An interview by Michael Barrier
[Click here to hear a 56-second (880KB) audio
excerpt (MP3 player required) from the McGrew interview, and
here to read an excerpt
from Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation
in Its Golden Age about McGrew's work for Chuck Jones.]
In an interview posted elsewhere on this site, Chuck
Jones says of John McGrew, his layout artist in the early forties,
that he "did the layouts on both The Aristo-cat and
The Dover Boys, and he had very interesting ideas that I
was willing to try." McGrew was, Jones said in another interview,
"a great student of film techniques." It was thanks mainly
to McGrew that some of Jones's Warner Bros. cartoons, starting with
Conrad the Sailor (1942), were the first distinctively "modern"
Hollywood cartoons. They anticipated in their semi-abstract designs
and self-aware techniques the UPA cartoons of the early fifties,
which spawned in turn many more such cartoons, in the United States
and other countries.
McGrew himself was a rather mysterious figure for many years,
known only to be living somewhere in France since moving there just
after World War II. It was thanks to Steve Schneider, author of
That's All Folks: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation and the
leading collector of Warner Bros. cartoon artwork, that McGrew's
whereabouts finally came to light in 1995. He was, it turned out,
living in a 300-year-old house in a village in the Beaujolais region,
about an hour's drive from Lyon. He and his longtime companion,
André Gonnet, had performed as classical musicians throughout
Europe for many yearsMcGrew as pianist, Gonnet as cellistbut
then McGrew's hearing had deteriorated and he had once again become
a full-time artist, specializing in extraordinary trompe-l'oeil
and I were planning a driving trip to France in the fall of 1995,
so I wrote to McGrew and asked for an interview. He responded with
an invitation to stay with him and André at their homewhich
we accepted, for two nights. In between guided tours of old Lyon
and the beautiful Beaujolais countrysideAndré is a
native of the areaMcGrew and I looked at his paintings (he
had saved a generous sampling of his color sketches for the Jones
cartoons) and recorded an interview. The procedure was unusual.
Because McGrew was so nearly deaf, I wrote my questions and spoke
them aloud for the tape recorder; he then read them and responded,
occasionally lapsing into the strongly American-accented French
that had become his principal language. (Phyllis took the accompanying
photo during the interview.)
John was one of the most charming and memorable of all the hundreds
of people whom I've interviewed. Among many other things, he had
been a theatrical set designer before working in animation, and
when we arrived at his home, the first thing he did was take me
into the entryway to show me a model of a stage set he had designed.
Throughout our visit, he made a point of showing Phyllis and me
work he had done, both at his home and in other places (I particularly
recall a Lyon stairwell decorated in trompe-l'oeil fashion).
Other artists might have done the same thing, but what made John
so remarkable was his generosity of spirit. He wasn't showing off.
Rather, he clearly wanted us to share his own pleasure in the lovely
things he had made.
John Burton McGrew died on January 11, 1999, at the age of 88.
Excerpts from my September 11, 1995, interview follow, beginning
with McGrew's memories of the Leon Schlesinger studio's background
department, which was headed by Art Loomer. In the late thirties,
that department painted the backgrounds for most of the Schlesinger
studio's cartoons, which were released through Warner Bros. Jones,
then a new director, rebelled against the backgrounds' poor quality.
In 1939, he pulled McGrew out of the background department to be
the layout artist for his cartoons, and Paul Julian became his background
To reduce the time required to load this page, I've provided links
to a separate page on which I've
reproduced photos of five of the sketches that McGrew and I discussed
during the interview. Most of McGrew's sketches, now in a private
collection, measure about 4 3/4 inches by 6 1/3 inches. McGrew described
these sketches as layouts, but they differ significantly from most
layouts for Hollywood cartoons of the period.Typically, layout
artists worked in pencil, making full-size drawings of the backgrounds
and perhaps providing guidance to the background painter in the
form of a few small color sketches. McGrew, on the other hand, worked
almost entirely through color sketches.
