Friday, December 16, 2005

I just received Richard Fleischer’s memoir about his father Max and devoured it over a two-day period.

I’m going to do a more in depth review of it, but I have to say I was surprised at what Richard did and didn’t do.

I know for a fact that Richard has a deep respect and love for his father and for his father’s accomplishments. This book is a love letter to his dad – that’s not a criticism – but it falls quite short of a comprehensive look at his father’s career and the output of Fleischer Studios.

So I do feel that there is room for my book out there.

One section might surprise some readers – it did me – in which Richard writes that his father created Betty Boop and that Grim Natwick’s assertion that he was the Boopster’s creator were false.

Richard reported that Max gave credit to the many key animators/directors who defined the character, including my friend Myron Waldman who directed more of the Boop shorts than anyone else and created Betty’s dog Pudgey who has figured so prominently in the merchandising.

In all of the time that I researched Max’s life and career I have never uncovered anyone saying that Max designed the character.

In fact, the division of labor at the studio seemed to be quite clear. Max was in charge of the business side while Dave was in charge of production.

Ruth Kneitel, Max’s daughter, did show me a script of a proposed cartoon about mermaids that max had annotated extensively. He had written suggestions for the title and the script contained quite a number of notes. Max came from a cartooning background and I imagine that at times he must have felt an urge to contribute to a cartoon.

Richard wrote that Natwick never made the claim that he had created Betty Boop while Max was alive and only started doing so when Max had passed. I know that when I interviewed Natwick that he felt the should receive some of the profits from the merchandising of the character.

Natwick is no longer around to debate the point.


Stephen Worth said...

> One section might surprise some readers - it did me - in which
> Richard writes that his father created Betty Boop and that Grim
> Natwick's assertion that he was the Boopster's creator were false.

Not true.

At the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive, I have an exhibit hanging on the wall that proves conclusively that Grim created Betty Boop.

Included in the exhibit are Grim's character designs for Betty from Dizzy Dishes, Barnacle Bill, Accordian Joe and the Bum Bandit, as well as a studio gag drawing of a beautifully drawn Grim Betty from Mysterious Mose asking a horribly drawn Betty Boop, "What happened to you little girl?" The badly drawn Betty replies, "Boo hoo! Eggy made me!" On the back of the sketch is a note from Grim saying "Rudolph Eggeman's drawings were messy." This confirms Grim's stories about how after Betty became successful, they tried to have other animators draw her, but none had the chops to draw a pretty girl like Grim did.

I believe Grim's account of how Betty Boop was created...

Grim said that Dave Fleischer told him they had found a girl who could do a perfect impression of Helen Kane. They wanted to do a cartoon with her, so Dave gave Grim a photo of Helen Kane clipped from a magazine and told him to make the girl look like the photo. At ASIFA, we have the inked key cleanup of Grim's design. It isn't crude and grotesque the way the film looks. Grim said that he was rushed, trying to do all the girl animation himself, while Ted Sears focused on Bimbo and the restaurant gags from Grim's thumbnail layouts. Grim animated the girl very loose and fast, expecting the assistants to follow his key cleanup... but they weren't able to. I attended a screening of Dizzy Dishes with Grim at the LA County Museum of Art, and Grim grumbled through the song. After the cartoon, Charles Soloman introduced him from the stage as the creator of Betty Boop, and Grim took a bow. After he sat down, I asked him why he had been grumbling during the film. He said, "The damn assistants messed up my lipsync!"

The most telling drawing in the ASIFA exhibit is a drawing that Grim referred to many times in interviews. Grim said that Dave Fleischer came to his desk one day and said, "Mickey Mouse has Minnie... Do you think Bimbo needs a girlfriend?" Grim thought about it and said he would come up with an idea for a girl for Bimbo. Dave explained he had the idea to do a Talkartoon based on the song Barnacle Bill the Sailor, and told Grim that he would check back to see what Grim came up with for the "fair young maiden".

