
Larson's work with Peg the Pekingese is a tour de force of character animation: Every movement evokes the honky-tonk glories of her show-biz past. Peg never just walks--she struts, swinging her wide hips and fluffy tail. When she rolls her eyes seductively to emphasize a word, her fur bunches into lush folds that suggest a feather boa draped around her shoulders.
Lee says she can recognize a little of herself in Peg ("the part the fur doesn't cover"). She describes her work at Disney as "a unique experience--one of the most interesting I've ever had.
"I had to think about the characters and create them in my mind," she explained. "I thought about the dogs I've known and the cats I've known, and they appeared. Naturally, all the animators' drawings were very helpful: The characters were very firmly established in my mind from the story boards before I went in to record the voices. I felt I knew them right away, and I still know them--they're deeply engraved in my mind."
More than 30 years after the premiere of "Lady and the Tramp," Peg still exercises a powerful, if slightly tarnished, charm. Lee continues to perform "He's a Tramp" with her jazz quintet; Larson describes Peg as one of his personal favorites among the many characters he animated during his 53 years at Disney.
"We did a lot of research on everything. We had--I don't know how many--live dogs around the studio when we were working on the picture. Walt let us do it; in fact, he insisted on it. But Peg is the only character I ever went downtown for and sneaked into a burlesque house with my collar turned up!"