BARRIER: Tell me what you remember about working in the background
department under Art Loomer. Was his nickname really "Muddy"?
McGREW: I don't remember ever having heard his nickname as "Muddy."
That was a word that Chuck used in describing the things. It was
quite descriptive, because the backgrounds were a bit muddy. Art
had two basic ideas: watercolors must be pale; and to start, you
always did a wash of yellow ocher on the paper, and when it was
dry, you would color ityou didn't paint it, you colored it.
The word that Chuck used was not very elegant; he said it was "shit-brindle,"
which is a pretty good description.
BARRIER: Was Loomer difficult to work for on a personal level?
That is, was he a bad boss as well as a poor artist?
McGREW: No, he was an excellent boss, and on a personal level,
very fine, a very pleasant person. Whenever we would begin to get
bored and nervous, he would get up and do a soft-shoe shuffle and
make us all sing "Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing, Tweet
Tweet Tweet Tweet." This eliminated the boredom, but it was
usually very embarrassing. But he was a very pleasant person, and
I think he was aware of his limitations, because he was not at all
pretentiousI mean, as an artist.
BARRIER: What do you recall about the changes that led to your
going into Chuck's unit? Was Loomer painting backgrounds for you
after that change occurred?
McGREW: Chuck was dissatisfied with the backgrounds that were being
produced by the background department. When he became a director,
he chose me as his layout man. I took a long time to understand
why he chose me. There was no particular reason, except I came from
Chouinard's, as he did, and he was very enthusiastic about the training
at Chouinard. Loomer did no more backgrounds for the Chuck Jones
BARRIER: You made some interesting comparisons of Paul Julian and
Gene Fleury [who succeeded Julian as Jones's background painter
in 1941] last night. Can you elaborate on how they differed as background
McGREW: Paul, first of all, was an excellent watercolor painter;
he had a very free, loose style, which was not very appropriate
to animated cartoons. It attracted the attention to the background
rather than to the action. I had an idea of what backgrounds should
be, without knowing exactly how to do it, and I helped Paul get
into the right spirit with silly poems. Shall I tell you one? Sometimes
you have a scene which is essentially a nature mort [still
life]. If someone looks at a clock, for example, you'll have a short
scene of a clock; and Paul's very free, fluid background style was
not appropriate [for such scenes]. So I wrote a series of poems
on all the principles; I think I had twelve or fourteen of them.
The only one I remember is not very elegant:
If the thing is what you paint,
And the thing is what the scene is,
Make it hard and firm,
Like a questing penis.
That became quite well known in the studio, of course.
Gene Fleury, on the other hand, was an explorer in painting. He
had possessed all possible modern styles up to that period, and
was continually searching and trying out new ideas, so Gene and
I fitted together perfectly in what we were looking for. We completed
each other; we were both looking for something, and we finally found
something that was satisfying. That is to say, the backgrounds became
in the same style as the animated persons, and frequently, instead
of using them as a backdrop, [as in] a theater, we would have different
levels of depth, so that the characters were in the setting, instead
of in front of a setting. But that was because Gene and I cooperated
in this searching and trying out ideas all the time. That was not
Paul's style. Paul's style was to render something very prettyI
don't mean that in a disparaging way[and] very interesting
in the technique, but not to seek for something new.
BARRIER: Even though you wanted to get away from the idea that
the characters were performing in stage settings, weren't you able
to put your theatrical training to use in making the layouts?
McGREW: Yes, of course. Because in theatrical training, a setting
is not just a place, it's an atmosphereand it must convey
an emotion, or a sentiment, or a reaction. That's the great difference
between a certain type of illustration and another type. Just an
ordinary Polaroid camera will take good photos, but it's not creative,
and it doesn't communicate anything. The theatrical training was
very important for all of my work, because you had to get something
across to the public.
BARRIER: I'd like to look at the sketches now, and talk about the
ideas you were trying to put across in each film.
McGREW [talking about sketches for The Dover Boys]: What
I was trying to do here was get something more original in the composition,
by using diagonals and slightly exaggerating the forms. Because
up until then everything had been very realistic and slightly sentimental.
