When Walt Laid a Golden Eggby Jim Korkis, staff writer
In 1935, the Disney Studios released some memorable Silly Symphony cartoons, including The Tortoise and the Hare, Music Land, Who Killed Cock Robin?, and Water Babies.
A Silly Symphony titled The Golden Touch was released by United Artists on March 22, 1935. (Although it actually debuted at New York's Radio City Music Hall on March 21 and at Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese Theater on March 28.)
For many Disney fans, The Golden Touch does not seem as significant or entertaining as some of the other Silly Symphonies released that same year….except for the fact that it was the last animated short cartoon ever officially directed by Walt Disney.
Obviously, Walt contributed directing advice to all the Disney animated cartoons ever made, but this was the last short where he was officially credited as the director.
While it is one of the longest Silly Symphonies ever made, the story it tells is quite simple.
Based loosely on the well-known tale from Greek mythology that has been retold with many variations over the centuries, King Midas never cared for women or wine, but only worshipped gold. He desperately wishes everything he touched could turn to gold. During one of these outbursts, a mischievous sprite named Goldie mysteriously appears and demonstrates the golden touch on Midas' cat. With a clap of his hands, Goldie changes the cat back.
Midas begs to have that power, as well, but Goldie warns that for the king it would be a golden curse. Midas exclaims, "Fiddlesticks! Give me gold, not advice!"
The elfish creature with a look of disgust gives Midas the Golden Touch and disappears again. A delighted Midas happily chases after his cat to try out the new found power. In Midas' garden, the scared cat runs up a tree and Midas turns the tree, its apples and the scared cat into solid gold.
The king sings and dances through the garden touching flowers, birdbath water, an ornate fountain, staircase figures and transforms them all into gold. Looking in the mirror, he madly fantasizes about changing the entire world and even the universe into gold.
Oddly, Midas' clothes do not change to gold despite him touching them constantly, but he is able to playfully touch one of his upper front teeth and make it a gold tooth. (Watch carefully at the end of the short, the golden tooth disappears completely after Midas loses his power and possessions, but is still clearly in evidence during the dining room and counting room scenes, probably a nightmare for the Ink and Paint Department to remember to color that tiny tooth.)
However, his joy is short-lived. As he sits down at a lavish banquet of food at his table, he discovers that his throne, napkin and spoon instantly become solid gold. Even worse, everything he tries to eat including a grapefruit, banana, wine, and a roast turkey transform to gold the moment he touches them. In frustration, he touches all the food on the table and overturns it.
"Is the richest king in all the world to starve to death?" he cries out to his reflection in the mirror who becomes a nodding golden skeleton. As the terrified Midas runs from the image, he is confronted by a smiling golden Grim Reaper.
Locking himself in his underground counting room vault, distraught Midas cries out in tears for Goldie, who once again magically appears, laughing scornfully at the plight of the king. Crawling to the gnome, Midas begs to exchange his entire kingdom, everything he possesses, for just a simple hamburger sandwich that he can eat.
A smiling Goldie accepts the bargain and disappears, leaving Midas only in his red and white striped boxer shorts and purple polka dotted undershirt in a pit under where his castle once stood. Midas now wears a tin can hat instead of a crown.
Tentatively, he pokes at the simple hamburger that appears on a plate before him and is excited to see that the merciful Goldie not only left him with his underwear but also onions on his hamburger. A slobbering Midas devours the sandwich as the film irises out to the end credit.
The story appeared in a ful- page color adaptation in the November 1934 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine to publicize the upcoming release of the short. Six illustrated panels told the tale in rhyme: "A wiser, better, happier king. He's learned that gold's not everything."
Nearly a decade later, in the comic book Walt Disney's and Comics and Stories No. 20 (May 1942) there was a three-page illustrated text story of the short, using the illustrations from the Good Housekeeping magazine.
More intriguingly was that, in 1937, publisher David McKay's Whitman Publishing Company released an entire hardcover book devoted to the story from the film. In close to a 150 pages (with a black and white illustration on each page and many full-page illustrations facing text pages, as well as six full-color pictures), an uncredited writer effectively expands on the story with some interesting additions including Midas sharing his hamburger with his cat at the end of the story: "His dining hall was no use to him now, for he could not eat gold. His bathroom was equally useless, as the water would become a liquid golden mass at his touch. His bedroom would be even more useless since who could sleep between golden sheets and wighed down by a golden eiderdown?"
The story behind why this was the last animated short credited to Walt as the director is a pretty interesting insight into Walt's personality.
