An Interview with Grim Natwick

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DJ: What year did you finally get to the Disney Studios?

GN: About 19...let’s see. In 1930 I created Betty Boop. By brief history is that - uh - I don’t know if you’re interested. I worked for so many studios. I first worked for William Randolph Hearst way back in the 1920s and that was...I went to New York because all the big publishers, the Chicago publishers, many of them, were branches - - I really got into this song publishing artwork very deeply. I was doing all these songs but that was during the war and all. Everybody in America wrote a song about how we hated the Kaiser and Hitler and how we were going over and beat him up and wrote it into songs. And I was turning out a song cover a day (laughs) for HS Talbot who printed them up and then I got drafted. That’s what happened - I got drafted into the army myself in World War One. That took me out of the thing for a while and when the war ended I went to New York and - if I don’t finish any sentence you can jump on me. In 1930 I had just got back from studying over in Vienna and still wanting to be an illustrator but earn enough money so that I could afford to get started, I worked for Fleischer’s (and shortly after created Betty Boop). And the offers from Hollywood - gosh - Roy Disney took me out to dinner five nights in a row and came up to my studio and we watched the Rose Bowl game...oh no! We LISTENED to it on the radio - still no television. And he told me all the reasons why I should come out to Walt’s. The main reason was that there was only one other man in the animation business who could draw a girl character, let alone animate her and Walt Disney was already starting to work on Snow White (author’s note: Snow White did not begin until 1934).

DJ: Now you were in the East when Roy Disney came out to...

GN: Yes, I was working for Fleischer.

DJ: And that’s when Roy Disney came out and said Walt wanted you.

GN: That’s right. But I had so many offers, I could work at any studio. So I decided to work for (Ub) Iwerks (author’s note: Ub Iwerks, a fellow artist with Walt in his Kansas City days, had come out to California in the mid-20s when Walt needed to expand his fledgling studio. Because of disagreements and incompatibility, Iwerk was lured away to start his own studio by Pat Powers, owner of the Cinephone Co., which Walt leased to record his early sound films. Powers (along with many others) thought that Iwerks was the real force behind Walt’s success and surmised that without him Disney’s days would be numbered. Iwerks, after the tremendously unsuccessful “Flip the Frog” series failed, came back to Walt but the two allegedly never spoke.) It had to be about ‘35 when I came out here (to Walt’s). In that period (1932), I came out and worked for Iwerks because at that time everybody thought that Iwerks was the brilliant studio. Walt was just a businessman, which wasn’t true but that’s from three thousand miles away. Walt had stopped animation but he was a pretty good artist actually, and in his books where are printed a few of his drawings and he wasn’t a bad artist. But Iwerks was the brilliant creative artist. He created (i.e. he drew the character of) Mickey Mouse. But really I chose Iwerks because he offered me the most money (laughs). And so I gradually became an unofficial supervisor, director I guess you’d call it. They didn’t have names for them. I was probably the oldest by a number of years at the Iwerks Studio and he had a lot of young artist, gradually became....have you all the books on animation? There’s a picture of the Iwerks studio in one of them.

DJ: Yes, I know. Would you say you got to Disney’s about 1935?

GN: I would say about then. I probably worked for Iwerks a couple of years. (Author’s note: Natwick at the time lived in a nice home in Westwood and was a great cook and wine connoisseur, according to fellow animator Shamus Culhane. On some evenings, entertaining guests after dinner, he would tell tales about the primitive days of his early life in Wisconsin, replete with shady characters and lumberjacks. Once, he did an impromptu Indian rain dance complete with yelps and stomps. See Culhane’s Talking Animals and Other People, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1986.)

DJ: When you first came to the studio, were you working with Ham Luske, who was designing (the character of) Snow White?

GN: Ham Luske was the other animator on (the character of) Snow White and (he had a great reputation), while I was there anyway. I knew Ham very well. Of course the studio wasn’t that big and we had lunch with these guys every day. Ham was the other animator who could animate a girl and he had this famous....Who was the Milwaukee singer that became very famous...rather hefty gal. She was quite filled out but a little risque. The pictures - she made quite a few Hollywood pictures.

DJ: Sophie Tucker?