As you can see, we were trying to get away from that pale, washed-out
look that the backgrounds had up until then.
BARRIER: How many such color sketches did you usually make for
McGREW: Between forty and sixty layouts for a film. That is, [for]
every background, I did a layout, and then the background was done
from that. Certain films were longer, but forty to sixty was the
BARRIER: But most of your layouts were in pencil, weren't they?
Did you do a lot of watercolor sketches for each film as well?
McGREW: No, none of my layouts were in pencil. I worked entirely
in color, except on the panoramics, which were long things. I would
do one layout for the first frame, in color, and the rest in charcoal,
simply because it was very rapid; and I knew that Gene or Paul was
perfectly able to do the whole thing, starting with the harmony
of the first sketch. But I worked entirely in color. I don't remember
Chuck ever having changed or criticized a layout, because we had
the same ideas.
I saw an exhibition of Tex Avery recently, and I was very surprised
to see that the later layouts were in pencil, or in black and white.
Because I had no idea that they worked that way. That meant that
someone else would put the color on them.
BARRIER: So you left it up to the background painter to handle
the technical stuff, like pan moves and registration and so on?
Because your color sketches are much smaller than the finished background
paintings would have been.
McGREW: We simply didn't consider that. I would give him a layout,
and he would draw the same thing, a bit larger, and do the color
according to the layoutexcept for the pans, where he had a
starting point in color, and could do the rest in the same style.
[A little later in the interview, McGrew showed me an example of
such a charcoal sketch/color sketch combination, from the opening
scene of the bookshop in Sniffles and the Bookwormhe
had saved a photostatic copy of the charcoal sketch, which was as
detailed and polished as any Disney feature layout, as well as the
color sketch.] We had confidence in each other. And about working
in color, instead of pencil: I couldn't have imagined working in
black and white. See the red in the woodwork here, and the red in
the woodwork herethey look the same, but they're not the same
red, because this red is influenced by the green wallpaper. So I
had to change it, to make it look the same. Colors work on each
other; they're contagious. So I simply couldn't have worked in black
I think it was very fortunate that Chuck went through that unhappy
period of Sniffles, because instead of putting the accent on gags,
he learned how to be a real director. He could be a director of
[live-action] movies; he has a sense of direction. Tex, I'm afraid,
never had a sense of directing; he was a gag man. He knew how to
string them together like beadsremarkable gags, absolute geniusbut
Chuck learned to be a director and construct a film, during the
By the way, there was always cooperation between Tex and Chuck
and Friz. When they were working on the storyboard, frequently they'd
all be together. It would be Chuck's film, but the others would
BARRIER: What about the other directors then? Do you have any memories
of Bob Clampett and Friz Freleng?
McGREW: No, because we lived in quite separate compartments. I
don't know what Bob and Friz did about their backgrounds. I do know
that except for Chuck, all the backgrounds went up to the Loomer
department, to be ruined.
BARRIER: Could you tell me again about the soap bubbles [which
McGrew had mentioned in an earlier conversation]?
McGREW: There was supposed to be a basin full of soap bubbles [in
Tom Thumb in Trouble], and when they first started
drawing the things, they imagined that soap bubbles are always spherical.
They are, when they're alone in the air. But I said no, they [have]
parallel, flat sides, except on the top surface, if there's a group
of bubbles. They didn't seem to believe me, so there was one of
those insane scenes that we found often. Chuck and Tex and I don't
how many people were in the toilets, filling the wash basin with
soap and blowing straws into them to see. They finally agreed that
soap bubbles, when they touch, become flat and geometric, and are
only rounded on the outer surface. I have always believed that there's
a great difference between looking and seeing. Everybody knows how
to look, but very few people know how to seethat is, to see
what is there and understand it.
BARRIER: So it was a matter of how the bubbles should be animated?
McGREW: That's right.
BARRIER: On the sketches for Conrad
the Sailortell me about the experiment you made on
that film, involving the golden section and other things.
