Trying to stay with some alternative escapism from the real world (which I think is sorely needed in these times), our attention turns to the Easter season. While the real commodity may be in short supply this year, I present memories of days past, when the animation world regularly turned to a staple of the season for story inspiration – the incredible, edible egg.
Having few opportunities in any other medium to achieve the status of a central plot point (with the exceptions of Fred MacMurray’s and Claudette Colbert’s screen adaptation of The Egg and I, and the Lucy in Connecticut episode where Lucille Ball hides a basket of eggs in her overalls), the egg frequently takes center stage in the field of animation. Perhaps much of this was due to the rural atmospheres and upbringing that so many of the West Coast animators seemed to bring with them at the dawn of animation’s heyday – a mindset where bringing in the eggs was a regular part of daily routine. To a degree, more urban-based East Coast studios seemed slightly less likely to follow in the egg and barnyard traditions – at least until it became fashionable for everybody to attempt to mimic Mickey Mouse. The prevalence of hens and roosters and their offspring in early cartoons produces a wealth of opportunities for a genre of films not only dealing with the production and collection of those usually white (but sometimes brown) orbs, but focusing on the surprise of what sometimes pops out of them. Later animators, however, would delve into their nature books, and realize that chickens and songbirds didn’t have a monopoly on those elliptical surprise packages, adding into the mix more exotic bird species, and the even more exotic world of reptiles and amphibians.
Silent era information is as usual sketchy. One of the earliest found survivors of the silent era to concentrate on henfruit was Walt Disney’s Alice’s Egg Plant (3/17/25), one of his “Alice comedies” spotlighting the adventures of a live-action girl and her cartoon cat Julius in an animated world. In this episode, Alice has gone into the egg ranching business. Julius is appointed work foreman, and carries out his duties in a big way – breaking up “hen parties” in the chicken’s dormitory to see that the flock maintains its quota, and driving them on with whip cracks that are actually snaps of his detached tail. The hens eventually do their part, to Julius’s satisfaction and glee. But trouble is brewing down at the railroad tracks, as a labor organizer with Communist leanings appears in the form of a traveling rooster, carrying a satchel reading “Little Red Henski, Moscow, Russia.” Just as Alice hopes to cash in on a massive order for 5,000 fresh eggs, Henski gathers the hens for a labor meeting, encouraging them to work shorter hours and lay smaller eggs. A strike is called, and when Alice confronts the picket line, insisting that she needs the eggs, the hens deliver – with a barrage of yolks aimed right at Alice’s and Julius’s kissers. However, a side distraction gives Alice an idea. Two old roosters, Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock Pete, are waging an argument as usual, which is gradually coming to blows. Alice encourages them to settle this thing once and for all – in a fight ring. Promoting the fight, Alice sets up an arena, with an admission sign for the big event – price: one egg. All the local poultry “flock” to see the battle, and Alice soon has a truck chock full of enough white orbs to fill her order. However, she should have bought a more durable vehicle. As she and a jubilant Julius step on the gas and head over the horizon, neither notices that the rear of the truck has collapsed from the weight, spilling all 5,000 eggs behind them for the iris out.
Koko Gets Egg-Cited (Max Fleischer/Inkwell Studios, 12/1/26) is one of the looser episodes of the ‘Out of the Inkwell” series, with not much of a plot line. The only print available for review was missing part of its opening, but it appears for a change that Koko is wielding the pen, drawing in a live-action Max. However, Koko as usual can’t resist engaging in mischief, and after drawing in Max’s hand, he places an egg in it, and presses his fingers together to squish it. Mac is angry (what else is new?), and Koko draws himself another egg with a trap-door hatch, so that he can hide inside its shell. Max trues to crack the egg with a small hammer – but the hammer cracks instead. Koko sneaks out of the egg when Max isn’t looking, while Max takes the empty shell and drops it into an incubator, turning up the heat to hatch Koko out. The situation changes entirely to sideline action, as Koko produces his dog Fitz out of a link of sausage, and the two decide to round up eggs from a farmyard for themselves. Koko tries to get a mother hen to give up some of her nest’s supply, but she turns her back to him. Koko stretches his face to shape it like a beak, and the coattails of his clown outfit to double for feather plumage, and poses as a rooster. The hen dips into her makeup kit, applying powder and lipstick, and gets cozy with Koko, having him sit with her on the nest. This doesn’t quite work to Koko’s liking, as an egg squashes on his rear end. Then he feels the movements of hatchings after he’s sat there awhile.