GN: No, she didn’t make pictures.....blond gal. Well, Ham Luske animated her in “Who Killed Cock Robin?”

DJ: Oh, Mae West, you mean.

GN: Mae West. And so Ham was the only artist that Walt was sure could draw a girl. All these guys were brilliant at comic characters, you know, but they - most of them had never gone to art school. They started out with some artists who learned to draw a cartoon character and I was very (skilled) because I wanted to be an illustrator and I knew I had to be able to paint a girl character because illustration has stories usually of boy/girl themes.

DJ: When you first came to the studio, did you work with Ham Luske on the character of Snow White?

GN: No, that picture was not being done yet. I may have been there a year (before I started on Snow White). At first, they didn’t have a picture ready to be put into animation. Actually Ub Iwerks had offered me half of (his) studio if I would stay with him (laughs) but we were getting rumors then that Walt was working on a feature picture and I decided that I wanted to work on it, the first feature picture ever animated. And I went to...When I got to Disney’s (in 1935)....Before I got to Disney’s actually there were fifteen ex-New Yorkers who had come out to work at Disney’s, like Ted Sears. Ted Sears was the primary story man at the Disney Studio and I had palled around with him more or less out in New York. So every Friday night we’d get together and see the amateur prize fights at the - well, a group of ex soldiers, the American Legion had a big building and they’d have prize fights there, semi professional fights. And so there was rumor that was pretty prevalent that if you had ever been offered a job by Walt Disney and turned him down he’d never offer you another job (laughs). And so Ted, I knew, rated very high with Walt so I made up my mind that I’d like to work on Snow White and by that time they were beginning to storyboard it and pick out - they had, I think, four groups of directors and divided the picture (between) them and each group had three or for men on it. So Snow White was going into the works by this time. So I said to Ted one night at dinner: “If you ever see Walt in a good mood, you might mention me and say you understand Grim would like to work on Snow White and give me a chance to do it.” And a couple of weeks (later) he called me up and said: “Walt will talk to you Friday night after work.” So it didn’t take me long to get down there. So it was an interesting meeting. Walt, apparently, was all alone and they just built their first new studio (author’s note: the animation building and sound stage had been completed in late 1931) and now they’ve got a whole city, you probably know (in Burbank). Where was that first studio?

DJ: Hyperion.

GN: Hyperion studio, yeah. So Walt spent most of this time showing me around the studio - they were very proud of it. And he stopped in on a couple of animators and showed me what they were doing - working on Mickey - particularly an animator who finished his work beautifully. I was always a kind of a slapstick man. I liked to rough things out quickly and roughly. But this guy was a brilliant clean-up man. He had worked for Fleischer’s and many of his drawings are in the Fleischer book. And I thought: “Christ, if I have to draw like this...” I’d been knocking out Flip the Frog and stretching him and flattening him out and doing things with him but, golly, it pretty near scared me, actually. But I thought I would risk it.

DJ: Was there any artwork for Snow White - storyboards that he showed you?

GN: I didn’t see a thing at that time. He didn’t even mention Snow White. He just showed me the studio and what a beautiful men’s wash room they had (laughs). And then we agreed on a salary. I didn’t think it was the time to start arguing with Walt (laughs). I - next Monday I was working for him.

DJ: Do you remember how much you were being paid at that time?

GN: I was paid one hundred fifty bucks a week.

DJ: By Walt?

GN: Uh huh.

DJ: That’s a lot of money in those days.

GN: Oh yeah, it is a lot of money in those days. Iwerks had paid me two hundred.

DJ: Oh, I see.

GN: But actually, Iwerks, when he found the studio could go and get along, he left the whole thing in my hands, I mean the hard part of it so I suppose that I earned the money. But it was, at that time, was a pile of money.

DJ: What do you remember about Snow White? The first things that you can recall?

GN: Well, there were many meetings before they ever got into animation. But the first meeting they had (that I attended), Walt called in all of the animators. I would say all who would work on it. Probably there were some animators that continued with the shorts for a while and particularly the directors. The directors - he had, you might say that Walt had, I believe, four or, you may have heard, four different - four director groups.

DJ: I think there were five.

GN: Five. Were there five?

DJ: Yes. Bill Cottrell, Ben Sharpsteen, Larry Morey, Will Jackson, and Perce Pearce.

