Animation Cel-ebration
September 26, 2022 posted by Michael Lyons

Not Ready for Rhyme Time: The 65th Anniversary of “The Truth About Mother Goose”

If today’s insightful, investigative journalism were around at the time of nursery rhymes, the result of their findings could look a lot like The Truth About Mother Goose.

This stand-alone Disney short subject peels away the layers and looks at the back story behind three of the world’s most famous nursery rhymes.  It does so in a very stylish and original way, brought to the screen by some of the Disney Studio’s most legendary artists.

The Truth About Mother Goose is narrated musically by a trio of singing jesters, who alter the familiar nursery rhymes with a jazz beat.  They begin with “Little Jack Horner,” first singing the well-known tale (he “sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie”) and then revealing that Jack Horner was actually a servant to a city official who was delivering the pie as a present to King Henry VIII.  

As was the custom at the time, the present was baked into the pie.  It was a deed that Jack took upon himself to steal.  When he stuck in his thumb, it seemed he pulled out more than a plumb!

Then, there’s “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary,” where we learn it was based on Mary Stewart, aka Mary, Queen of Scots.  The “silver bells” referred to adornments on her dress, and “cockle shells” was about her love of exotic food.

The last nursery rhyme is “London Bridge is Falling Down,” which was based on the construction, population, and deterioration of the Old London Bridge.

At the helm for The Truth About Mother Goose were co-directors, and legends, Wolfgang Reitherman and Bill Justice.  This short would be Reitherman’s directorial debut, beginning an illustrious career in that respect, where he would go on to direct or co-direct a number of the studio’s most famous feature films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, including 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Jungle Book (1967) and Robin Hood (1973). 

Justice was most notable as the first animator of Chip ‘n Dale, as well as the director of the stop-motion short Noah’s Ark (1959), and as one of the supervisors for the stop-motion animation employed in the visual effects in Disney’s live-action film Babes in Toyland (1961) and the opening credits of The Parent Trap (also 1961).

The short was written by Bill Peet, Disney’s renowned story artist, who brought the same sharp sense of humor and pacing that he would bring to such features as 1961’s 101 Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone (1963).

All of The Truth About Mother Goose plays against beautifully designed backgrounds by Eyvind Earle, almost early versions of the famous, vertical storybook look he would bring to Sleeping Beauty two years later.

The animation and character design are also very distinctive, seeming to owe more to the graphic style of the UPA Studio at the time, with all of the full movement associated with Disney.  This is seen in the kinetic dancing of the jester chorus and the sequence depicting The London Bridge, taking us through the building, the crowds and businesses teaming across it, and its eventual collapse (played partially as a nice sight-gag moment).

Debuting on August 28th, 1957 (on the bill with Perri, Disney’s True-Life Fantasy), The Truth About Mother Goose celebrates its 65th anniversary this year.  Nominated for an Oscar (it lost to Warner Bros.’ Birds Anonymous), The Truth About Mother Goose was made available on home video in 2005 on the DVD, Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities – Celebrated Shorts: 1920s-1960s. You can read more about the music in this short on this post by Greg Ehrbar.

It’s currently not available on Disney+, which is a shame, as The Truth About Mother Goose is a seldom-seen inventive outing from the Studio and one that is innovative in its blend of fable, humor, history, and artistry and deserves to be seen by more Disney and animation fans.

8 Comments

  • “The Truth About Mother Goose” was featured in an installment of “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” hosted by Ludwig Von Drake (accompanied by his little bug buddy Herman) and paired with “Mickey and the Beanstalk” for an hour of imaginative fun. Paul Frees as Von Drake took over the narrating chores on both segments. This is my earliest memory of the short.

    Note that, while a humorous tone is employed most of the time, the film does not shy away from serious matters such as betrayal, treason, or death. It’s all presented with impeccably good taste, but is not purely children’s fare. The animation presents a good foretaste of the stylization that would characterize Disney animation of the 60’s and 70’s.

    • Thank you for clearing this up. I saw this, paired with Mickey and the Beanstalk exactly once, some time before 1976 and never again. I remember very little, except the ending, thinking, “Once again, Disney has chopped up something for TV”, not knowing that this was actually the whole featurette. I do recall that a narrator smoothed over the transition with a German accent talking about the inhabitants of “Happy Valley” who were, “velly happy”

  • Disney, Lantz, Columbia, Famous and Terrytoons had all done their modern takes on the Mother Goose characters, jazzy vocals and all, but giving the historical background of the stories was a new idea. Evidently Walt Disney was interested in that sort of thing: when he introduced the Silly Symphony “Who Killed Cock Robin?” on his television show, he explained its origin with the fall of the Walpole government in the eighteenth century. It’s too bad that Disney didn’t make other cartoons along this line. The true story of Little Miss Muffet, for example (Thomas Muffet was an English physician who also studied insects and spiders) would have made a great cartoon.

    I wonder if cockles were really considered “exotic food” in Queen Mary’s time. They’re found on beaches all around the British Isles; remember Molly Malone, in Dublin’s fair city, crying “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o!” Like many of my peers, I first learned about Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as Marie Antoinette and Anne Boleyn, from Wednesday Addams and her collection of headless dolls.

  • It should be noted that the second London Bridge mentioned in the cartoon now stands at Lake Havasu, Arizona, having been torn down, sold and reconstructed there. There is now yet a third London Bridge in its place on the Thames.

  • A favorite, I still have a fairly decent 16mm print.

  • As chance would have it, recently dropped eight bucks for a comic book version of “Donald and the Wheel”, a later featurette. Old enough to remember when a featurette was a big deal, even if it was clipped from a package feature. Especially as regular theatrical cartoons were being diminished by budget cuts or vanishing altogether (from movie screens, at least).

    Fleischer of course did a handful of two-reelers. Paramount did “Abner the Baseball”, and Warner released a couple of TV pilots. Richard Willams’s “A Christmas Carol” was briefly shown on the big screen to qualify for the Academy Awards. Anybody else do animated featurettes?

    • There was Don Bluth’s Banjo the Woodpile Cat (1979), which had a short theatrical run before appearing as a TV special in 1982.

  • Also, the Page Cavvanough Trio sings the songs.,.

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