The hatchlings all emerge wearing clown hats, and mother hen faints on the spot. (This acquisition of attributes idea from merely sitting on eggs would seem ro have provided a direct inspiration for Dr. Seuss’s famous story, “Horton Hatches the Egg”, which would later hit the animated screen in an episode to be discussed in a future installment.) Meanwhile, Fitz has been tailing what he thinks is a hen all around the barnyard, with a basket he keeps placing behind, waiting for the eggs to pop out. Koko bursts into laughter when he discovers Fitz’s mistake – that the bird is clearly a rooster. But while Koko tries to explain to Fitz his error, a hen passes behind the rooster and lays a half-dozen eggs in Fitz’s basket, then departs. When Koko turns around, his surprise at Fitz’s harvest leaves him with the proverbial “egg on his face”. Fitz now has the last laugh, and confides in the rooster that Koko didn’t think he could do it. The rooster is insulted that Fitz would think him less than a he-man, and appears ready to throw eggs at both of them. (In the print viewed, Koko and Fitz just run, and the scene cuts abruptly back to Max – possibly there is a break in the print where the eggs started flying.) The final scene is a weird live action-animation mix with Max’s incubator. First, Koko’s egg finally comes out – and hatches a live mouse.(?) Then Koko and Fitz start dropping various objects from above into the incubator, including a shoe, a satchel, an alarm clock, and a hot water bottle, all of which are somehow converted into a flock of miniatures of the original at the other end of the incubator. Max finally puts a stop to things when Koko and Fitz leap back onto the drawing board. He tears off the paper they are standing on, and crumples it into a ball, eventually assuming the shape of an egg. Then, he cracks the egg on the lip of the inkwell, and dumps Koko and Fitz into the ink. The inevitable stopper is inserted into the bottle, and we fade out.
An unknown commodity from the early talkie days is Terrytoons’ Her First Egg (Educational, 7/26/31), a title that did not make the cut with CBS for television. As usual, if any information is known about this film, it will be greatly appreciated. Two other unknowns may be lost titleds from Van Buren’s “Aesop’s Fables” series that might (and ast least with the second oe, probably did) have something to do with eggs: Fruitful Farm (1929), and The Golden Goose (1932).
Disney’s 1931 treatment of The Ugly Duckling (Columbia. Silly Symphony, 12/16/31 – Wilfred Jackson, dir.) is considerably different in approach than the better-known 1939 model. But then, what would one expect, knowing the way Disney constantly refined his product from year to year. First, this version gets species entirely confused. Instead of the strange hatchling arriving amidst a family of ducks, he hatches in the nest of a barnyard chicken! And, there are no allusions made to the duckling either having descended from a swan or becoming one – he’s just a plain old duckling, with a loud “Quack!” Hans Christian Andersen’s storyline is nearly thrown out the window, with the only retained plot point being that the duck is shunned by the mother hen and her brood, as well as by other barnyard animals. One shot of the film presented some inspiration for a scene of the 1939 version, with the duckling repelled by a view of his own reflection in the lake water, and weeping on the shore. However, a “pre-code” touch changes the mood of the early part of the shot entirely, as the duck gives a “razzberry” to his watery reflection, making it disappear. For the remainder of the film, the writers forge on entirely on their own. Predicting work that would highlight a major production of a rew years later (Mickey Mouse’s The Band Concert (1935)), the animators dream up a cyclone hitting the barnyard. Mother hen herds her offspring into a small shelter and closes the door – leaving the duckling outside to face the elements. The duck tunnels underneath the small structure just as the cyclone passes over them. When the spiraling winds pass, the duck is the only one standing safe and sound, in the crater where the structure had once been. The little henhouse has been swept up into the eye of the funnel cloud.