Grim had just finished Dizzy Dishes, so he proceeded to adapt his Helen Kane caricature to serve as Bimbo's girlfriend. He drew a sketch of Betty Boop looking out a window as if to say "Who's that knocking at my door?" Dave returned to his
desk and Grim showed him the sketch. Dave said, "I like the face, but Bimbo is a dog... shouldn't she have a dog body?" Grim grabbed his pencil and drew Betty Boop's head with a four legged canine body and pointed at it and the voluptuous one leaning out the window and replied, "What do you want? A dog's body or a pretty girl's?" Dave laughed and said, "You're right, Grim."

Grim told me these stories on his front porch in Santa Monica. After he passed away, his family asked me to sort through his artwork that had been in storage for decades, and I found the very drawing from Barnacle Bill he was referring to. It shows Betty Boop leaning out the window, and below it in the margin is a small sketch of Betty with four legs and a stubby tail. The dog Betty is circled and a line from the circle points to the Betty in the window. When you look at the drawing, you can see Grim gesturing with his pencil as he says, "What do you want? A dog's body or a pretty girl's?"

Grim spoke very highly of Dave Fleischer. He said that he considered him a fine director, even if he didn't do his own layout or timing like the directors at other studios did. Grim said that Max was a fine gentleman too, but indicated that Max was more interested in running the "front office" and working with the camera department on technical developments. His day-in, day-out creative supervision was from Dave. The only aspect of Betty Boop that Max could possibly have had a part with is the casting of the Helen Kane soundalike, but I tend to think that was most likely either Dave or Lou Fleischer.

> Richard wrote that Natwick never made the claim that he had created
> Betty Boop while Max was alive and only started doing so when Max had
> passed.

Also not true.

The reverse is true. Richard Fleischer never said that Grim didn't create the character while Grim was alive. He wouldn't have gotten away with it. Grim was the acknowledged creator of Betty Boop by his peers and animation historians. The first time I heard of Richard saying that was in an interview in Starlog in 1990 (within months of Grim's death) where he said, "Grim Natwick did not invent Betty Boop, he animated her."

At every public event I attended with Grim, he was introduced as the creator of Betty Boop. Shamus Culhane confirmed it in his tribute to Grim when Grim received the Winsor McCay award in 1975. Cabarga and Maltin say the same.

Grim told me a story about the last bit of Betty Boop animation that he did. When he was working on Gulliver's Travels, Max came into his office one day, (which was unusual). Max told Grim that he appreciated that Grim had created Betty Boop. He told Grim that they had had a good run with her, but they were making the last Betty Boop cartoon, and he wanted Grim to work on it "for old time's sake". (My guess is that the last cartoon would have been Musical Mountaineers, because there's quite a few scenes in there that look like they may be by Grim.)

Grim said that Max told him as a sign of his appreciation, that after the completion of this cartoon, he would make a gift of the character to him. Grim thanked Max for the gesture, and shook his hand. Grim went on thinking that he owned the character, until years later, he read in the trades
that Max had licensed his rights to the Fleischer characters for a great deal of money. The article mentioned that Betty Boop was one of the properties Max had licensed.

Grim was always on good terms with Max, so he picked up the phone and called him. A woman (Max's daughter?) answered and Grim asked to speak with Max. She asked who was speaking and Grim told her. She went away from the phone and was gone a long time. Finally Richard came to the line and told Grim that his father was sick and
couldn't be disturbed. Grim asked when would be a good time to call back because he had a question about the licensing deal he had read about. Richard told him that there was no good time, told him never to call the house again, and hung up on him.

Being treated like this rankled Grim. He spoke to a lawyer who filed a claim with the Fleischers for a portion of the money from the licensing deal. Grim ended up losing, because he had never filed the paperwork necessary to prove the transfer of ownership.

That story explains why Richard Fleischer's book is full of hooey when it comes to the creation of Betty Boop.

See ya

SRBissette said...

Wow, what a blog -- and what a comment, Stephen! THANK YOU for sharing your memories and insights. Thankfully, enough folks who knew Grim are alive and writing and ensuring his voice lives on, however compromised his business interests may have been in this lifetime.

(Hope you're archiving ALL this, Mike, as I've learned from hard experience that what's online one day can be gone forever the next. Cut, paste, save, and get permission from Stephen to quote ASAP!)

Stephen Worth said...

In case you haven't listened to this yet, here is an audio interview with Grim where he answers the question about Ub Iwerks that everyone wants to know the answer to...

See ya