Notice the tall guy above in this 1945 staff picture from Walter Lantz Productions. He wears glasses and shows his biceps, more strength than he would ever need to ply his trade as an animator. Grim Natwick was already a coast-to-coast legend of the cartoon industry and, considering he was born in 1890—making him fifty-five years old in this picture—it is amazing how youthful and vigorous he looks.
Then notice the short guy in the next photo, above right. That’s President Harry Truman, a newly relaxed Commander-in-Chief presiding over a game of horseshoe on the South Lawn of the White House. With wartime victory finally secured, Truman brought back leisure to the executive grounds. He had a horseshoe pit installed and he enjoyed playing a match or two, in this case with Admiral Nimitz and a guy named Jimmy Risk, the sport’s national champion of 1946.
The manicured South Lawn added some decorum to the growing popularity of this American pastime, but that’s not the way Natwick played it. And oh how he played, like a game of improvised streetball. He would hammer down a metal stake somewhere just outside the studio and then that was it. Game on! Those horseshoes were tossed along roadways and they clanged across sidewalks, medians, and over trolley tracks.
This of course was the man who remained that most resilient of animators, as adept at inventing Betty Boop’s sexy brand of spunk as he was imparting Woody Woodpecker with a gleeful hostility. Woody in the hands of guys like Natwick and Hawkins was about at good as he was ever drawn, often cited as Woody’s stylistic peak year. Yet Grim’s obsession with pitching horseshoes had started more than a decade earlier when he was working on Flip the Frog cartoons.
He would apparently keep an eye on the studio clock as the hands approached twelve noon, a daily turning point that brought out his passion for the sporting life. This explains why Shamus Culhane, writing a 1975 essay for a printed ASIFA program to honor his longtime friend, spent so many words recalling what used to happen at lunchtime all those years before.
His great legacy today is seen through his moving drawings captured in classic films, but to his co-workers during the Golden Age of Animation, history was made AT LUNCH! This was their social time, when the animators gathered outside and blew off steam. In the early 1930s, Natwick and Culhane were working together at the Ub Iwerks studio with another artist who would later also be regarded as an industry legend, Bugs Hardaway.
Grim and Bugs were both manly men. They were tall, strong and athletic, and they were older than their peers by a lot. Bugs was a veteran of World War I and had even once fought ‘the Huns’ alongside Harry Truman. Grim was a gentle Nordic giant. When these two alphas shared lunchtime, it no sooner turned competitive and manifested as a recurring game of horseshoe. This photo of Grim from that period shows off his muscled arms, but for the life of me I can’t pin down what exactly he’s doing here. Surely something sporty.
The Iwerks studio was located on Santa Monica Boulevard and there was no formal sandpit to play a match, so the narrow strips along the sides of the street had to serve that purpose instead. This excerpt below was written by Culhane to honor Natwick during his induction as a Winsor McCay Award recipient. These two animators had shared a lot of drinks and wild stories over their years together, so you would not be off-base in thinking this was kind of a public roast:
“Certainly there was never a more serious player of games than Grim Natwick. In 1932 when we worked at Ub Iwerks Studio in Beverly Hills, every noontime Grim and Bugs Hardaway were the chief contestants in a horse-shoe pitching match. The stakes were planted next to the ties of the railroad, some distance from the sidewalk. Even so it was a brave pedestrian who passed by, what with Bugs ejecting furious streams of tobacco-juice when he missed a pitch, and Natwick’s stark Anglo-Saxon when he didn’t get a ringer.”
Culhane described how “Grim’s specialty was body-English” and recounted the vast range of expressions, despair through exultation, which animated his entire frame when he played against Bugs:
“If he missed, there would follow a series of leaps and bounces which looked as if Grim was on an invisible pogo-stick. Sometimes his erratic course took him to the center of the tracks, even when a train was coming. He never wrecked one to my knowledge, but the way Grim was built in those days if there had been a collision, he would have derailed at least three of the big red cars, uttered a courteous apology, and gone back to his efforts to dislodge Hardaway’s leaner.”
Natwick moved on from Iwerks to work at Disney, which ended these games for a long while, but after a decade of the horseshoes silent against the tracks of L.A.’s red trolleys, Natwick and Hardaway ended up back together, this time at the Lantz studio. Culhane was there too, as a director. When Natwick showed up in 1944, he and Hardaway went right back to it.
The competitive interactions between Woody Woodpecker and Wally Walrus, especially as seen in The Dippy Diplomat (1945), reminds one of the horseshoe exploits of these same men who had key roles in making this cartoon. It is even directed by Culhane, who years later loved to write down the phonetic exclamations of Natwick in his colorful Midwest accent by way of Scandinavia.
“Sooow, this is yure game,” says Wally in Dippy Diplomat, as he stops Woody from making off with a stack of his grilled meats. “Sure, I always play for big steaks,” replies Woody, provoking the hulking Walrus to slide his opponent like an arrow into his bow. “Meehbe yule like my leettle game,” Wally suggests, firing the woodpecker way out over his backyard fence.
Of course, this is an artifact of cinema that history leaves us, perhaps an echo of real events, but I like to imagine what the resumption of their contests was like in 1944, with Natwick and Hardaway making Lankershim Boulevard their new personal horseshoe court. There was even a red streetcar that came up over Cahuenga Pass right in front of Walter Lantz’s studio outside the Universal gates. I’m sure there were many who got the chance to gawk at this spectacle. Or to duck from an errant pitch.
(Special thanks to Michael Barrier, the White House Museum, and ASIFA-Hollywood for the photographs shown above)