GN: Well, I didn’t remember whether there was four or five but anyway...

DJ: (Thinking that Grim was referring to the historic meeting where Walt acted out all of Snow White - repeatedly stated to have taken place in 1934 - it actually took place in December, 1936 - I asked:) Were you at that first meeting you were talking about?

GN: Well there were probably dozens of meetings before they called in the animators. But this time they gave us a summing up of what it was and they asked us all to submit drawings. They kind of gave us a synopsis of the plot and said to throw in any drawings you can think of that might be used anywhere - fit in any of the gags. They didn’t bring up many of the gags there but they gave you a quick list of the different periods in the picture. And I remember, I grew up in a small town on the Wisconsin River and I - of course I had never felt of drawing a deer that grazed in our back yard during the winter months. But what always amused me as a kid - we, in summer - we’d spend about half of our time IN the river and about half out, sitting in the sun. But I remember when the water lowered in the river, the paper mill would take out - they have a light dam in the case of flood - they can pull it out. What do they call that dam? Something like buck-dam or something. But they had to clean out the mill more or less during the summer and they’d take out these dams and the river was lowered down and in the bottom of the river was great big rocks, some as big as this room (approx 12x18 ft). And the soft-shell turtles would climb up and sun themselves (laughs). And I thought, well, a turtle is an interesting character - we always had one in our pants pocket when we were kids, a frog or a turtle or something. So I made a lot of sketches of turtles doing different things and they made a lot of use of it. They....I didn’t give them any gags but..I don’t remember what I drew but they wrote it in right into the story and used him for a scrub-board and used a gag of him. He was still going up the stairs when they started running down and he toppled over and skidded out of the house.

DJ: (I show him a model sheet of the turtle) “Maybe they used your drawing.”

GN: I don’t remember it, of course, but they probably refined it a little bit.

DJ: So you contributed a turtle to the story?

GN: Yeah. Well - they really didn’t stop anywhere. They...no story, I don’t think, ever written, even Shakespeare, was more thoroughly and carefully thought out because...I don’t think I had any gags in any of my drawings but to turn him over and use him for a washboard (laughs).... was cute.

DJ: Do you remember who thought of that?

GN: No, but it wouldn’t been easy to find out. We never asked who thought of a gag(author’s note: Most were conceived by the story department in the planning stages of a picture). They did ask us for gags to be submitted. I used to pick up five or ten bucks every once on a while and I guess Walt worried about the animators wasting too much time. It probably cost him more than ten bucks for the gag (laughs) but if they used it - yeah, they had one of my gags, a fifty dollar gag, in the story right up to the last week. I used to lunch with the storymen because Ted Sears was top story man around there on the shorts so we had lunch every day. They told me that my gag was in the $50 bracket. What was it? Oh, I’ve forgotten what it was but a - oh, it was something...somebody had to get up to the top story window. I guess somebody was up there and the house was fire or something.

DJ: Oh, this wasn’t in Snow White?

GN: Oh no, this was just a short. I think that the giraffe happened to saunter across at that time, something like that and (I) used him for a ladder. But they came up with something else at the last minute and I (never got the fifty bucks).

DJ: So you were in on some of the early story meetings on Snow White, before they actually started the animation?

GN: Yeah. They had a pile of stuff that high, I remember, and they didn’t sort it out. But they’d...Walt..if he wanted anything acted out, he’d have one of the story men - they’re always clowns in the story department and Walt never...I guess he did used to turn clown himself once in a while.

DJ: Do you remember him acting out some of Snow White for some of the animators?

GN: I can’t really say, particularly Snow White he probably would have a girl act it out as the action (would) come up.

DJ: I read that for several months you did experimental animation on the girl. Do you remember anything about that?

GN: Oh I? Yes. I don’t know how many...Very few artists pretended to draw a girl but there may have been four or five of them and a couple of my drawings were shown in Life Magazine (author’s note: actually Look Magazine). Did you see them?

DJ: When?

GN: Last May.

DJ: No, I didn’t see those.

GN: I had a copy but somebody took it out of my apartment. Well. I drew her as a little princess and what happened..there were...there may have been a half a dozen artist who drew girls that were..there were a few. If I could grab those names, but..

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