Animation Artifacts &Puppet Animation 06 Jun 2006 07:07 am

Hansel & Gretel

- Hansel and Gretel was an animated feature produced in 1954 by Michael Myerberg a showman of a producer who made elaborate claims for his sets and puppets and pushed the publicity to feature many innovations that didn’t exist.

I can remember CBS covering the film’s premiere. They had the upper half of the puppet of Rosina Rubylips in a glass box – it looked not unlike the gypsy fortuneteller in the movie BIG. Supposedly the puppets were controlled by electronics. Singer Anna Russell, at the premiere, was prompted to turn dials, and the puppet moved in a robotic movement. The film employed animation. There were no electronics operating the puppets; there were wires.

(producer Michael Myerberg)

As a child, I was intrigued with this puppet feature – a rarity in those days – and searched for any information about the production. A magazine I have, Closeup #2 (1976) offered a lot of photos of this film, and I thought I’d post some of them.

The feature was done out of a brownstone on East 2nd Street in Greenwich Village, and non-animators were hired to animate the puppets. Some of them were master puppeteers (e.g. Don Sahlin had already designed and built all the marionettes on Howdy Doody, Kermit Love went on to do some masterful work with Jim Hensen.) The camerman was the extra- ordinary still-photographer, Martin Munkasci.
Of course, all of these people had to learn how to do animation on-the-job.
Don Sahlin and Joe Horstman animating Hansel & Gretel in the woods.

This photo gives a good indication of the scale of the production.


Hansel and Gretel dance inside their cottage waiting for their parents to return.

Aside from it being a first feature for Myerberg, it was also the first time opera was the basis for an animated film. All of the dialogue is sung in an English translation of the Humperdink opera. They utilized some great opera stars such as Anna Russell for the voices. That, in itself, gives the animated feature a peculiar feel.


The puppet & production sketch of the evil witch, Rosina Rubylips. The character is voiced by opera star, Anna Russell.


Scenic Designer, Evalds Dajevskis in front of one of his many sets.

Animating the descent of the angels from their fairy kingdom. Pictured are (counterclockwise): Danny Diamond, Kermit Love, Joe Horstman, Sky Highchief, Teddy Shepard and, outside of the circle (with arms crossed) Roger Caras.

It looks to be a relatively large group of animators gathered in and around the very detailed, gingerbread set.

You can see how large the sets and puppets are in this photograph. The animators used electromagnets in the feet of the puppets to keep them anchored to the table. By turning off the switches they were able to move the puppets from the spot where they stood.

The elaborate puppets were created by Jim Summers. He designed armatures for the puppets which had a number of little switches. By pressing on the switch for the leg, for example, you would release the leg and could then move it. By releasing the pressure on the switch, the leg would lock in position.

The director of the film, John Paul, was a British actor directing his first and last animated film.

29 Responses to “Hansel & Gretel”

  1. on 06 Jun 2006 at 11:12 am 1.Jerry Beck said …

    Myerberg’s HANSEL & GRETEL has a fascinating history. The most interesting thing about it is the unheralded fact that it’s the first animated feature to be made in New York City, well before RAGGEDY ANN & ANDY, QUEER DUICK, or the first half of FRITZ THE CAT. Another interesting aspect of it is RKO’s marketing of the film in 1954.

    RKO was on the verge of losing it’s relationship with Walt Disney (who had by now started Buena Vista and was basically fulfilling it’s remaining RKO contractual obligations with CinemaScope Donald Duick cartoons and an ersatz compilation feature called “Music Land”). RKO put all of its marketing muscle behing HANSEL & GRETEL as if it were a new Disney film, with merchandising tie-ins equivalent to todays Dreamworks or Pixar franchises. I wrote a little bit more about this film in my book THE ANIMATED MOVIE GUIDE. HANSEL & GRETEL was an ambitious attempt by an independent to challenge Disney in the feature film arena, at time before any one thought it could be done.

  2. on 06 Jun 2006 at 11:23 am 2.Michael said …

    It’s amazing the film is as good as it is considering the lack of any animation professionals in putting the film together. The entire crew of 35 was assembled from actors, puppeteers and still photographers. They all learned to animate the movement on the fly. The operatic score certainly helps to carry the film through some muddy animation.
    RKO’s publicity dept obviously did do a bang-up job. However, the film ended up on television by 1956 where I got to see for the first time.