As it spins, mother hen is tossed out – but her chicks remain in flight until the cyclone passes over a river, strewn with storm driven logs, remnants of homes and household items, and other various debris. Finally, the little structure falls out of the funnel and smack into the river. Mama watches helplessly from the riverbank, as the chicken house floats steadily toward a massive waterfall. The duckling, at home in the water, realizes himself the obvious candidate to make a gallant rescue. Not only do Disney’s ever-increasing-in-skill animators do a technically advanced and nearly perfect rendering of the cyclone, but they heighten the drama of the river rescue sequence with rich perspective animation of multiple layers of logs, flotsam and jetsam floating in the stream, roaring waters at the drop-off of the water into a chasm, and a “gratuitous violence” shot of a wagon floating over the waterfall ahead of the chicks, smashing with great impact into bits on the rocks below. A great deal of dramatic timing is also worked into the actual plight of the chicks, whose small structure snags on a spindly-looking branch of a tree jutting out from the rocks at the waterfall’s crest, then gets smashed by a full size log coming down the river, with the chicks running for dear life atop the log to keep from going over. Even the duckling nearly goes over the edge – and has to climb to safety on the rungs of a long ladder also floating over the waterfall. Finally, as all other objects to run upon disappear, the duck and chicks have a moment of good fortune. A fireplace bellows floats by, which they jump on in desperation. The duckling’s larger weight compresses the bellows, and it shoots out a jet of air from its mouth, propelling the crew backwards against the flow of the current. Getting the idea, the enterprising duck jumps again and again on the bellows handle – and they are sailed out of the reach of the current, and back to shore. The Mama hen hugs her rescued babies – but embraces the duck too in fond acceptance, as the hero of the day.
The Musical Farmer (Disney/Columbia, Mickey Mouse, 7/9/32 – Wilfred Jackson, dir.) spends its entire second-half on an early success tale from the barnyard. Mickey’s henhouse is one of the earliest in at least “talkie” animation to run with assembly-line precision. As in Alice’s Egg Plant, nests are set in elevated boxes on the wall, with chutes for the eggs to drop through into waiting baskets. The hens lay in rhythm to a musical beat, some of their seated gyrations resembling spirited dance steps. Several nests have the interesting touch of affixing below the chutes musical saws, which bounce each laid egg into the compartments of egg crates while providing musical accompaniment. But one little hen is having no luck at all laying, with an empty egg crate, and the other hens are beginning to gossip about her. (I wonder if Warners’ Robert McKimson remembered this film decades later, when conceiving his “Miss Prissy” character for the Foghorn Leghorn series, as the sequence seems such a precursor of his subsequent films.) With a great deal of effort, the little hen gives it one last try – and finds the trouble was that she was just stopped up – with a monster egg ten times normal size!
The hen starts a loud clucking of “Look, look, look, look what I did!” (another gag which would find use in a later Warner cartoon to be discussed in a future chapter of this series), arousing the attention of the whole barnyard. Mickey sees the prize egg, whistles in appreciation, and pets the hen on the head. He then runs for his old camera and flash gun to preserve the moment for posterity. All the hens huddle together on perches around the egg to get in on a group shot. (The little hen even has to push one of the other hens away, for trying to hog the shot by leaning on the egg as if she were the mother.) Mickey readies his tripod, but is uncertain about how much flash powder to put in the flash gun – so he dumps the whole container of powder into it. Say cheese, everybody. BOOM! The egg miraculously survives the blast, but all the hens have every feather blown off, and Mickey pops his head out the remains of what was once his camera. So much for posterity.
Ted Eshbaugh’s unreleased The Wizard of Oz has been visited any times on this website and in my prior articles (see “The Song Begins…It’s Magic”). Recapping, the climactic trick of the Wizard’s presentation is a series of eggs laid by a hen under the influence of the wizard’s magic potion. Each hatches, when tapped by the wizard’s wand, a weird half-and-half mix comprised of multiple species. But Toto steals the wizard’s wand before he can tap the last egg, and the egg grows uncontrollably while the wizard pursues Toto. Nothing will crack the shell, until the Woodsman luckily snatches the wand from Toto instead of an axe he is reaching for, and taps the egg. With a boom, the egg hatches – revealing nothing more than an ordinary baby chick inside.
Birds In the Spring (Disney/UA, Silly Symphony, 3/11/33 – David Hand, dir.), gives songbirds a chance to show off their eggs for a change. This loosely-plotted nature study focuses on three new arrivals to Mama and Papa songbird, whose hatchings are the talk of the neighborhood. Papa conducts singing and flying lessons. One son is rather off-key in several ways. First, he swallows a bee during singing practice, chiming in with a discordant “Buzzzzzz”. Next, he can’t get the hang of flying. Actually, neither can his siblings. But while Mama and Papa swoop with their nest to catch the other little ones like a safety net, they overlook their other errant boy, whose fall is broken by a mushroom (the impact of which forces from the ground a circle of additional mushrooms around him). Junior thinks he sees a worm – but it is really the tail of a rattlesnake, who tries to hypnotize him. Junior evades the spell, and eventually gets the snake to follow him through holes in a fallen log and tie himself in knots. But Junior’s worries aren’t over, as he runs afoul of a bee=hive, with the bees taking after him through a wheatfield, baling the wheat in their wake. He finally catches sight of Mama and Papa, who grab him up out of reach of the bees and hide him under their inverted nest as the bees pass. Junior emerges long enough to give the bees a bird’s-version of a horse laugh, But Papa has had enough of his acting up, and, peeling back Junior’s tail feathers to reveal pink skin, takes Junior over his knee, “tanning” Junior’s hide.
