“I had an old friend, Gregory LaCava. I had gone to art school with Greg. He had moved to New York and was working for the Hearst organization. Hearst was crazy about comic drawings. He had his newspapers filled with them. Somehow, LaCava, still in his 20s, convinced Hearst that he was the best animator in the whole world. Greg had a sort of soft, confidential voice that could talk you into anything. He had seen me draw a few comic pictures and he thought I had the right kind of brain for that. He told me, ‘Try it for a month, and maybe you’ll like it.’
“I arrived in New York and found that I was already known for the song covers I had drawn back in Chicago. I walked into Remicks, the business music publisher on Broadway and immediately got a job. I was making about $60 a week, which was pretty good money for those days, but LaCava convinced me that I should come with him and work at animating onto the screen some of the comic strips that ran in the Hearst newspapers. I worked on characters like, Happy Hooligan, and the Katzanjanuner Kids. Hearst, himself, used to come around to our desks. He’d chuckle, go on to the next desk and see what they were doing. Hearst paid me $40 a week, which still wasn’t too bad in those days, as often a married man would have to feed his family on only $25 a week. LaCava told me he was getting $75 a week, but I ran across a check that was lying on the dresser in the apartment that we shared, and found that he was making $300 a week. LaCava was finally fired by Hearst, after asking for $600 a week!
“LaCava set out for Hollywood, and within a few weeks was working on Harold Lloyds pictures. LaCava went on to become one of the most important directors in Hollywood.”
But Grim never intended to become an animator. His goal was to become a magazine illustrator, and it was to this end that he travelled to Austria where he enrolled in the Vienna National Academy. The precise training that he received, especially in the development of the human body, aided him in drawing not only Betty Boop, his most famous creation, but his work on Snow White for the Disney Studio.
“At the Chicago Art Institute, the teachers were just guys that never quite made it as painters, but in Vienna, the teachers were internationally known artists. I remember one of the first classes I was in, the model was sitting, and I happened to get a spot directly in front of her. I had a great deal of trouble drawing the nose, and the instructor spent the better part of the class showing me how to put light shadows on the top, which brings out the eyes, and to make it very light because light has a tendency when it crosses the face to go over the bump of the nose. It was a wonderful experience —one that I will always treasure.”
Grim returned to New York City in 1930 and found that things had drastically changed. Radio had done away with song pluggers. His career illustrating sheet music was at an end.
It was at this time that his path was to cross that of the creative and seldom-studied animator, Max Fleischer. With the creative help of his brothers, Dave and Joe, Fleischer had devised a process that would later be patented as the rotoscope. By sketching a human performer on film, the animator could mix human actors and animated characters in the same film. His character, Koko the Clown, and later the series, Out of the Inkwell, became classics. As Fleischer’s fame grew, his need to enlarge his staff became a pressing problem, and Grim was recruited. The progenitor of Grim’s most famous creation, Betty Boop, goes back to Fleischer’s Talkartoon entitled Dizzy Dishes. This was in 1930. The hybrid character was part dog and part girl. It took Grim’s knowledge of the human form to change this one-dimensional character into the classic, Betty Boop. Grim modelled her after a popular singer of the times, Helen Kane, known as the Boop-oop-A- Doop girl, hence the name Betty Boop.
Grim recalls that, as the popularity of Betty Boop took off, all of the major animation studios tried to come up with similar girl characters, but they were all to fail. Betty was a rising star with no equal. I asked Grim if there were any misconceptions about Betty through the years.
“Well, the average person thinks she is sexy. I suppose that is because I had drawn several thousand nude women, illustrated a few books, and brought that background to the drawing of Betty Boop. Now, Betty, if you analyze her is not a well-drawn character. She doesn’t have a chin. She has lips right at the bottom of her head, which was cute; but why that should make her sexy, I don’t know. Paramount Pictures distributed Max’s films, and when the man in charge of cartoon shorts saw his first Betty Boop, he immediately got Max on the phone and said, ‘Make some more of those pictures of that gal.’ Overall, they made a hundred of them. The success of Betty Boop kept the studio going for ten years.
By 1934, Walt Disney had begun to attract many of the top animators on the East Coast. The success of Betty Boop had caught his attention, and he sent his brother, Roy, to New York to talk to Grim. Roy spent a week in New York wining and dining Grim, convincing him that the future of animation was all on the West Coast, and in particular with the Disney organization; but it was Disney’s former partner, Ub Iwerks, who hired Grim away from the Fleischer brothers. Iwerks had a contract with MGM, but the hopes that his character, Flip the Frog, would become as big a success as any of the Disney stable never came to fruition. Iwerks was forced to cut back on size of his staff. Many of the animators, including Grim, saw the handwriting on the wall, and Grim began putting out feelers with the Disney organization:
“After a couple of years with Iwerks, I quit. I used to bowl with a guy named Ted Sears, one of the really top story men in animation at Disney. One night, I asked him, ‘Ted, if you find Walt in a good mood some day, please ask him if he would think of giving me a spot again.’ (Somebody once told me that if you turned Walt down once, he would never offer you a job again, and I was very concerned.) They were starting Snow White at this time, and Ted called me up one Friday night and said, ‘Walt will see you tomorrow night after dinner.’
“I met Walt and he gave me a tour of the studio. He showed me how they built everything. He gave me a tour of his new screening room and showed me a three-level camera that reached all the way to the roof. It had been designed by Ub Uwerks!”
Disney started Grim working on the human characters in several Silly Symphonies shorts, such as Cookie Carnival and Music Land. Grim began to develop a sense of what Disney liked and didn’t like. Disney, in turn, was a master at recognizing talent, and he soon saw that Grim’s background was just right for the characters of Snow White and the Prince on Disney’s first full-length animated feature. Grim spent about twenty months animating 78 scenes for the film. He had five assistants working under him. Needless to say, when Snow White was released in 1937, it was an immediate hit, due in no small part to the genius of Grim Natwick.
Grim had many fond memories of working at the Disney studio, including observations of fellow animators: “Freddie Moore was a fine animator. When I worked at the studio, I sat in the room next to him for two years, but it seemed to me he never seemed to get the hang of drawing the Seven Dwarfs. He made real dummies out of them, kind of like feed sacks or something. I very much admired Bill Tytla. He often would lay out the song sheets, make one-inch sketches above every word with the expression that he wanted a particular character to have during a song. I copied that from him. It was a good idea, because you can forget from one day to the next. Bill would really work over his characters until he got just what he wanted, and when the five o’clock bell rang at the Disney studio, the waste baskets were half full of drawings. All of the young animators would make a dive for Bill’s waste basket, empty it out on the floor and fight for the drawings that they wanted. I was more thrifty. Nobody ever dived into my waste basket.