Although the short film is loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Ugly Duckling", the only real similarities are one bird getting confused for another and his unique abilities enabling him to become something special. In this version, a duckling has gotten mixed in among the farmyard chickens. Despite his best attempts to fit in with his chick siblings, things don't work out. However, when the hen's chicks are threatened by a waterfall, due to them being dropped off in a river by a cyclone, the little duckling saves them and is lauded as a hero.
About eight years later, in 1939, the film would be remade and would follow the original Andersen story much more faithfully. This gives The Ugly Duckling the unique distinction of being the only Silly Symphony to be made twice.