August 8, 2023 posted by Greg Ehrbar

The First U.S. Stop-Motion Feature on Screen & Records

The New York-produced stop-motion feature that made animation history had a decades-long life through its soundtrack on RCA Records.

The Original Sound Track from The Michael Myerberg Production

The Original Sound Track 
RCA “X” Records LXA-1013 ( 33 1/3 RPM, Mono, 1955)

LP Reissues: RCA Bluebird CAL-1024 (Mono, 1959); RCA Camden CAL-1024 (Mono, 1960) CAS-1023(e) (Electronic Stereo, 1960)

Album First Released in 1955. Feature Producer: Michael Myerberg. Director: Padriac Collum. Music: Engelbert Humperdinck. Musical Direction: Franz Allers. Sound Track Album Running Time: 57 minutes.

Cast: Anna Russell (Rosina Rubylips the Witch); Mildred Dunnock (Mother); Constance Brigham (Hansel, Gretel); Father (Frank Rogier); Delbert Anderson (Sandman); Helen Boatwright (Dew Fairy); The Apollo Boys Choir (Angels, Children).

“Hansel? …Hansel!?”
How could anyone not begin with that?

There have been quite a few versions of Hansel and Gretel besides the one where Bugs Bunny outwits the witch with the bobbie-pins. One in particular, released in 1954, may be remembered from its daytime broadcasts on local TV or shown in school. This stop-motion version of the Grimm tale is a historic landmark worthy of more attention, as well as a substantial restoration. Hansel and Gretel (sometimes subtitled “An Opera Fantasy”) was the first stop-motion feature that was not outsourced from the U.S. and the first animated non-Disney animated feature produced in the 13 years since Fleischer’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town in 1941.

With distinctive characters and sets created by Latvian painter and production designer Evalds Dajevskis, Michael Myerberg produced the feature in New York. Myerberg also produced the early TV series We the People and the theatrical version of Rod Serling’s acclaimed live TV drama, Patterns.

The highly detailed sets were of such size and detail that the “kinemin” figures had to be moved from underneath, in a process combining stop-motion with electronics–a cousin to the “Supermarionation” in such British TV series as Thunderbirds and Stingray. A short film of Myerberg demonstrating one of the figures is included in some DVD releases. The film is very easy to locate, though it is begging for a decent rebirth:

The composer of the opera, Engelbert Humperdinck, is not the same person as the popular crooner of the sixties (whose real name is Arnold George Dorsey). This Engelbert was a German composer who started writing the Hansel and Gretel songs for his nieces to use for a home puppet show. The finished opera was first performed in 1893 and became a perennial favorite. There are several outstanding recordings, including this one.

It was generally well-received in its first release during the Christmas season by RKO, which only a few years earlier was distributing Disney features. The film did well enough to justify two reissues in 1965 and 1973. The operatic approach of the feature might be an acquired taste for some modern-day young people whose lives are devoid of anything but what is marketed to their “segments.” If operatic style may seem “niche” now, in 1954 the form was still very much in the mainstream, especially in the early days of live television.

In its day, Hansel and Gretel was given an extensive promotion, including some merchandise. Our own Jerry Beck has the original press kit, as seen here.

The film really gains momentum when the witch character enters the story. Named Rosina Rubylips, she is a comic character thanks to the accomplished entertainer providing the voice: Anna Russell. A sort of Victor Borge meets Hyacinth “Bouquet,” Russell was a popular live attraction for her droll concerts combining singing with wry humor. Several albums of her material were reissued, including this satire on advertising called “A Practical Banana Promotion”:

RCA released the Grammy-nominated soundtrack album with the entire story, using additional dialogue to explain the visuals to listeners. It sold for decades, mostly on the Camden label. It is currently the best way to access the film through high-fidelity sound. The conductor was Broadway musical director Franz Allers, who worked on such major shows as My Fair Lady and Camelot.

One of the most interesting Hansel and Gretel albums was produced by Disneyland Records. It is narrated by Laura Olsher, of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (“The founder of the feast indeed”) and Disney Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House (“Yeew are a BOLD and courageous person, afraid of nothing.”). Voice acting legend Martha “Mad Madam Mim” Wentworth chews the vinyl as the sputtering, muttering witch, and TV’s Ann Jillian is Gretel, probably because she had just played Bo-Peep in Disney’s Babes in Toyland.

The songs come from an earlier Disneyland release called Great Operatic Composers. Hansel and Gretel was a segment on the two-record set, including the voice of Hollywood’s most renowned ghost singer, Marni Nixon.

Another Hansel and Gretel feature was produced in West Germany in the fifties, then dubbed for American theatergoers in 1965 for the independent company, Childhood Productions. Golden Records released its soundtrack album, narrated by Paul Tripp. These were West German films from the fifties given English dialogue with New York actors (including Corinne Orr, Norman Rose, and Peter Fernandez) with songs by Milton DeLugg and his wife Anne.

The soundtrack album:

The feature film:

…and in conclusion, “Hansel”? How could we not end with this?

Chuck Jones’ Hansel and Gretel from “Bewitched Bunny” (1954)


  • As a child in the late 1950s, I had a jigsaw puzzle (maker unknown, possibly Western Publications division Whitman) with a still shot from the stop-motion film., featuring H&G in front of the famed gingerbread house.

