An Interview with Grim Natwick

By David Johnson





Grim Natwick was truly one of the great animators who ever lived. He created the character of Betty Boop, probably the only female animated cartoon character to achieve world-wide popularity. When he came to Disney’s for the sole purpose of helping to animate the lead character in the world’s first feature cartoon, he was well over twice the age of most of his colleagues, and left the studio after Snow White, joining his former boss Max Fleischer for his first feature Gulliver’s Travels. He later worked for UPA Studios. His work on the character of Snow White, however, will always remain the highlight of his long career and one of the cornerstones of that films’s greatness and lasting power for more than sixty years. This was hard won, through over eight years of art school training, three of which were in Vienna. He also contributed one of the film’s most enduring characters: the turtle who is used as a washboard and who seems never to be in the right place at the right time. When I interviewed Grim in early 1988, he was a bright-eyed ninety-seven years young. Although he had nearly total recall, some of his sentences tended to ramble. I have kept most of our interview intact, however, and hope that, although extended (perhaps too much so for some), reading it in its entirety will reward true lovers of animation with a wealth of material never before published and not found elsewhere.

David Johnson: I want to ask you about Snow White.

Grit Natwick: Yes, Snow White was a major, major achievement, even by today’s standards. And when you begin to compare it with other pictures it’s simply remarkable that it holds up. But of course, no other (cartoon) picture had quite this much planning. I know Walt was planning this thing two or three years before he actually made it - and at that time had undoubtedly the greatest staff of animators that were ever brought together and they were all groomed just for this one picture. It was pretty hard, being the first animated feature - it’s pretty hard to....there’s nothing to compare it with. At that time I think it was the only picture that crowded “Gone With the Wind.” I believe that was the biggest money-making picture. Am I right on that?

DJ: It was the biggest until GWTW.

GN: Oh, that was it. Did you have feelings about certain characters that could have been better done?

DJ: Quite the contrary. In some ways, I think it’s never been equaled - certainly never surpassed - never will be. But, as a matter of fact, what interests me is how and when you first came to the studio and were they already working on Snow White (at the time)?

GN: I, in 1930, I was working for the Fleischer Studio in New York and I had previously worked in about two or three studios. I knew the crowd at the Felix the Cat studio back in New York....Bill Nolan and...who was the big guy at the head of it?

DJ: Otto Messmer.

GN: Otto Messmer. Anyway, I had worked on Krazy Kat with Bill Nolan. Back in those student days the studio had about twelve people or something like that. And of course, to back up a little, it was in 1930 I created Betty Boop and instantly Walt Disney offered me a job and every other studio in Hollywood. Every one of them had been trying to create a girl character and couldn’t do it. The artists....drawing a girl is different from Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse or Bugs Bunny or things that are funny little characters. But Snow White had to be almost a real character and the reason was very simple: I had about eight years of art school experience and most of these kids had maybe a year or two at one of the smaller schools.

DJ: Didn’t you study in Europe?

GN: I studied over there three years.

DJ: Where.

GN: In Vienna. I am...I wanted to be an illustrator - they were the aristocrats of the art world at that time, not because they were always the greatest artists but they were the best paid artists. I coincidentally have worked with one of them - Dean Cornwell, in a commercial art studio in Chicago. I was just an art school kid but he had come up from Kentucky and he wasn’t a rich guy but he was good enough to earn a good living and he happened to be working in a commercial art studio where I was learning to letter. I had just come out of a little town up in Wisconsin, went to art school and had about three jobs, one of them was as a super-numery. One of the kids in the art schools was smart enough to...I don’t know how he got the job, but he dug up super-numeries for the theaters, for the shows - if they need six soldiers to wear iron uniforms or something and you didn’t have to do any talking. Why, we got about a dollar a night for taking those parts and, of course, all the kids I knew had a restaurant job, (so) there’d be a couple of (free) meal and then I had another job where I worked for a friend of the family who had...he sold school books and I could run in on Saturdays or even Sundays and help him to fix boxes up and do something. Once in a while he’d send me out on an errand to a little country school in Illinois or Wisconsin or somewhere. So I’d picked up enough change to gradually get along, particularly this job in the Art Service, and this commercial artist - funny he came from a little town right near where I’m living in Missouri now mostly - and he taught me how to letter and then we did a lot of commercial lettering jobs. Most of their work was like this post office (stuff) ...a little advertisement on it...a post card or something but there’s always a lot of fancy letters. And this man’s store, tobacco store, whatever it is, got a real bargain. So I had met a kid up in my home town who was fairly brilliant. In those days....I should back up. In those days there was no radio, there was no television, and the phonograph was quite new and everybody had an organ or a piano and somebody in the family if they had a family would learn how to play it and the rest of the family would come in and sing. They entertained themselves. So song publishers, many stores like Woolworth’s would have a song counter almost the length of this room and a professional piano player who had some kind of a voice and these girls, shop girls would come in and look over the rolls of song and if they liked the title and the picture that was on it they’d ask him to sing it so that they would see whether they liked it. So I, after I had worked with this letter artist a year or so and learned a little about it, a kid in my home town had written a song. A few - every small town has one or two brilliant musicians who may be young or any age but this kid that’d written this song, as many people do.... There’s song publishers who specialize in that and so that’s what happened to him. He got this song printed and he asked me if I would design the cover. Of course, I wasn’t a skilled artist so I just sort of borrowed a thing - a pretty girl head from Gibson...I don’t know if you ever heard of the Gibson Girls?

