Father Robert Murphy meets veteran Disney animator Grim Natwick – Page 3

“I also very much admired Marc Davis. He did fine work on Snow White, and was probably the best craftsman in the studio.”

After several years with Disney, where he worked on a number of short subjects, Natwick was recruited once again by the Fleischer brothers. For financial reasons, they had moved their studio to Miami, Florida, and were able to attract, besides Grim, two other Disney veterans, James (Shamus) Culhane and Al Eugster. Grim was to find that times had changed since he had worked on Betty Boop the first time. Those early Betty Boop films were full of double entendres and lecherous bosses, and although Betty often stated in those early cartoons, they can’t take my Boop-oop-A-Doop away, a new production code in 1934 changed her Boop-oop-A-Doop forever. The code, which dictated the morals and mores of American films for the next thirty years, had the effect on the Fleischer studio of toning Betty’s sexiness down. She was now paired in the movies with safer companions such as Otto Soglow’s The Little King. One of Betty’s early co-stars, Popeye, now began to rank as a major star for the Fleischer studio. As Grim remembers, Max Fleischer himself was also thinking of going a in new direction:

“One day Max walked into my room and said, ‘Grim, I want to make you a present of Betty. Do anything you want with her -toys, dolls, animation, anything you want to do. She kept us going for ten years, and we are going to do feature pictures from now on.

“I, of course, thanked him, and phoned a few people I knew, relatives of mine who lived in the same city and who were working in Miami. I asked them to please go around and get a copyright for me, but they didn’t. So, the next thing I learned is that Max’s son had copyrighted Betty Boop. When I called him, he said, ‘Talk to my attorney.’ That was about 1938.

“Max’s brother, Dave, tried to make cartoons, but they were all flops. Max’s children may have become millionaires, because one year, I could show you clippings, the merchandising on Betty Boop was over a hundred million dollars, but they never even offered to buy me a cigar. I tried to phone them two or three times, but could never get through. I had to talk to their attorneys.”

While at Fleischer’s, Grim also had the opportunity to direct several cartoons, including some Popeye shorts and the much Ballyhooed full-length feature, Gulliver’s Travels, but Gulliver’s Travels, as well as another full-length feature, Mr. Bug, or Hoppety Goes to Town, proved to be too expensive, too lacklustre, and spelled the end of the Fleischer studio. As World War Two came onto the scene, the military took over the Fleischer’s studio for war- time purposes.

After the war, Grim went with UPA, United Productions of America, as they were known. This organization was made up largely of disgruntled Disney animators who had left during the strike at the Disney studio in 1941. They pushed animation in new and creative ways. Their stylized drawings became a hit with audiences, and they are best remembered for their feature, Gerald McBoing Boing. The creative genius, John Hubley, became a leading figure in the organization. He brought to the form dazzling colour, weird perspectives, and plenty of humour. Many of their productions appealed largely to an adult audience, but there were also characters, such as Mr. Magoo, that appealed across the board. Grim was once again in his element working with people of vision.

After leaving the UPA studio, Grim began to freelance for people, such as his old associate, Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker. Lantz had been an associate at the old Hearst International Studio with Greg LaCava. Grim worked on the character of Woody Woodpecker, and these short features became classic staples of the 1950s.

Slowly but surely, theatrical cartoons were replaced by the production line television cartoon industry, Hanna-Barbera. The age of the great animators seemed to be over, and Grim retired in 1968 to work on oil painting. I asked Grim about animation he had seen on television:

“A lot of animation that you see on television is just old hat. The characters move, but it is not animation in the true sense of the word. things happen, but you don’t know why or where half of the time. Eyes may move or hands move, but not the whole body. They seem to exist on a lot of funny voices, one-line gags, and little movement.’’

But Grim Natwick’s story was not over. His life was to intersect with famed British animator, Richard Williams, the creative genius behind Disney’s Roger Rabbit:

“Richard Williams had received an Academy Award for A Christmas Carol and Chuck Jones was throwing a big party for him in 1973. Chuck introduced me to him and the first thing Richard said was, ‘How would you like to come over to London and animate for me for a while?’ I told him that I didn’t figure that I would be doing any more animating. ‘What’s the big deal?’ I asked. ‘Why would you want me?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you know, when I first saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there is one scene that I will always remember as a marvelous piece of animation. It was Snow White talking to the dwarfs upstairs, while downstairs, the kettles were boiling over on the stove. When she heard this sound, she came running down the stairs. The action and movement was just great, and I always wanted to meet the animator who did that scene.’ Well, I just happened to be the guy. So, I met with Richard a few more times and finally decided to go. Prior to that, I had been doing some painting, serious painting, and had been to Europe twice. I had gone over to several animation conventions and had been to Paris and Switzerland and had jumped around to neighbouring countries, but I had never been to London, so I thought to myself, this is stupid – a free chance to go over there, and after all I was just piddling around with some drawings, so I told him sure.

“I agreed to work at the studio two days a week, because I wanted to see more of England. It turned out great. I spent eight months there. They flew me over first class, and strangely enough, one of the officers on the plane, when he read my name on the list, came over and said, ‘I am a good friend of your cousin in Baltimore,’ and suddenly I felt right at home.”

Grim enjoyed working at the Richard Williams’ studio, helping the young animators and it was while he was there that I found the answer to my question, “Why in the world was he in Chillicothe, Missouri?” Williams threw a birthday party for Grim’s 85th birthday and introduced him to the woman that would become Mrs Richard Williams – Margaret French:

“They gave me a big cake and put a large Betty Boop doll beside it. Somebody made a big cartoon of Betty and everybody at work signed it. I came over to these two ladies and one of them said, ‘I am Margaret French,’ and the other said, ‘I am Margaret’s mother.’ So, I asked if they would please sign the birthday card, and I hit it off with them right away. We had a few lunches, and I continued my friendship with them, as I worked on two other pictures that Williams was doing.”

The friendship that grew between the French’s and Grim was indeed fortunate. At Grim’s age, and with developing eye problems, it was good to have friends to care for him. The Frenches, Missouri natives, had an apartment building in Santa Monica, California, and they offered to rent an apartment to Grim. They also maintained a residence at Chillicothe, Missouri, and so when they moved to Chillicothe, they offered Grim one half of a duplex that he could live in part of the year, while maintaining his residence in Santa Monica. This has proved to be a wonderful arrangement for them all.

Grim still likes to keep busy, and in recent years, has written articles for Cartoon Profiles, and has recently entered into partnership with the nationally known Circle Art Galleries. They are merchandising prints of Betty Boop, in conjunction with King Features, who now owns the copyright. Although Grim’s most famous creation is financially in the hands of others, it nevertheless brings a smile to his face when he talks about Betty and the recognition she has brought him.

As Grim looks forward to his 100th birthday in 1990, he is still a man of positive energy and creative talent. He may no longer own his most famous creation, but as Betty herself would say, “They can’t take his Boop-Oop-A-Doop away.”

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Printed in Animator Issue 27 (Summer 1990)