“Though Betty bowed out as a headliner in 1939, her popularity remains as intact as her boop-oop-a-doop. Maybe the appeal lies in her sassy independence, in the fact that she’s the only female cartoon character who’s not a foil for a male. Call it fatale feminism.” – Entertainment Weekly
Before Marilyn and Madonna, Betty booped and wriggled her way into hearts worldwide with her unique mix of wide-eyed innocence and powerful cartoon sensuality. Although she made her film debut as a curvaceous cabaret singer in the Max Fleischer short “Dizzy Dishes” on August 9, 1930, Betty Boop remains animation’s first leading lady and a glamorous international icon.
BETTY BOOP’S RISE TO FAME
Betty Boop, Fleischer’s most famous creation, was born during this time. Betty first appeared in “Dizzy Dishes,” which was released on August 9, 1930. She was created as the love interest for one of Fleischer’s popular animated characters, Bimbo, a dog, who was the star of his own Talkartoon series. Betty’s first film appearance was brief, and appropriately… she looked a little bit like a dog! She was unnamed, had jowls, big teeth, and dog ears. Still, anyone who later became familiar with the fully-evolved Betty Boop would immediately recognize the Betty of “Dizzy Dishes” as, well, Betty— with her curls, big eyes and tiny pouting mouth and short flapper dress. Her flirtatious persona was inspired by the popular flapper look, and the most famous female stars of the day (including Mae West).
Betty’s looks continued to evolve slightly with each film, and her popularity continued to grow. Eventually, as her jowls and teeth disappeared, her floppy dog ears became earrings… and she became fully human. Still, it took over a year before she got her famous name, Betty Boop. Many of Betty’s films cleverly integrated animation with live people, often Max himself. She was such a hit with audiences that she soon replaced Bimbo as the star, and by 1932 was the star of her own Betty Boop series. Betty had become the first animated screen siren, and the unrivaled star of Fleischer Studios.
Eventually, the popularity of Betty’s baby face, little-girl voice, independent attitude and womanly charms proved powerful enough for her to star in a cartoon series of her own. Interestingly, even after Betty evolved and hit the big time, Bimbo continued to appear as her nominal boyfriend, despite the fact that he remained a dog throughout his career.
BETTY’S SPECIAL APPEAL
From the beginning, Betty’s act had a hypnotic effect not just on Bimbo, but on just about everyone and everything in the constantly “morphing” Fleischer universe. Not even inanimate objects were immune to Betty’s charms. Betty always managed to fend off her numerous lecherous suitors without ever quite seeming to understand their behavior toward her. “Do you like your job?” asks Betty’s harassing employer in a cartoon titled “Boop-oop-a-doop.” The lout whispers his desires in Betty’s ear as his hand caresses her thigh in sensuous strokes. First surprised, then enraged, Betty slaps his face in reply, singing, “You can feed me bread and water, or a great big bale of hay, but don’t take my boop-oop-a-doop away!”
Max Fleischer hired Mae Questel to provide Betty Boop’s distinctive, high-pitched voice for more than 150 of his animated shorts. Hers was the longest run for any actress. She voiced the character from 1931 to 1939.
At the hands of her Times Square-based animators, Betty achieved a realism of feminine motion said to have been acquired through careful observation of the exaggerated strutting of that neighborhood’s ladies of the night. Certainly the occasional but quite detailed glimpses of Betty’s silhouetted form (which was often revealed by having Betty pass in front of an animated light source) demonstrate the animators’ keen grasp of the feminine anatomy.
During the heyday of such risqué screen sirens as Mae West, the Fleischer animators felt free to allow freak gusts of wind to raise her skirt – decades before Marylin Monroe straddled a subway grate.
THEY TRIED TO TAKE HER BOOP-OOP-A-DOOP AWAY
According to former Fleischer animator Myron Waldman, the 1933 short Boilesque” was banned in Philadelphia for being too risqué. In the same year, self-censorship arising from complaints about sexual content in films led to the brief disappearance of the garter on Betty’s left thigh, which was reportedly returned due to public demand.
A year later, just as Boop-o-mania reached its peak, a spit-curled singer named Helen Kane filed a $250,000 lawsuit charging that Betty had stolen her boop-oop-a-doop and loopy style, thereby causing her career to wane as Betty’s star rose. When the case came to trial, other performers testified that they had used “boop-oop-a-doop” and similar phrasings prior to Helen Kane; the singer lost her case.
By 1934, the overriding influence of the Hays office – creators of what was to become today’s movie rating system – caused a profound shift in the way Betty was presented to the public. Betty began showing far less leg, and her décolletage was often obscured by prim buttons.
Her lecherous suitors disappeared. Eventually, Betty was nudged from the limelight by Pudgy, a cute pet pooch who was forever getting her in trouble, and the lovable Grampy, who helped Betty solve problems with his wacky inventions. As World War II loomed, the market for Betty’s films at home and abroad thinned. Betty’s last film appearance in this series was in “Rhythm On the Reservation” in 1939..The series ended with the release of “Yip, Yip, Yippy” that same year..
Studio head Max Fleischer shared Grampy’s penchant for developing innovative gadgetry. Max secured patents for many of his inventions, including the Rotoscope, a method for tracing live action film to create realistic animated movement, which is still in wide use today. The first “bouncing ball” sing-along cartoons were made by Fleischer Studios, whose animators were widely praised for being the first to use the new sound technology convincingly to enhance their characters’ appeal. The studio also developed a multi-plane camera setup that allowed characters to be photographed against moving, three-dimensional backgrounds.