  3. on 03 Nov 2006 at 4:19 am 3.David Robert Cellitti said …

    I saw this movie during it’s initial run in 1954. I was three years old. The experience made such a lasting impact that it led me into a career in sculpting.

    In 1999 I had the opportunity to take molds off the last known remaining puppet. It was of Rosina the Witch and the armatures designed by Jim Summers still worked as beautifully as they must have when the film was being shot.

    In the early 1970′s I worked for one of the animators, Sky Highchief, who relayed a lot to me about the actual filming. The original plan had been to do an animated version of Aladdin, but this was dropped in favor of doing Humperdink’s opera as Hansel and Gretel was considered a better commercial risk. The film was shot in sequence. As money started running out for Myerberg and the release date loomed the push was on to complete the project in time. This accounts for the fluid animation at the front end of the film and the rather “muddy”, jerky movements of the characters at the end. Also all the Enchanted Children and Angles in the Dream Sequence have the faces of Hansel and Gretel. There was no time to do original sculpting for these puppets so they just pressed what had already been done into service. According to Highchief the New York studio was vandalized shortly after the film was completed and many of the remaining sets and props simply consigned to the trash bins. The film was not a success for Myerberg and plans for other stop-motion films abandoned.

    I talked with members of the Myerberg family in early 2000 and they claim that all the original elements of the film are still intact. Considering the awful DVD currently available and knowing it’s place in stop-motion animation history I am amazed that nobody has taken it upon themselves to do a restoration.

  4. on 03 Nov 2006 at 9:30 am 4.Michael said …

    Thanks for the update. Your comment was enlightening. I think I have some material about the Aladdin feature and will try to post it this week.

  5. on 19 Nov 2006 at 7:26 pm 5.BigPapaJ said …

    I’m very surprised to find so much information about this movie here. But for us german people there was only one possibility to see this great movie. The movie was broadcasted by the public TV-Station ZDF in the eighties. But it was never published on DVD or anything else.

    So if somebody knows how i can get the german version of this Movie, please let me know.

    Thank you and greetings from Germany

    Jay

  6. on 05 Jul 2007 at 4:07 pm 6.Alice Boatwright said …

    I am delighted to find this information about the Hansel and Gretel movie. My mother, Helen Boatwright, sang the role of the Dew Fairy in this film. She and my younger brother and I were talking about it today, because they had seen a film with Martha Scott in it on TV, and I said “Didn’t she play the mother in Hansel and Gretel?” My brother thought I was right about this, but I’m not sure. No one will ever forget Anna Russell’s witch though. She was amazing. We enjoyed reminiscing about my mother’s brief “film career”.

    As I remember it, our whole family went to a “premiere” of the film at the Lincoln Theatre in New Haven. I was afraid to go because I had seen The Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Witch of the West scared me so much I got under my seat and wouldn’t come out. My mother assured me that the witch in this movie was only a puppet.

    My brothers and I enjoyed the film. We had a copy of the record that we played for many years. We also were lucky enough to be given the cardboard “gingerbread house” from the set and we played in it until it fell apart.

    I would love to obtain a DVD of this film for my mother, who is 90, and still sings and teaches singing. I guess I’ll check Amazon, but if anyone knows a source (assuming that doesn’t work), please let me know.

  7. on 06 Jul 2007 at 9:29 am 7.Michael said …

    Amazon does, indeed, have a dvd available. It indicates that a documentary on the making of is included. I haven’t seen it, so can’t say much more about it.

  8. on 26 Jul 2007 at 9:15 am 8.Bonnie said …

    I was very happy to see yet another fond childhood memory here … and to learn more about the making of it.
    Thank You Michael

  9. on 17 Aug 2007 at 4:15 pm 9.David said …

    The film HANSEL AND GRETEL is one of the reasons I became a puppeteer. It has been a wonderful life.

    I would love to see a new DVD remastering of this delightful film. The current release does not do the film justice.

    Thank you.

  10. on 20 Dec 2007 at 1:03 pm 10.Scott Land said …

    Sky Highchief was a close friend. He was a very extreme artist… very open to a strong opinion. He never held his cards close to his chest. He talked about working on this film and told many stories about Don Sahlin. Sky was a sculptor of many wax figures and built hundreds of marionettes. His speciality was building wigs for the Kroffts. He was old school and would build a marionette quickly and costume and rhinestone the heck out of everything. A regular Liberace of the puppetry world. In fact, he knew Liberace… he had great stories about Libby. Sky, for being such a tempermental artist, was a great performer with many fantastic stories. Those were the days.
    Scott Land

  11. on 20 Dec 2007 at 1:28 pm 11.Michael said …

    Thanks for your comments, Scott. It’s great to hear word-of-mouth stories about some of the key people. By the way, your website is excellent; I love all the puppets on display and look forward to revisiting to watch the videos.