DJ: Oh yes.

GN: He was a millionaire artist who was so famous that his drawings were in the Louvre. He was the greatest pen and ink artist who ever lived in the world probably, particularly in the human character. So I put the lettering on it and maybe this boss helped me with it, I don’t remember but anyway I decided that I’d take this - Chicago was filled with song publishers, many of them branches of New York publishers. So I took this song cover down to - his last name was Graham, Bob Graham or something like that. I showed it to him and asked him if he could use any of my art and he did. He said, “Gosh, yeah, that’s pretty good, we could use it.” To many of the song-cover artists it was not a steady business but he handed me a song to do and I took it. Of course, the artist I was working with brightened up my lettering a little bit but all of a sudden I had a printed sample of a song cover that I could take to other publishers. So very soon, golly, I was able to earn a living. So all in all over a period of the next two or three or four years I probably did two hundred song covers. I did all of W.C. Handy’s, starting with “St. Louis Blues.” Blues had just (come in). Handy probably know more about Handy than I do.

DJ: No, not really.

GN: He was the premiere black....most of the song writers.....There were many. The blacks were very deep in singing and, of course, as they are today. Many of your premiere entertainers are blacks and they were in those days and I was eventually, instead of shopping - going from studio to studio and picking up jobs - I met a printer of music and he handled all of the amateur things that came from every state in the Union, like this kid from my home town. So eventually I met a publisher who printed the music and the song and the cover. He would take the whole job for about $60 in those days and if they didn’t have an artist to do the cover, why he’d find one. If they didn’t have a writer to write the words, he’d find one. And funny, some of the pros picked up a little extra change by just - I mean people who were writing theatrical productions would work for him and so some of those songs, if the music was good, and everything else (could make a little extra). So he persuaded me to ...put me in a room in the center of Chicago and I did all the covers. That gave me steady income. I didn’t have to work any more for this (letter outfit).

DJ: Was that after...did you go to Vienna after that?

GN: Yes, ten or fifteen years after. But in Chicago I met this one illustrator who was Dean Cornwall - I don’t know if you know the names of the illustrators.

DJ: I know Leyendecker.

GN: Leyendecker, Yeah. He...there were two of them. Joe...They were cover designers primarily for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. They were the fellows who earned two thousand bucks a week or something like that. Yeah, Leyendecker. I would say today that those things he did...I saw an ad in a newspaper a couple of weeks ago asking for original paintings by those artists - Norman Rockwell and people like that - and now those things that the Saturday Evening Post paid twenty-five hundred dollars a cover - which was a terrific lot - that was a year’s salary for some people - they are now selling for more than $100, 000 and they’re trying to find them because there’ll never, never be another period (like that again).

DJ: Just like the Disney cells from Snow White.

GN: That’s right. I remember when they closed the studio - not the studio - the art work on Snow White. There was a table about as long as from here to the wall (approx. twelve feet) and a girl in the front office phoned everybody and said: “The drawings we’re no longer using on Snow White are piled up on the a table downstairs. You may help yourselves.” And I imagine that that pile of drawings - they were this high on the table - they probably would be worth today a quarter of a million dollars.

DJ: Probably more. Did you or do you own a lot of your own drawings?

GN: Well I had a sale and made a few thousand bucks a couple of years ago.

DJ: Who did you sell them to?

GN: They were auctioned off in New York (Christies).

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