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The Ugly Duckling (1931)

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A black duckling is rejected by its mother, a hen, but manages to prove his worth when a tornado threatens the hen's chicks.


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Title: The Ugly Duckling (1931)

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Credited cast:
Florence Gill ...
Mother Hen (voice)


A black duckling is rejected by its mother, a hen, but manages to prove his worth when a tornado threatens the hen's chicks.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Plot Keywords:

hen | tornado | duckling | chick | duck | See All (45) »






Release Date:

16 December 1931 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Le vilain petit canard  »

Company Credits

Production Co:

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Aspect Ratio:

1.20 : 1
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Did You Know?


The only Silly Symphony cartoon to be remade. (see Ugly Duckling (1939)) See more »

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User Reviews

A primitive cartoon with a progressive message
5 August 2004 | by (Westchester County, NY) – See all my reviews

During the ten-year period that the Disney animators produced their delightful Silly Symphony series there was only one story they chose to dramatize twice, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling." The studio released two quite different versions of the story in 1931 and 1939, at the beginning of the series' history and at the end. The later adaptation displays all the sophisticated techniques the crew had developed during that eventful era: it's in glorious Technicolor, the draftsmanship and character animation are superb, and the storytelling is clear, concise, and funny. And yet there's something to be said for the comparatively primitive black & white version of 1931. For one thing, and whatever the animators' intentions may have been, it appears to be a deliberate condemnation of racial prejudice in parable form.

That might sound like a stretch, but the evidence is there, first in the design of the characters and second in their behavior. We first see a mother hen sitting on her eggs, and when they begin to hatch several identical chubby chicks appear; because the film lacks color, the chicks are solid white. Then the duckling hatches, and we are startled to see that he resembles a caricature of a 19th century minstrel performer: his body is grayish but his head is solid black, except for his eyes and his large white bill. While his sibling chicks emit high-pitched peeps, his voice is an earthier-sounding honk, rather like a jazz trumpeter. Instantly the mother hen is horrified at the sight of him, and ushers her chicks away. The duckling is dismayed at this rejection, and from then on strives to prove himself worthy of acceptance.

In the studio's later adaptation this element of prejudice can be found as well-- it's inherent in Andersen's story --but somehow it's less pronounced there, perhaps because by the late '30s the animators' facility with character design had become so much more sophisticated. In the later rendition the duckling is different from his siblings (i.e. darker) and is rejected, but we still perceive him as a cute Disney character in his own right, while in the earlier version he's presented as grotesque. And there's a more significant contrast: in the 1931 version the duckling succeeds in earning the respect of his mother and siblings through an act of resourceful heroism, whereas in the later version he comes to find that he's happier with ducklings of his own kind.

Hmm . . . Sounds like the official Disney line on integration turned reactionary with the passage of time.

In any case, Disney buffs will find other elements of interest in this cartoon. The tornado sequence looks like a rehearsal of sorts for the big storm in the studio's later masterpiece, The Band Concert. And at one point during the storm there's a gag involving a woolly dog whose fur is blown off by the wind, causing him to resemble a character who hadn't been introduced yet, Pluto. But the most intriguing aspect of the 1931 Ugly Duckling, as far as I'm concerned, is the unmistakable message that no one should be judged by appearance, nor should the "other" be blindly rejected without a hearing. Sadly, it would be a long time before the Hollywood studios would find the courage to offer comparable messages in their mainstream features.

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