Who Killed Cock Robin?
The title character in Who Killed Cock Robin?, from John
Grant's Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters.
Copyright Disney Enterprises.
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A Walt Disney Silly Symphony. New York premiere on June 27, 1935,
at Radio City Music Hall (where it played for three weeks, through
July 17). Released nationally on June 29, 1935, by United Artists.
No screen credits except for Walt Disney. Credits from studio records
and interviews: director, David Hand; story, Bill Cottrell, Joe
Grant; story sketch, Bob Kuwahara; animation, Ham Luske, Norm Ferguson,
Bill Roberts, Dick Lundy, Eric Larson, Hardie Gramatky, Gerry Geronimi,
"Bob" [probably Wickersham]; music: Frank Churchill.
To read the section of Hollywood
Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age in which I discuss
Cock Robin and how it fit into the evolution of Disney animation, click here.
For the outline distributed in the Disney studio around the start of work on this cartoon, click here.
For the continuity or script dictated by Bill Cottrell on November 28, 1934 (nineteen pages, plus a cover sheet and a cast of characters), click here to go to page 1, here for page 2, here for page 3, here for page 4, here for page 5, here for page 6, here for page 7, here for page 8, here for page 9, here for page 10, here for page 11, here for page 12, here for page 13, here for page 14, here for page 15, here for page 16, here for page 17, here for page 18, here for page 19, here for page 20, and here for page 21. Links on each page of the script permit navigating directly from one page to another.
For the draft of Cock Robin, with animators' credits for each scene, click here for page 1, here for page 2, here for page 3, here for page 4, here for page 5, and here for page 6.
The earliest trace of Who Killed Cock Robin? is a one-page
outline, distributed in the Disney studio in March 1934; the deadline
for gag suggestions was March 23. At that point, Wilfred Jackson
was scheduled to direct the cartoon. As was usually the case, a
fair amount of work had been done on the story before the outline
was distributed, although there's no indication of who the writer
The outline's version of the story differs considerably from the
film, in which most of the action takes place in court. The outline
opens with Cock Robin "walking through the bird village, swinging
his cane and flirting with all the lady birds." The character
was envisioned as the sort of sweet-talking heart-breaker Bing Crosby
played in early-thirties features like Going Hollywood: "He
is whistling a song, possibly 'When the Blue of the Night'"
(Crosby's radio theme song).
There's no hint in the outline that Jenny Wren would be a caricature
of Mae West: "We show Cock Robin and Jenny Wren doing a very
graceful flying waltz which will be similar to a real waltz in action,
but done in the air. This can be a high spot in the picture for
graceful action and as a novelty"the sort of animation set-piece
that had been central to the Silly Symphonies in their first several
years but was rapidly fading in importance as the Disney people
learned how to delineate character and tell stories.
The outline's trialin contrast to the film, where three birds
are arrested, a crow was to have been the only suspectis presented
as a Rashomon-like affair, with Jenny and the crow offering
starkly different portrayals of Cock Robin. The crowd at the trial"true
to type," the outline sayslurches back and forth between
wanting to lynch the crow and wanting to lynch Cock Robin.
There was to be no comic-romantic ending like the film's, with
Dan Cupid turning up to tell the crowd that he fired the arrow that
knocked Cock Robin from his perch. Instead, the outline calls for
the cartoon to end "with the irate birds chasing Cock Robin
out of town, throwing things after him." Ominously, the outline
itself ends with this note: "We can use a suggestion for a
good gag finish to this picture."
Perhaps because the story was in such a state of disrepairas
skeletal as the outline is, it clearly encompasses more material
than could have been accommodated in a seven-minute cartoonthere's
no evidence of any further work on Cock Robin for more than
six months. But then things speeded up. On November 28, 1934, Bill
Cottrell dictated a nineteen-page continuity to a stenographer.
Animation was under way a little more than a month later.
Cottrell's continuity includes not just scene breakdowns but also
footage estimates for each scene, down to the frame. The actiondescribed
in detail, complete with camera movesis very close to what wound
up on the screen, and the dialogue too is very close. Jenny Wren
is now explicitly a Mae West caricature, and the other characterizations
are likewise in line with those in the film. For example, Dan Cupid:
"Cupid has a hysterical laugh like Ed Wynn, and talks in a lisping
nance voice. All his actions typify the hand-on-hip, I'll-slap-your-wrist
attitude of a nance [an effeminate homosexual]."
A second, seventeen-page Cottrell continuity for Cock Robin,
dated January 8, 1935 (the day after the first animation scenes
were handed out), differs from the first mainly through the deletion
of some gag material for the police patrol wagon as it rushes to
the scene of the "crime." (In fact, the later continuity is dated
November 28, 1934, on its first page, which a literal-minded secretary
Some material that was the same in both continuities was deleted
for the finished film, probably for reasons of time, although it's
just as well that it was dropped. There was to be an ambulance-chasing
lawyer named "Sam Ginsbird," for instance, and the three prisoners
were to be really hung, with Dan Cupid's arrow cutting a rope.