  12. on 13 Jan 2008 at 2:30 pm 12.Phil said …

    Nice to find sites like this. I have the Magic Talkng Book of this film. Will be listing it on eBay if interested.

  13. on 07 Aug 2008 at 9:33 pm 13.Barry said …

    Finally! You have no idea how many years I have been trying to find some detailed information on this film. I had been hearing about it since I was a child in the late sixties. I finally got a chance to see it during a theatrical re-release in the earlt eighties.

    I am SO happy that I got to see it in a theater where I could study it in detail. I was thoroughly amazed at its visual artistry and technical acheivements.

    I am anxiously awaiting someone to give this film the restoration it deserves. In fact, I intend to write an empassioned plea to Criterion to take up the cause.

    Despite it’s small flaws this film is a masterpiece of the genre and an artistically historical treasure.

  14. on 18 Sep 2008 at 4:24 pm 14.Bill Henderson said …

    Bill and Cora Baird did not work on Carnival nor the film on which this musical is based. Leslie Caron speaks to hand puppets in the film Lili, and these were created by Walton and O’Rourke (or maybe Rourke?). One of their manipulators was George Latshaw, who later became quite a renowned puppeteer in his own right and for many years was editor of the Puppeteers of America’s magazine, The Puppetry Journal. The Baird puppets shown in this article’s photograph are featured in the “Lonely Goatherd” muical number in the film version of The Sound of Music.

  15. on 25 Jan 2009 at 11:21 pm 15.Marcia Oster said …

    I’m so glad I found some information on these puppets and the film! I am a public school music teacher in Vermont, and I showed this movie to my young students. I have been trying to find out more about how the puppets and the film were made. Along with studying the music to Hansel and Gretel and watching the film, we attended a live opera performance of Hansel and Gretel. So thanks so much for this site. It is very helpful, and it’s all quite amazing!

  16. on 26 Feb 2009 at 12:33 pm 16.Anthony Myerberg said …

    Michael:

    Some of the information needs to be corrected or expanded.

    Anthony

  17. on 27 Feb 2009 at 2:02 am 17.Peter Dajevskis said …

    My father, Evalds Dajevskis, was the scenic designer for Hansel Gretel. I am preparing a documentary DVD on his life and career, both as a stage designer and easel painter. His work for Hansel and Gretel was his first professional job upon immigration to the US after WWII. I have some documentation about the production of the movie and my father’s autobiographical account of Mr. Myerberg’s desire to have a fresh setting for the production. As a scenographer for the Liepaja Opera and Ballet Theater in Latvia my father brought his theatrical experience as well as his knowledge of the Latvian landscape and ethnographic elements of vernacular architecture, that he knew so well, to the design of the sets. My father passed away in New York City in 1990 and I am seeking additional visual and technical documentation about the production for my documentary. Any additional accounts and factual clarification about the design and production process would be invaluable for my project.

  18. on 10 Apr 2009 at 5:49 pm 18.David Rakes said …

    Thanks for all the info no a very special movie! Since RKO distributed the film, and was bought out by Turner, and then by Warner, then Warner would be the firm to do the restoration on “H&G”. If they do as great as they did on “The Wizard Of Oz”, the restoration would be awesome!

  19. on 23 Apr 2010 at 12:54 pm 19.Marcia Myerberg said …

    The copyright to this film is still owned by the Myerberg family and is not in the public domain. Any home videos especially DVD’s that are currently distributed on the market are not authorized by the family and any right to distribute home videos is expired. This can account for the poor quality of the videos that are out there.

  20. on 17 Dec 2010 at 9:55 pm 20.Derek Verner said …

    My mother, Jeane Verner, wife of famous magician Dai Vernon, worked as a sculptress on Hansel and Gretel. I remember visiting the studio several times during producton. I was rather put off my the claim that the witch’s head was an electronically operated robot photographed in real time when any idiot could see it was a mechanical model moved by wires dials amd levers and photographed one frame at a time as in stop motion animation technique. I was there when a reporter was conned by this story. I believe Mr. Myerberg also made some Pete the Penguin stop motion ads for Kool cigarettes.