A forgotten animated nougat, Bunnies and Bonnets (Charles Mintz/Columbia. Krazy Kat, 3/29/33 – Ben Harrison and Manny Gould, dir.), may mark animation’s first dedicated cartoon centered upon the Easter holiday. While its storytelling style wanders (typical of early 30’s entries), it tries hard, and succeeds in covering a lot of bases in about six minutes flat. Notable is that this episode hits a number of Easter traditions not touched by other studios. For starters, Krazy makes his entrance as a street vendor with a pushcart selling Hot Cross Buns (and singing the nursery rhyme of the same title). His customers get fast service, as an apparatus on his cart shoots out buns into their mouths like a machine gun. But Krazy has no intention of spending the whole day hawking his wares. His destination is his girlfriend Kitty’s house. Kitty too is busy preparing for the big day. She has invited in a pair of Easter bunnies, who spin from a chandelier with paintbrushes to paint spiral designs on Easter eggs in assembly-line fashion. Connected to the room is a feeder pipe to deliver the eggs, leading to the henhouse. Three hens in nests on the wall copycat the same kind of laying routine into feeder pipes as Disney’s “Musical Farmer”, this time encouraged by a fourth hen (or rooster?) who acts as a college-style cheerleader.
Again, there is a stopped-up third hen who can’t seem to lay, and gets out only one minuscule egg. The cheerleader chicken deduces the trouble, and inserts an oil can well up the feeder tube to “lubricate” the chicken’s innards. The trick works, and the hen lays a flood of eggs three times the size of her rivals. Here the film wanders, with the only other egg scene being the hatching of a dancing quartet of chicks, who pick up an ear of corn and set it in a mechanism to dispense kernels in the fashion of a typewriter cylinder. Another extraneous shot has the rabbits dance for no reason, using their ears for helicopter flight. The remainder of the film, however, centers on a tradition memorialized in an MGM feature, but never elsewhere appearing to my knowledge in animation – the Easter Parade. Hearing the church bells chiming, Krazy and Kitty disappear into respective rooms to surprise each other by proverbially “putting on the dog” with their new Sunday duds. Krazy unboxes a spiffy new suit – but sees a moth fly out of it – followed by a flock of moths who devour nearly everything but the suit’s collar. But inside the closet is an old spider spinning away (drawn in a fashion to resemble a stereotypical Jewish tailor). He immediately realizes Krazy’s plight and confidently offers his services. Descending from the shelf, he puts his needles to work, and in an instant has Krazy’s suit rewoven. Meanwhile, Kitty is also gussying up in the next room, putting the finishing touches on her ensemble by adding a live parrot to the top of her Easter bonnet, who, as she takes Krazy’s arm to venture outside, does all the talking for her in saying “Hello” to every other fancy-dressed person they meet.
The day seems to be going according to plan, and the sun sits on a scaffold above painting silver linings on clouds – until a storm cloud in the shape of an advancing WWI tank barges in to spoil the scene, shooting a shell into a black cloud that begins to pour rain on the paraders. Krazy and Kitty duck under a tree for shelter, until a stiff wind blows away most of its foliage. Krazy stretches his coat over the bare tree limbs for a makeshift roof – but the tree comes to life and, needing it more than they do, converts the coat into an umbrella and runs for it to a nearby cave. Krazy and Kitty follow in panic, as do the rest of the paraders, into the cave. A few don’t make a clean escape – such as a strutting peacock who falls into a mud puddle, and gets laughed at by the parrot, who comments “Me proud beauty!” Finally, the rain cloud wrings itself dry, and expires. The sun pushes away the clouds and reemerges, pulling out its paintbrush again and painting a double rainbow. Out of nowhere from inside the cave appears a walk-on cameo by a Chinese laundryman, who hangs on the rainbow to dry the wet clothes of the Easter paraders. Among the garments, Krazy and Kitty appear out of the drop-seats of flannel underwear to give each other “Mickey Mouse” style finale kisses for the iris out. The film didn’t become a classic, but represents a noble attempt worth rediscovering.
