He’s retired now and living in Chillicothe, Missouri. But in his day, Grim Natwick helped create some of the greatest stars in movie history. Betty Boop, Snow White, Mickey Mouse, Krazy Kat, Clarabell Cow, Woody Woodpecker, Mr. Magoo–the list goes on and on.

As one of the top animation artists of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, Natwick brought to life some of the most durable characters in cartoons. At age 99, he has seen the art and business of film animation go through many ups and downs: from the quickie throwaway black-and-white cartoons of the silent era and the early days of sound to the elaborate full-color features of Hollywood’s “golden age” to the cheaper “limited animation” style of the television years. Today, cartoon illustration has been elevated to the status of collectible art–and no one’s more surprised than Natwick.

“We used to throw these things away,” he says of the production cels used to create film cartoons. “We’d fill our wastebaskets with ’em.” Now, production cels are pricey items at Circle Gallery, which last week hosted a 99th birthday party for Natwick to launch its new exhibit, “The Art of Animation.”

As Natwick recalls it, he wasn’t particularly interested in cartoon animation to begin with. Born and bred in a small Wisconsin town, he was trained as a serious artist–he studied at the School of the Art Institute–and was already established as an illustrator of sheet music while still in college. In the years before World War I, Chicago was an important music-publishing center, and Natwick earned a decent living creating the cover pictures for popular songs–including, he says, the first six published songs by blues master W.C. Handy.

When he headed to New York after a stint in the Army during the last months of the war, it was with the intent of pursuing his craft as a song illustrator. But a fellow student from the School of the Art Institute, Gregory La Cava, persuaded him to try his hand at film animation.

“He was in charge of an animation studio that William Randolph Hearst had set up,” Natwick remembers. “La Cava said he’d pay me 40 bucks a week. I said all right, I’ll try it for one month. I figured people would still be publishing songs if I didn’t like it.”

Bringing to the screen such Hearst newspaper comic characters as Krazy Kat, the Katzenjammer Kids, and Happy Hooligan, Natwick immediately demonstrated impressive technical skill as well as a flair for comic characterization. Unlike most people in the field, Natwick had real art training, including several crucial years of anatomy drawing. “I was doing things that the other animators had not dared to do,” Natwick says. For instance, when depicting characters dancing together, most cartoonists stuck with a profile view; Natwick made his characters turn around while they danced. “I deliberately would sometimes draw a side view or a back view just to know what was there,” he says.

In particular, Natwick gained a reputation for his female characters. “He could draw pretty women better than anyone I knew,” the animator Walter Lantz once told an interviewer. (Lantz, who started out at the Hearst studio with Natwick, later set up his own studio and employed Natwick to work on such characters as Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, and Chilly Willy.) So in 1929–by which time Natwick had moved to the better-paid employ of cartoon producers Max and Dave Fleischer–it was only natural that Natwick would be asked to design a new girl character named Betty Boop.

“The curls are from Helen Kane,” Natwick says of Betty’s famous hairstyle. Kane was a popular singer of the time, noted for her signature vocal riff, “Boop-oop-a-doop.” Both her vocal style and her curly hair found their way into the animated Betty. Betty’s ripe physique was modeled on Mae West. Drawing on the influence of other “pretty girl” illustrators such as Charles Dana Gibson, Natwick carried the curly motif into Betty’s long eyelashes and famously short skirt. “I knew for her to do the dancing and other things she had to do, her legs were important,” he says of his decision to keep the hemline high.

Natwick left Fleischer in the mid-1930s and wound up working for Walt Disney. He did several Mickey Mouse cartoons and, he says, he noticed that “each time I worked on one of these small pictures I got the girl character.” He figured that Disney was grooming him to handle the female lead in the forthcoming feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and he was right; he also drew the prince, giving the landmark film its all-important romantic center to anchor the more exaggerated supporting characters.

Natwick’s career continued another 30 years after Snow White, till he retired in 1968. Even since then he has remained somewhat active, on occasion teaching at the London studio of Richard Williams, the director of animation for last year’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Among the many classic cartoon characters making cameos in that brilliant blend of live action and animation was Betty Boop, her tiny black-and-white figure a startling contrast to the glossy color of the rest of the film.

Natwick’s contribution to the Circle Gallery’s “Art of Animation” show consists of three Betty Boop pictures published by Circle as lithographs in both color and black and white. Each of the six lithographs runs in a limited edition of 300, and each picture is individually autographed by Natwick. The pictures are on display at Circle for casual viewing or for purchase; the Betty Boop lithographs cost $750 in black and white, $850 in color. “These are perfect Bettys,” Natwick says of the lithographs. “The legs are just right, and she’s just the right height. I get things sent to me all the time–Betty Boop posters, cardboard cutouts, towels, place mats–and in about two-thirds of ’em she’s too tall. If she gets too tall you lose the cuteness.”

Other items in “The Art of Animation” include works by Chuck Jones (Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, the Road Runner, and Wile E. Coyote), Friz Freleng (Tweety Pie, Porky Pig, the Pink Panther), Jay Ward (Rocky, Bullwinkle, Boris and Natasha), Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera (the Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Top Cat), and the Walt Disney studio (Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck, and special sets from such films as Sleeping Beauty, Oliver & Company, and The Rescuers). The show includes original production cels used in films, limited-edition “fine-art cels” hand-painted especially for Circle Gallery, and serigraphs; prices range from $150 for the serigraphs to $14,500 for a folio of four Mickey Mouse fine-art cels, with most prices in the $500-$1,000 range. The exhibit is free to the public at Circle Gallery, 540 N. Michigan, through September 18. Gallery hours are 10 AM to 9 PM Monday through Friday, 10 to 10 Saturday, and 11 to 5 Sunday; for more information, call 670-4304.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.