    My mother went on to sculpt for Bil and Cora Baird where she had to make all female characters resemble Cora.

  21. on 06 Aug 2011 at 7:30 pm 21.blunderspublik said …

    First of all, I am very impressed by all of the celebrity responses to this post. Second, I am a longtime animation fan who used to scrounge through “previously viewed” VHS bins as a teenager, buying any animation that I had never seen before. Now i’m trying to buy my favourite films from that collection on DVD, and I’m discovering that many of the titles have yet to be released officially on DVD (as of 2011)! This film, Alakazam The Great, Panda & The Magic Serpent, Rankin-Bass’ Pinocchio, Koko the Clown, Tex Avery’s Screwball Classics, a UPA collection?!!!
    I don’t get it.

  22. on 20 Sep 2011 at 9:51 pm 22.David Rakes said …

    It is now September 2011, and still no restored dvd of “Hansel and Gretel: in the martketplace! It seems that the Myerburg family would by now have realised the need for this film to be restored and realsed in a “letterbox” format on dvd. A restored version is one of my fondest dreams:still I wonder, will it ever happen?

  23. on 08 Nov 2011 at 7:12 pm 23.Tim said …

    ^^^ I agree with the post above. Every so often, I see if a restored print is being worked on. I guess it is just not going to happen.

    I just saw Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”, about filmmaker Georges Méliès and how many of his films were lost – or worse, melted down to make heels for shoes. Maybe that is why I am thinking of this film today…as it slips further and further away.

  24. on 11 Jun 2012 at 7:39 pm 24.donald e. larew said …

    I have just come upon a large number of black & white photos from this piece among items that were owned by a former Broadway designer who passed away 12 years ago. It is part of the estate left to his sister. I was curious about it since I had no background on it and went on line to discover this site. Thanks.

  25. on 18 Jun 2012 at 12:30 am 25.Doug Gardiner said …

    I am eagerly awaiting a restored DVD release of this film. I have noticed the unrestored DVD that is currently available does not contain the scene where the angels descend during the dream sequence.

    I hope that I can one day see the complete and restored film.

    I understand that the copyright to this film is owned by the Myerberg family. I hope that they have the original elements of the film and are willing to cooperate with a company like Criterion for a future DVD release.

  26. on 18 Jun 2012 at 4:02 am 26.Michael said …

    The animated film took a while to do. Ponyo, to me, had all the direct and inherent honesty of Hansel & Gretel. I hope and assume it’ll have a better foundation.

  27. on 16 Jul 2012 at 2:08 pm 27.Ray Faiola said …

    I have a 16mm dye-transfer print of HANSEL AND GRETEL, as well as the original pressbook and the RCA LP. RKO did, indeed, go all-out in exploitation. The number of merchandising tie-ins is incredible. As for wanting to see a “letterboxed” dvd, the film was released in 1954, and was probably begun without any thought of widescreen presentation. There certainly isn’t a lot of “head room” in the composition, especially in the close-ups. So I’m afraid a letterboxed presentation would compromise the original framing. But that’s something that we’re going to be seeing more and more of now that we’re in the hi-def era.

  28. on 18 Dec 2012 at 12:00 am 28.Elaine said …

    I also wait hopefully for a restored version. I discovered this movie last year on youtube and fell in love with it right away. I bought the DVD, but I still can’t hear what they are saying in a lot of places. I continue to search for the lyrics in English! I want to sing along!
    I love also that this is a Faithful story. I’m dead-tired of current Hollywood themes… watered-down, half-baked, lukewarm themes.

  29. on 11 May 2013 at 7:48 pm 29.David Rakes said …

    Well there is still no restored version of “Hansel & Gretel” on dvd or bluray dvd. By “widescreen” I mean showing the film in its original screen ratio just like it was shown in the theater. On Ebay and on some other web sights, I have seen stills from the film which I do not remember being in the film or on the video cassette or the dvd out now. One of them shows Hansel and Gretel and Rosina Rubylips fighting over Benjy the bear. Also it would be interesting to know what happened to the cast of the film. I have seen a production photo marked Jim Hinson Ent. I wonder if he was able to purchased and preserve the cast of this wonderful film. Also the cast seems much larger than most stop motion casts: I wonder how tall they were?

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