An urban, jazz-informed sensibility marked many of the Fleischer Studios cartoons that were competing closely with Disney shorts for the hearts of Depression-era movie-goers. While the California-made Disneys featured the sunny antics of largely barnyard-based “funny animals,” the Fleischer shorts were often set in gritty cityscapes populated by poor immigrants. Everything in the early Fleischer cartoons, many of which credit Max’s brother Dave as director, were constantly in flux. The animators “morphed” characters and inanimate objects by hand many decades before computer technology made that visual effect commonplace.
BETTY BOOP’S RED HOT JAZZ
The Fleischer cartoons from the Betty Boop era were largely music-driven gag fests. The cartoons’ nominal narratives merely provided a launch point for the animators’ often jazz-inspired flights of fancy. Like “Uncle” Max himself, stars from Paramount feature films often appeared in live-action cameos. Musical stars, including Maurice Chevalier, Rudy Vallee, Ethel Merman, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, all appeared in Betty Boop cartoons. The exposure these shorts afforded black jazz performers in particular helped popularize the nascent American art form during the 1930s. At the time, the groundbreaking inclusion of black performers in the cartoons resulted in threats to the studio from the Ku Klux Klan.
As has been the case with jazz, Betty Boop cartoons have traditionally found especially appreciative audiences in Europe and Asia as treasured artifacts of American culture.
Japanese audiences cheered during initial screenings of “A Language All My Own,” a 1935 short in which Betty flew to Tokyo and “booped” in Japanese. Myron Waldman, who directed that short, says he interviewed Japanese students in New York to make sure Betty’s movements and words would be culturally appropriate. Jean-Paul Sartre reportedly searched all of Paris for Betty’s films. Gertrude Stein was also said to have been a boop-o-phile.
In London, Betty enjoyed a resurgence of popularity when cartoonists obtained and restored some early Fleischer cartoons, which became favorites at the ICA movie houses during the 1970s. Similar revivals in the United States helped spur sales of licensed Betty Boop merchandise worldwide.
BETTY BOOP: A TIMELESS CLASSIC
In the years since Betty’s film debut, the cartoon queen has represented different things to different audiences. In a feature film produced during the 1970s by putting a new soundtrack on colorized and re-edited Fleischer cartoons, liberationist Betty decides to show her father “that a woman can do anything that a man can do.” A 1984 song by the heavy metal group Van Halen refers to Betty as a sexual ideal, while Betty’s image appears in a montage of desirable feminine icons in the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge tour. In the feature film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” Bob Hoskins reassures Betty that she’s “still got it.”
Betty Boop was one of a handful of legendary glamorous female stars saluted in a line of clothing by designer Bob Mackie. Betty’s presence is felt in major entertainment complexes such as the MGM Grand Hotel, Casino and Theme Park in Las Vegas and at Universal Studios in Orlando and Hollywood.
BACK ON THE SILVER SCREEN
Several Betty Boop shorts preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, along with new prints struck from original nitrate negatives, titillated movie-goers in 1995 in a critically acclaimed feature-length cartoon retrospective called BETTY BOOP CONFIDENTIAL. Among the classics included in the compilation is SNOW WHITE – a Betty Boop short featuring Cab Calloway that was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1996 – which was produced years before the Disney feature of the same name.
ON THE AIR AGAIN
Betty Boop cartoons were among the first theatrical shorts to be repackaged for television syndication during the early 1960s. And, on August 8, 1996, American Movie Classics, which brought Betty Boop back to the small screen on Saturday mornings, aired a prime-time, star-studded tribute to the cartoon queen. AMC’s “65th Anniversary Salute to Boop” included a marathon presentation of original 1930s cartoons hosted by noted Hollywood director Richard Fleischer, son of Max Fleischer, who was responsible for bringing Betty Boop and co-stars Koko and Bimbo out of the inkwell in the early 1930s.
Arts & Entertainment aired a “Biography” of Betty Boop in 1996, marking the first time a cartoon star had been profiled for the cable network’s acclaimed series.
“The Romance of Betty Boop” and “Betty Boop’s Hollywood Mystery,” two full-color animated specials, were originally produced in the 1980s for network television.
Betty had a cameo role in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988). The film blended animated, ink-and-paint cartoon characters and flesh-and-blood live actors.
Betty Boop’s name and image have also continued to turn up on popular television shows through the years.
“BETTY BOOP: The Definitive Collection” ON VIDEO
She’ll never let anyone take her “boop-oop-a-doop” away, but now fans are able to take Betty home. Republic Entertainment’s “Betty Boop: The Definitive Collection” arrived in video stores nationwide in 1996 in an eight-volume collectors’ edition. The boxed set, which is still available nationwide, includes 115 of Max and Dave Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoons, an interview with Max’s son, Richard, and a bonus booklet, “Betty Boop Boopliography,” that reveals intriguing historical tidbits.
INTERNATIONAL LICENSING SENSATION
Betty Boop has become a multi-million-dollar brand, licensed in virtually every product category by quality manufacturers. She’s an undeniable licensing powerhouse in the United States and has increased in popularity with consumers around the world.
King Features has also been raising the profile of Baby Boop, the infant version of the popular Queen of Cartoons. Both in the United States and internationally, new agreements have been signed for infant apparel and accessories, baby-care products, gifts and stationery and learning and exploration products.
Betty Boop has made the transition from animation, print and audio formats to all-digital media. She has her own website at www.BettyBoop.com and entertains hundreds of thousands of fans via her own social media channels. Follow her on Twitter (@bettyboopnews). Like her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/BettyBoop). And don’t forget to shop til you drop at the official online booptique at www.BettyBoopStore.com!