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.