    • The jigsaw puzzle maker was JAYMAR, which licensed many motion picture images for its product, and the puzzle had 57 “large, easy-to-handle” interlocking pieces. There’s currently one for sale on Etsy for about $32 in case you’re feeling nostalgic.

  • I’ve been familiar with the opera “Hansel und Gretel” since childhood. My parents had a recording of it from the Opera of the Month Club, my mother enjoyed playing the music on the piano, and she sometimes sang the Evening Prayer to me at night as a lullaby. I found the idea of fourteen angels keeping watch over me very comforting.

    The opera was a collaboration between Engelbert Humperdinck and his younger sister Adelheid, an accomplished writer and folklorist, who wrote the libretto and proposed the idea in the first place. It was Adelheid who urged her brother to compose some songs for the Hansel and Gretel puppet show her daughters were putting on. I wonder if those girls lived to see the Myerberg film; they’d have been 70 or so when it was released.

    “Hansel und Gretel” was the first opera to be broadcast in full on the radio, as well as the first to be shown complete on television. It’s an ideal work for introducing children to opera, with its familiar story and appealing, folk-like tunes. That is, unless you’re one of those people who consider taking kids to the opera a form of child abuse.

    The role of Hansel calls for a mezzo-soprano and as far as I know has always been performed by a female mezzo. (Such “trouser roles” are common in opera, for example Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier” and Cherubino in “The Marriage of Figaro”.) The role of the Sandman (called the “Sleep Fairy” in German) calls for a soprano, but in English-language productions the part is often sung by a man an octave lower, as in the film. The witch is another mezzo-soprano role, but the part is often played by a male tenor; such was the case in the production of “Hansel und Gretel” I was involved in years ago. I understand there is a certain amount of controversy nowadays over the matter of drag performances in children’s entertainment, but in the world of opera it’s been going on for a very long time.

    “Rosina Rubylips”, eh? The witch isn’t named in the score to “Hansel und Gretel”, but Rosina is the name of the heroine in “The Barber of Seville”.

    While many of the numbers in “Hansel und Gretel” have a childlike simplicity, I assure you that the opera is by no means an easy one for the orchestra to play. The string section has to play almost constantly throughout, and there are many, many horrendously difficult passages. I well remember suffering through it in the cramped confines of an orchestra pit and feeling by the end of Act III as if I had been run over by a truck. The singers up on stage get all the glory and applause, but as far as I’m concerned the musicians down below in the pit are the real “unsung” heroes.

  • “Ehhhhhh, yer mother rides a vacuum cleaner!”

  • … Or, as the once-famous Walt Kelly, of the once-famous comic strip “Pogo” put it, “Handle and Gristle.”

  • I saw a showing of the “Hansel & Gretel” stop motion feature at our little neighborhood theatre–which alas is now a bank–on a Sunday afternoon as part of a special family show, which also included my first viewing of a Pink Panther cartoon (not knowing any better, I called him the Pink Lion). I think it also included the Donald Duck cartoon that features Donald with Huey, Dewey, and Louie at a carnival shooting gallery.

    I remember going with my parents and little brother and we all had a great time. We loved the “Hansel & Gretel” feature. I talked about it during Show and Tell at school the next day. Amazing how movies didn’t age back then the way they do now. Today any movie that is 12 years old is a relic. (Any movie that is five weeks old pretty much is a relic, too, these days!) But when we saw it, the movie seemed fresh and delightful.

  • Back in boomer years it was a holiday perennial on local stations, along with the two Fleischer features and the Russian “Snow Queen”. With Disney’s product in perpetual re-releases, any feature-length animation on television was a big deal to this kid.

    Was channel-surfing some years ago (in this century) and caught a glimpse of what looked like a Mozart opera by stop-motion puppets. Sound familiar to anybody?

    • “Opera imaginaire” (1993) is a French animated anthology film of operatic excerpts that utilises a variety of animation techniques. Stop-motion puppets are used in the excerpt from “I Pagliacci”, which you’re not likely to mistake for Mozart; while the aria from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” is animated using paper cutouts over a CGI background. Then there’s “Operavox” (1995), a BBC television series of six animated operas condensed to 30 minutes each, performed in English and animated in a variety of techniques. Stop-motion puppets are used for “The Barber of Seville” and “Rigoletto”; but the Mozart opera, “The Magic Flute”, employs 2-D drawn animation. You may be remembering one or the other of these productions, both of which use puppet animation AND Mozart’s operas, but not at the same time. They’re well worth checking out in any case.

  • Michael Myerberg’s “Hansel and Gretel” overflows with genuine charm — gorgeous music, appealing storytelling and characterizations ( especially Anna Russell as the Witch), sumptuous settings, and sweet, gentle humor. It is a treasure.

  • The first time the 1954 Hansel and Gretel came onto my radar was when Classic Arts Showcase played the snippet of the film where the titular characters get lost and then the sandman and the angels enter into the scene. I found it to be one of the most beautifully animated scenes especially in the stop-motion medium. The feeling of being lost, being in need of prayer and the innocence of Hansel and Gretel themselves was so heartfelt. The animators and writers nailed it. Seeing the film in its entirety on Cartoon Research is such a treat! Thanks Greg for this post.
    Also, Anna Russel’s voice suited the witch perfectly!

  • Greg, thank you for this well-crafted and well-researched article on a hidden corner of animation history! So much here I never knew and now I’d like to see that restored version, as well! So interesting!

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