Despite such deletions, the satirical flavor in Cottrell's continuity,
with the criminal justice system the target, carried over into the
film. After Cock Robin's apparent death, the police rush ferociously
but indiscriminately into the Old Crow Bar, scooping up suspects
with no possible relationship to the "killing" other than being
in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the police bring the three
suspects to the witness stand, they pound each one on the head repeatedly
with their nightsticks. The jury sings, "We don't know who is guilty,
so we're going to hang them all." But in the continuity, and in
the film, there is a strong operetta flavor, with rhymed
dialogue and snatches of patter song, and as a result the satire
has no real sting.
(Joe Grant, Cottrell's collaborator on Cock Robin and other
Silly Symphonies, offered this explanation for Cottrell's light
touch: "Bill, being English, was responsible for the Gilbert
and Sullivan approach to it." Cottrell's parents were in fact
English; they emigrated to the U.S. around 1900. But he was born
in South Bend, Indiana, in 1906.)
It's quite possible or even likelygiven the compressed schedule
and the way things were being done at the Disney studio in 1934-35that
there was never a complete storyboard for Cock Robin based
on Cottrell's continuity. After the film was made, surviving sketches
were assembled, one sketch to a scene, in what the Disney Archives
calls a "story sketch book," but the sketches in such
books, especially those from the early to mid-thirties, were often
preliminary layout drawings, rather than story sketches. Such drawings
were made to show how the action was to be staged, rather than put
across a story point. The distinction wouldn't have mattered much
to anyone using a sketch book then; the books apparently served
as ready reference to a film in the days when looking at the film
itself was more complicated than popping a videocassette into a
Some of the drawings in the story sketch book for Cock Robinlike
the ones reproduced on page 104 of the original 1973 edition of
Christopher Finch's Art of Walt Disneyare relatively finished
preliminary layouts. Others are much cruder preliminary layouts;
still other drawings look like actual story sketches, many of them
by Bob Kuwahara, the first Disney artist whose job was just to draw
story sketches (as opposed to being a writer who also drew sketches).
In any event, many hands were at work on these sketches. That was
not unusualpreliminary layouts in particular might be drawn by
the director, the layout man, or someone else in the unit, and story
sketches likewise could be contributed by many different people.
In 1986, I talked with Cottrell about his work as the lead writer
on the Silly Symphonies, the short cartoons that paved the way for
Walt Disney's triumphant early features. For several years, first
on the Symphonies and then on part of Snow White, Cottrell
wrote and Grant drew, in what Cottrell remembered as most satisfying
"Joe was great to work with," he said. "Almost every
morning, it seemed, he came in with a new drawing that he'd done
[the previous] night, or a clay figure. He was interested in the
business; he had a lot of enthusiasm for it, and thought about it
at home, obviously. ... We were interested in [motion] pictures, and
we would see ... all the pictures made by directors who had interesting
styles. ... Joe was a good artist, and he contributed so much to the
pictures because of his ability to draw and conceive characters."
The Grant-Cottrell team was responsible for a string of successful
cartoons, Who Killed Cock Robin? among them. In "Production
NotesShorts," a memo he wrote late in 1935, Walt Disney singled
out Cock Robin as one of the year's "seven definite
and outstanding hits," bracketing it with such cartoons as
The Band Concert and The Tortoise and the Hare. But
something about it still troubled Cottrell, more than fifty years
"I wonder," he said, "why we didn't go all-out,
with the whole thing, with caricatures all the way through it."
It was a good question. Only one character, Jenny Wren, is an unmistakable
caricature, of Mae West. A number of other characters look as if
they should be caricatures, but they aren't, not like Jenny Wren.
When Cock Robin is shot and falls, he utters three last "a-boos"
before "expiring," but that's really just a Crosby reference, from
a character who is not a Crosby caricature.As Cottrell noted, "We
had the Bing Crosby type of voice for Cock Robin, because he was
a crooner of that era, but we didn't caricature him [as Crosby];
I don't know why not."
Other characters suggest Harpo Marx and Stepin Fetchit, but only
in the most general terms, and most of the cartoon's all-bird cast
resists identification with any particular movie star.
The urge to see a caricature where one was not intended afflicted
Alexander Woollcott, a critic who was, as Cottrell said, "a
very popular radio man in those days, and wrote for The New Yorker"and
was caricatured more than once in Frank Tashlin's Merrie Melodies
for Warner Bros. Woollcott "went over to Walt's house for dinner
one night," Cottrell said, "and I was invited [Cottrell
was Disney's brother-in-lawhe was married to Lillian Disney's
sister], and he said, 'On that picture Who Killed Cock Robin?
who did you have in mind for the judge?'" The judge was an
owl, and Woollcott had an owlish appearance, but Disney evidently
resisted the temptation to flatter his guest. "Walt, I don't
believe, gave him a specific answer," Cottrell said. "I
think he kind of evaded it. Woollcott, I think, would have liked
for him to have said, 'We had you in mind,' but it wasn't said."
For some reason, Cottrell said, "it just didn't occur to us
to say, 'Let's go all out and make this a total caricature picture.'