At the outset of commencing writing for this website, I vowed that I would try not to get hung up in writing about every parody of certain famous fairytales, giving as a choice example the countless versions of “Jack and the Beanstalk”. However, a brief mention of a select few versions seems appropriate here for the recurring appearance of the magic hen who lays golden eggs. We’ll cover them all in one breath, out of chronological sequence. Ub Iwerks’ inaugural “ComiColor“ installment (11/30/33) provides a richly animated and colorful version, with an interesting twist for the hen. As she lays each egg, the giant cracks it open, and a stream of gold coins pours out into a money sack. But even a golden egg hen can have a bad day, and her third egg produces nothing but a gooey yellow and blue yolk that makes the moneybag reek to high heaven. As a punishment, the giant shoves the hen herself into the sack amidst the sticky mess.
We also have a couple of Terrytoons, sharing many things in common (so what else is new?). String Bean Jack (Fox, 8/26/38 – John Foster, dir.) was Terry’s first color cartoon. (If it was good enough for Iwerks, it was good enough for Paul.) The film, alternating from shots that seem only half-finished in inbetweening to scenes of the two-headed giant (nearly a ripoff of the Greek-dialect Boola from “Popeye Meets Sinbad the Sailor”, right down to the green leotards) which seem masterful in movement, sets up some familiar cliches that would be revisited by Terry (as well as by some other studios) again and again. First comes the giant’s entry into the castle. Across the moat from the drawbridge, he comes to a huge spring-powered plunger and a lever. Pulling the lever ejects into place in front of the plunger a large steel ball. The giant pulls back on the plunger like a pinball machine, and fires the ball up a ramp on the side of the castle, where it bounces on various turrets of the roof with buzzes and lighting effects, then finally lands in a hole, opening the drawbridge of the castle. Inside, he calls for the golden egg hen. The hen begins laying eggs, which the giant places in a bread slicer specially fitted for eggs, with each pull of the slicer cutting the eggs into gold coins of various denominations. The giant’s second head and hand place the coins in a cash register, as he comments, “What’s this talk, depression? What it means, recession?” The scene is topped by one egg coming out with a white shell, which the first giant head declares “Counterfeit” and smashes on giant head number two.
Both the castle pinball gag and the bread slicer would reappear verbatim in Beanstalk Jack (Fox, 12/20/46) , this time using only a one-headed giant. The one added touch in this reworking was the giant pulling on the hen’s wing like a “one-armed bandit” to get her started, and the hen’s eyes revolving like the wheels of a slot machine until she pays off with a jackpot of eggs. The film also pilfers its ending, not able to make up its mind whether to retread String Bean Jack or the earlier Beanstalk Jack (1933) from Terry’s Educational Pictures days – so it uses both! Mother (in this case the Woman in the Shoe) gets a new home upgrading her shoe to a deluxe giant ladies’ slipper (as in the upgrade in String bean Jack from a battered steel trailer to a deluxe one of solid gold). And inside, the bare cupboard is replaced with a modern frigidaire chock full of food – the ending used for the 1933 version where Mother Hubbard’s dog no longer has a bare pantry. (Just for good measure, the pinball castle (minus the steel ball) turns up again in Mother Goose’s Birthday Party (Mighty Mouse, 1950), with the added touch of the wolf’s eyes registering “TILT” after being bounced through the pinball field.)
Paramount also tried a few gold egg twists. In Ration Fer the Duration (Popeye, 5/28/43 – Seymour Kneitel, dir.), wartime ratining is the order of the day – so the hen lays rubber tires. Super Lulu (Little Lulu, 11/21/47 – Bill Tytla, director – pictured at right) pulls another new twist, as the hen, instead of laying golden eggs, lays a Faberge egg with a viewing hole, inside which the giant is treated to visions of live dance-hall girls from a film clip from an unknown Paramount Technicolor Western! But by 1951, much of the ingenuity was disappearing from Paramount’s product, and Popeye’s Let’s Stalk Spinach (10/19/51) merely uses the old bread-slicer gag from Terrytoons, plus the “Tilt” gag as the hen’s eyes light up after being forced to overproduce with one massive egg more than she can handle.
Next time, we begin with what may be the all-time Easter classic, and progress our way further through the 1930’s.