McGREW: The whole thing was based on the golden section, which
is simply a system of proportion. It was only used for the background,
not for the animation. You can't even perceive that it's there.
But as I tell my students, the structure of a composition is like
a pretty girl: She has a skeleton, and the structure is the skeletonif
she didn't have a skeleton, she'd be a horrible mess[but]
you don't want to see the skeleton when you see a pretty girl. The
only places you can see the skeleton are her elbows and her ankles
and a few places where the bones touch. So the construction, the
composition, is hiddenbut it's there, and it feels satisfying.
BARRIER: Weren't there other things you attempted in that cartoon,
like matched cuts, that were new to the Schlesinger cartoons?
McGREW: Matched cutsthe idea that a certain element of one
composition would be repeated in the nextcame from my analysis
of the films of Eisenstein. Gene and Chuck and I talked about it
a great deal, and we used it, but mostly it's in the backgrounds.
The public doesn't see itbut they feel it. It's like the girl's
BARRIER: You mentioned using Eisenstein-like cuttingrapid
cuts. Did you show Potemkin to Chuck?
McGREW: I don't believe so.
BARRIER: So did you and Gene simply talk with Chuck about using
more rapid cutting and encourage him to do it?
McGREW: Yes. Gene and I would have long discussions about what
was being done, analyzing the thing, and Chuck always took part,
or at least he listened to us, patiently. You see, the atmosphere
was quite specialit was not a boss and two assistants on backgrounds.
[Instead,] we were three artists.
BARRIER: Tell me more about Chuck's attitude in general, and about
his receptiveness to innovation.
McGREW: Chuck was young, and it was his first experience as a director,
so he was very eager to learn and show what he could do. Also, he's
one of the very few people in animated cartoons who's cultivated
and well educated. In his letters, he will quote James Joyce and
Racine, which is extraordinary. So he would take part actively in
this [discussion]; as I say, we were three people working together,
not a boss and two assistants. And we were, all of us, experimenting
and searching. It was always very exciting.
BARRIER: Do you recall if John McLeishJohn Ployardtwas
involved in work on The Dover Boys?
McGREW: I don't remember at all. I know the idea of The Dover
Boys made an awful lot of fuss; everybody was pretty much excited
about it. Some were for, some were against.
BARRIER: You said your job, and Chuck's, were threatened because
of The Dover Boysdid you really believe that your job
was in danger?
McGREW: No. Schlesinger, and most of the [management], were people
without real experience in any form of art. They had a certain sense
of inferiority about the artists, and since Schlesinger was in a
position of authority, he made a lot of thunder and lightning from
time to time, but no one really took him seriously, because he needed
BARRIER: Tell me again about your introducing mistakes into your
layouts so that Schlesinger could spot them and order corrections.
McGREW: That's rather indiscreet, don't you think? I'll tell you,
anyway. Schlesinger from time to time would go on a tour and inspect
what was being done. He loved to show his importance by criticizing,
and he would find a detail in one of my layouts and make a big scene
about it. So, knowing that he needed to be right, I would say, "How
right you are. I'm very glad you told me that." To protect
myself, I would, on other layouts, make a small mistake on the background
itself and attach it with rubber cement, especially so that Schlesinger
could find itleave it in evidence. When he would roar about
that, I would again say, "How right you are. I'm very sorry.
I'll change it." When he left, I'd simply peel off the mistake,
wait a couple of hours, and then show him the corrected thingwhich
was corrected from the start.
BARRIER: What kinds of mistakes were these?
McGREW: I don't remember. Just something, perhaps, in which the
colors didn't harmonize with the rest, or was badly drawn. Nothing
important, just a detail.
BARRIER: Back to the sketchesthis looks like Fox Pop.
McGREW: That was my biggest mistake. I had a theory that the color
should vary in intensity according to the intensity of the action.
I had a long strip of paper divided into compartments which represented
the length of each scene. Up above, there were three or four bands
which were the colors of the animated character. The colors would
be intense for a certain scene and very neutral for another scene.