From the beginning of the Disney Studio, Walt Disney himself was the primary animation director. In 1929, of the 16 short cartoons released by the studio, all were personally directed by Walt, except for two from Ub Iwerks, one from Wilfred Jackson and one from Burt Gillett. Then, after directing four Mickey cartoons and Silly Symphonies cartoons in 1930, Walt retired from the official role of director after one last Mickey Mouse adventure, The Cactus Kid.
By 1935, the Disney Studio had three units producing Disney animated shorts: Dave Hand, Wilfred Jackson and Ben Sharpsteen (taking a spot vacated by Gillett, who left in 1934 for a better offer from another animation studio, Van Buren).
Thankfully, Hand wrote a short privately printed limited-edition book titled Memoirs (1986) that includes some stories of his working at the Disney Studios.
As Hand remembers the situation, one of the first cartoons he directed was the Silly Symphony The Flying Mouse (1934), but he and Walt had a run-in about a particular gag sequence. Walt wanted the scene of the mouse being poked by a thorn staged and timed in a particular way. Hand tried to change it because he thought it just wasn't funny, but Walt firmly insisted it remain the way Walt wanted it done:
"Well, eventually, The Flying Mouse was ready for its preview. The scene I was most looking for to get the reaction from was the mouse struggling backward with his cute little rump definitely pointed toward a huge sharply pointed thorn of a rosebush—all this in huge close-up. I even had dubbed in the curdling scream emitted by the poor mouse as he threw his wildly flaling arms in the air. Funny? The audience was silent!
"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 !!!" For that one, I needed a high flying net to land in.
"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."
Of course, you have to be careful trusting even first-person accounts of events. Obviously, Walt had directed shorts before, just not while Hand was there at the studio. While the budget was high, the other Silly Symphonies for the year ranged from the $20,000-$35,000 so it wasn't wildly over the cost of some of the other Silly Symphonies that year.
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 no major special effects should have come in at a lower cost.
Walt did not steal away ten top animators. He only took two animators: the two top animators at the studio at the time.
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, 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. The animation was done between June 4, 1934 and Feburary 9, 1935.
Storyboard sketches were done by Albert Hurter, whose inspirational concept art for the animated features Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio is legendary. It is unknown how much input Walt did on the character design, but Midas looks similar to Old King Cole in Mother Goose Melodies (1931). His voice is supplied by Billy Bletcher, who is better known for doing the voice of the Big Bad Wolf and Mickey Mouse's nemesis, Pete.
The music for the short is by Frank Churchill who also provided "The Counting Song" with lyrics by Larry Morey. The working title for the film had been "King Midas". At just over ten minutes, it was one of the longest Silly Symphonies.
Disney Legend Jack Kinney in his book Walt Disney and Other Assorted Characters (1989, Harmony) wrote the following version of the same incident:
"Burt [Gillett)]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."
Looking at the cartoon today, it is not a horrible cartoon, but it is not a good cartoon either. It seems to be done in an old-fashioned style, like a Fleischer Color Classic. It is definitely not an attempt at any type of innovation and begins with a long static opening shot of the Midas talking and singing directly to the audience as he sits counting his money.
The two characters in the film are incredibly unsympathetic. In some versions of the story, Midas finally feels remorse when he inadvertently turns his daughter into gold. In this version, it is only because Midas feels scared he might starve to death that he selfishly repents. There is no heartache for the pain he has caused like turning his loyal and loving cat into gold.
Goldie does not seem engaging, but very much a snarky trickster in the style of the wicked genies who grant wishes knowing full well the terrible consequences. He seems to cruelly enjoy the situation rather than have much sympathy for Midas. For an animator renowned for his appealling character designs, Fred Moore certainly does not seem to get much appeal out of the character.
The entire cartoon feels more like a horror story more suitable for some of the darker episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone with all attempts at humor to lighten the situation falling flat.
"We learned a strong lesson about one-liner dialogue jokes when work was completed on The Golden Touch," wrote Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in their book Too Funny For Words (Abbeville, 1987). "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 tuched 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, appealling personality."
"Walt had hoped that just animation showing a range of emotions in the greedy King Midas would carry an eight minute film," stated Thomas and Johnston in the most diplomatic manner in their book The Illusion of Life (Abbeville, 1981). "There was a wealth of possibilities but somehow the cartoon did not come off. More was needed than mere gestures, happy smiles, worried looks, and a king running around the courtyard for the audience to relate to the character."
Actually, there are probably several lessons to be learned from this cartoon, but one that definitely stands out is that, unlike King Midas, not even Walt Disney himself could turn everything he touched into gold.