Joe and I talked about it many times afterward, and wondered why
we didn't, because Joe was a great caricaturist."
When I spoke with Grant in 1986, a few days after speaking with
Cottrell, he laid their hesitation to a practical difficulty, one
having to do with the skill level the Disney animators had reached
by early 1935. "We had a problem of just exactly who could
do the job, to follow through," he said. "At that time,
I couldn't make a model sheet of caricatures that would turn and
could have that mobility."
This would not have been an empty concern. Less than a year later,
Disney made Mickey's Polo Team (released in January 1936),
another Cottrell-Grant collaboration, and the screen was filled
with Grant's very active caricatures of stars like Laurel and Hardy
and Harpo Marx. The animators on that filmprincipally Art Babbitt,
Bill Roberts and Grim Natwickwere by then fully capable of animating
"caricatures that would turn and could have that mobility."
In early 1935, though, most of the Disney animators were still climbing
upwards from the much stiffer caricatures in Mickey's Gala Premiere,
the 1933 cartoon for which Grant had drawn caricatures in his debut
as a Disney artist.
By sometime late in 1934, David Hand had been assigned to direct
Cock Robin. He began handing out scenes to the animators
on January 7, 1935; he distributed the last scenes six weeks later,
on February 20. As was his wont, Hand had assembled a strong set
of animators, and in assigning scenes he cast his strongest animators
by character: Ham Luske handled most of Jenny Wren and Cock Robin,
Norm Ferguson the owl judge, Bill Roberts the parrot prosecutor,
and Dick Lundy Dan Cupid. Animators like Hardie Gramatky and Gerry
Geronimi handled scenes with less distinct characters (the stretcher
bearers, the police).
By 1935, Disney's best animators had long since assumed responsibilities
that at other studios were likely to be in the director's hands.
Ferguson spoke in 1936 of how animators might add "some little
business which may precede the gag itself but which will serve to
strengthen it when it is finally pulled. Such touches may not be
developed or worked out in the music room [the Disney term for the
director's room] but are inspired as the animator gets into the
For example, Ferguson said, "in Cock Robin, where the
[parrot] said, 'What do you say, Judge?' and the judge answered,
'Hang them all.' Originally the judge was just supposed to be standing
there when he said, 'Hang them all.' But when I started to work
on the scene, the thought occurred to me to have Jenny Wren there
making eyes at the judgethe judge deeply interested in Jennythen
the [offscreen] voice, 'What do you say, Judge?' interrupted his
attention to Jennyso he says, 'Hang them all' and turns back to
Jenny." Such opportunities were frequent, Ferguson said, and
"the animators should take advantage of them."
Ferguson had more than earned the right to exploit such opportunitieshe
was the first Disney animator whose characters, like Pluto, seemed
to have an inner lifebut his work was already starting to suffer
a little by comparison with that of his peers. His animation of
the owl judge feels rather mushy (it was referred to dismissively
a few years later, during story work on the owl in Bambi),
whereas the parrot prosecutor, animated by Bill Roberts moves much
more assuredly in three dimensions. The parrot brings real meaning
to the word "stalks" as he walks hunched over with his head thrust
The film's breakthrough character, though, is Jenny Wren, who in
Ham Luske's hands moves with a subtlety that was new to Disney animation.
Luske offered this capsule description of Jenny's walk when he wrote
an outline of animation theory and practice at the end of 1935:
"JENNY WREN - floats through her walk. Picks up foot daintily,
transfers weight, sways over before putting foot down." In
1938, Luske told a group of his colleagues that a young actress,
more than Mae West herself, had been the source of that walk and
other true-to-life mannerisms. "This young girl had studied Mae
West and knew her character and personality," he said. "Although
she was accustomed to the stage and did things that Mae West herself
didn't do ... she was darned good. We obtained several pictures of
Mae West [presumably films in which West starred] and found that
we didn't get as much out of her acting in the pictures as we did
out of the girl's imitation."
Luske, although a highly meticulous animator in some respects,
wasn't one in other ways. As Mark Kausler has pointed out to me,
he could be careless about the synchronization of dialogue and mouth
movements. Where Jenny Wren is concerned, though, the voice, the
character design, and the movements fit together so well that any
failings in lip-sync simply don't matter much. For the first time
in Disney animation, in Luske's handling of Jenny, there's visible
some of the precision and fluidity that would make possible the
animation not just of convincing caricatures, but of characters
who could hold an audience's attention for the length of a feature.
Who Killed Cock Robin? was released on DVD in 2001 as part
of the two-disc
Silly Symphonies "Walt Disney Treasures" set. To access
the film, and Walt Disney's introduction of it from a Disneyland
TV show, through an "Easter egg," click on the chick above
the word "Wise" on the "Favorite Characters"
menu on Disc One.
To read about the actress who provided Jenny Wren's Mae West-like
voice in this cartoon, see Keith Scott's message on the Feedback
To see "mosaics" assembled by Jeff Watson, made up of a frame grab from each scene in the cartoon, with the animator or animators of each scene credited, click on the thumbnails below:
[Posted May 2003; updated March 21 and April 12, 2007]