Aesthetically, it was finebut no one understood why the backgrounds
were continually changing. It was a big mistake; so I humbly demanded
pardon. I was the first one to admit it was wrong. It also took
a great deal of time, which you cannot do in a cartoon factory.
BARRIER: I think that cartoon was Fox Pop, about a fox who
wants to be a silver fox; does that sound right?
McGREW: Frankly, I don't know. I very often didn't know what the
titles of the films were until I saw them.
[Referring to the color sketches for the backgrounds for To
Duck .... Or Not to Duck] This was another mistake. I had imagined
that it would be interesting to eliminate all the elements of the
background, [leaving] just enough to indicate where it was and what
were the elements being used. So I airbrushed the backgrounds. The
mistake was, it's full of very subtle atmosphere, and we had two-dimensional,
outlined characters acting in it. They were out of place. Nobody
but Chuck, Gene, Paul, and I recognized the trouble.
[Referring to color sketches for My
Favorite Duck] This style, we finally found what we were
looking for. It was a style in which these two-dimensional characters
would be at homegiving an impression of three dimensions,
but using two-dimensional forms. It has become quite ordinary, conventional,
noweveryone uses it--but at the time it was considered violently
BARRIER: For the tape recorder, these sketches are very close to
the finished film, and clearly governed the appearance of the finished
film, in both color and composition.
McGREW: Then we got into very abstract things. I think this one
[referring to color sketches for the backgrounds for The
Case of the Missing Hare] came before the others.
BARRIER: Gene Fleury said that Schlesinger actually liked these
backgroundsdo you remember that?
McGREW: No, I don't remember that. One thing that influenced Schlesinger's
opinion was, in spite of his personal opinions, different trade
papers praised them. This, I think, is one of the best, because
it's slightly abstract, it says what it says, and it gets a message
across. Then I went further, and here I slipped into a mistakeI
went too far [referring to color sketches for the backgrounds for
The Unbearable Bear]. Too
far, simply because the abstraction attracted too much attention
from the action. But it's better to go too far than not to go far
[Referring to color sketches for the backgrounds for Flop
Goes the Weasel] This is one of the last, and I think one
of my best works, in which color harmonywhich is not necessarily
in harmony with natureis in harmony with itself. Chuck was
delighted with that, this harmony of color, unreal but which seems
to be real.
BARRIER: If you had stayed with Chuck, do you think you would have
continued doing more backgrounds like those for Flop Goes the
Weasel? Was this the real solution to the problem of how to
reconcile characters and background?
McGREW: I think so. It would never have been the same, because
I'm allergic to routine, but the idea of a particular color harmony,
which suits the action and the emotion, and forms which suit it,
even if it's not realisticthat was the thing we were looking
BARRIER: How much did you work with Bernyce Polifka before you
left Chuck's unit?
McGREW: I never worked with Bernyce; she came after. But I knew
her, I knew her work. I once proposed to Chuck that we rotatethat
I would be the layout man and Gene would be the background; the
next picture, Gene would be the layout man and Bernyce would be
the background; the next one would be the layout woman and I would
be her assistant, and then we would start over again. She was someone
I liked and admired, someone you could work with and get along with,
without any conflict, and her work was good.
BARRIER: And why didn't that happen?
McGREW: It never got beyond the stage of a proposition. Although
Chuck would have accepted it, the unions were suspicious. They didn't
know why, but it was doubtful because it might go somewhere they
didn't like; so we dropped it. I think it would have been very good
for Bernyce, because at the time she was designing wallpaper. She
was worth much more than wallpaper.
BARRIER: So, when you left, Gene began doing the layouts?
McGREW: Frankly, I don't know what happened when I left. It was
the period of the war, and there was immense confusion everywhere.
No one knew who was going into service, who was going to stay. For
most people, it was a period of anguishnot for me; I've never
BARRIER: Tell me about your involvement in the Disney strike, and
your puppet "Screwy McGrewy."
