Editor’s Note: I always get a kick out of reading about The Golden Touch, the last cartoon Walt Disney himself personally directed. It was a failure – but it taught him, and his crew, some valuable filmmaking lessons. Jim Korkis recently wrote a great piece about the film, of which an excerpt is posted below. For more about the film, I also refer you to Michael Barrier’s The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, J.B. Kaufman and Russell Merritt’s book Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies and David Gerstein’s Mickey and The Gang (especially to see a larger version of the Good Housekeeping page I’ve posted below). – Jerry Beck
A Disney Silly Symphony titled The Golden Touch was released by United Artists on March 22, 1935. It was the last animated short cartoon where Walt Disney officially received credit as a director.
The cartoon short was based loosely on the well-known tale from Greek mythology about King Midas who worshipped gold so much that he wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. This foolish wish is granted by an impish character called “Goldie” in the Disney cartoon and, of course, it leads to disaster.
Walt officially retired from directing in 1930, although, obviously for the rest of his life, he made directorial suggestions on all his animated projects.
As director Dave Hand wrote in his privately printed limited-edition book, “Memoirs” (1986), one of the first cartoons Hand directed was the Silly Symphony The Flying Mouse (1934), but he and Walt had a disagreement about a particular gag where a mouse got poked in his rear by a thorn.
“I had done the action exactly as Walt had intended. I certainly was not surprised that there was no laugh. But next day, bright and early, Walt breezed in—a deep scowl on his brow. So I shook my head and with a hopeless expression, stood waiting for what should have been his admitted mistake. But what he said was, ‘Jeez, Dave, YOU DIDN’T DO IT RIGHT !!!’
“Well, it seems Walt got itchy fingers and decided HE would direct a picture. The fact that he had never directed any picture never occurred to him. So Walt took what I supposed to be a very good story, ‘King Midas and the Golden Touch’ from the story department. It was all pretty much ‘hush-hush’. He worked on it in his business office set-up. The thing that galled me was that he assigned every one of the ten animators to his ‘Midas’ picture. And I had to do with the beginner guys.
“The other two directors had to get along with second raters, also. We directors were not invited to see any preliminary animation—nothing was shown until preview time. The cost of the picture was way over budget it was rumored. So what—they were Walt’s costs. I mean to be fair minded, but to be honest, I’ve just got to say—it was a dismal flop. That was the first and last of Walt’s directorial attempts.”
Obviously, Walt had directed shorts before, just not while Hand was there at the studio.
The Golden Touch was made at a cost of $35,458.19. Music Land that same year came in at $35,054.55 and The Tortoise and the Hare at $32,671.76. Of course, it could be argued that The Golden Touch with basically only two characters and with no major special effects should have come in at a lower cost.
Walt only took two top animators, not ten, to work on the short.
Disney Legend Norm Ferguson, renowned for his work on Pluto, primarily did the animation for King Midas, but also did some incidental animation on the birds, cat, and skeleton.
Disney Legend Fred Moore, renowned for his work on Mickey Mouse, primarily did the animation of Goldie, but also did the sequence of Midas cavorting around the castle enjoying the Golden Touch. Moore was also responsible for some incidental animation on the cat, birds and Grim Reaper.
Director Burt Gillett, who had directed Flowers and Trees (1932) and Three Little Pigs (1933), left Disney in 1934 for a better offer from another animation studio, Van Beuren
Disney Legend Jack Kinney in his book Walt Disney and Other Assorted Characters (1989, Harmony) wrote the following version of the same incident:
“Burt’s exodus really griped Walt who said, ‘Who needs him? I’ll direct in his place.’ And so he did, using his top animators from The Three Little Pigs—Norm Ferguson and Freddie Moore. Walt moved into his own music room and started making The Golden Touch, the King Midas story.
“This was a very hush-hush operation, with just two animators, who were sworn to secrecy. The entire studio awaited this epic, and finally it was finished and previewed at the Alex Theater in Glendale. All personnel turned out to see what Walt had wrought. He had wrought a bomb! The Golden Touch laid a great big golden egg. That picture was the last Walt ever directed. We knew better than to discuss it, ever. It was forgotten and the studio went on to other things.
“Years later, Walt roared into Jaxon’s [Wilfred Jackson] office and started chewing him out about something or other. Jaxon was usually a very calm guy, but he was a redhead and this time he blew his cool. ‘Walt,’ he said, “I recollect that you once directed a picture called The Golden Touch.’ There was instant silence. Walt stared at Jaxon, then stomped out, slamming the door.
“As Jaxon described it, after a few beats, the door opened and Walt’s head popped back in. Wearing a heavy frown and very slowly punctuating his words with his finger, he said, ‘Never, ever mention that picture again.’ Then he slammed the door and clumped down the hall.
“Needless to say, it was never mentioned again.”
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston tried to put a positive spin on the experience in their book Too Funny For Words (Abbeville, 1987):
“We learned a strong lesson about one-liner dialogue jokes when work was completed on The Golden Touch. The monarch’s personality had not been defined in the opening section, so no one knew if being given the power to run everything one touched into gold was good or bad….the audience lost interest in both characters.
“As Midas realized he would soon starve, he pleaded with the magical elf, Goldie: “I would trade my whole kingdom for a hamburger!’ Walt thought it would lighten the moment with a brash line from the elf: ‘With—or without—onions?’
“It sounded so funny to us that more time was added to the picture at that point, so the anticipated laugh would not cover the next line of dialogue. But when the film was released, no one in the theater laughed. It was an expensive way to learn that flippant dialogue will not get a laugh from any character unless he has been established as having a strong, clear, appealing personality.”