McGREW: As you've seen in [Chuck Jones's book]
Chuck Amuck [on page 85], there's a list of people who
signed up for the manifestation [French for demonstration]
against Disney. Chuck is number one and John McGrew is number two
on the long list. The thing that we were indignant about was that
Disney had the habit of hiring girls for three months, as apprentices,
for practically a starvation wage, and at the end of three months
he would either put them out and take other girls in their place,
or they could stay on at the same price. We were indignant about
that, because they were using these girls' work in the films; it
was not apprentice work, it was professional, and he should [have
been] paying standard wages. So a strike was organized. I had been
amusing myself with ventriloquism, and I had made a dummy caricature
of myselfI showed you the photo, I think. Somebody got the
idea of using it in a manifestation. There was a big meeting,
because there was no union for the cartoonists; we cooperated with
the Screen Writers Guild before they formed the cartoonists' union.
They had a big meetinglots of speechesand I did a number
with my puppet and my ventriloquism, which I think was very funny,
but I don't remember; the text was written by some of the best gag
men, and I have no idea what it was. I've lost it. Then we decided
to use humor. Most of the manifestations, especially communist,
will parade with a coffin on their shouldersperfectly stupidand
we decided to use humor. Disney was having his preview of The
Reluctant Dragon in a big theater, with the arcs in the sky
and inviting all the celebrities, so we organized a manifestation
of our own. We got a half a dozen very elegant carsBuicks
and a Rollsand everybody in our group was in evening dress,
long dresses and tux and black tie. A very rich car would come around
and stop in front of the theater, the reporters would hand us a
microphone, and the person would get down, and they would say, "Of
course, you're coming to see [The Reluctant Dragon],"
and they would say, "Not at all, I'm coming to protest against
Mr. Disney's abuse," and so forth. The person would take a
poster and become a part of the picket line. We finally had the
most elegant picket line that anyone had ever seen. Of course, the
reporters were enchanted.
In the grand number at the end, a car came around that had been
converted in such a way that there was a bathtub on the back of
it. In the bathtub [was] a nude man, [with] his valet, his servant,
behind him, rubbing his back. It drove up to the theater, and the
servant gives him a big towel that he wraps himself in, and he gets
down and says, "You must excuse my appearance, but I had forgotten
the time and I didn't want to miss this for anything." So he
takes a sign and goes into the picket line. That made quite a sensation;
and the guy in the bathtub was me. There was another fellow who
was supposed to do it, but his wife wouldn't allow it. My wife didn't
refuse, because she didn't know about it. She learned the next day,
and that was another story. Disney finally gave in, because I think
he realized he couldn't fight humor. He had the best humorists in
the industry working against him. So he hired the girls on a standard
basis; they came in for three months as apprentices, but afterwards
they got a normal salary.
BARRIER: Tell me how you came to France and how you wound up staying
McGREW: I had this big exhibition at New York, at the Lilienfeld
Galleries, and I had a friend, a Romanian aristocrat, and he came
to France right after my exhibition. One day he wrote and said,
"I think you're ready for an exhibition in Europe, so come
to France." So I went to France; it was as simple as that.
That's how I came to France; and I stayed because I felt at home.
In the States, they say, "What do you do?" and you say,
"I'm a painter." They say, "Oh, that's interestingbut
what do you do?" I found in France that being a painter was
considered an honorable [profession].
BARRIER: Did you speak French when you came here? How quickly did
McGREW: I had studied French with the Linguaphone method while
I was in the Navy, so I was able to understand a bit and speak very
little, but it was not efficient. The son of the concierge where
I was lodged invited me to go camping with a group of young people,
the Auberge de la Jeunesse, and so every weekend, with a
sack on my back, I would go out camping, hitchhiking all over France
with this group, and I learned French there. I learned a highly
spiced Frenchextremely vulgar, which had to be cleaned up
later. Sometimes, my French would be very shocking. But I really
learned how to speak, because they didn't speak anything else.
[Posted November 2003]