If you’re a cartoon fan but have never seen the original Betty Boop cartoons of the late 1920s and early 1930s, do yourself a favor the next time you rent a movie: rent some Betty Boop cartoons, too. Here’s a look at the origins of some of the earliest and most controversial cartoon ‘superstars.’ Boop-Oop-A-Doop!
It was 1928. Grim Natwick had just landed a job at Fleischer Studios, an animation company famous for its ‘follow the bouncing ball’ sing-along cartoons. Founders Max and Dave Fleischer were hard at work trying to find a cartoon character to compete with Mickey Mouse, who had made his screen debut that year in ‘Steamboat Willie.’ The brothers’ first attempt, ‘Bimbo the Dog’ wasn’t nearly as popular as Disney’s mouse. They knew something was missing.
What if they gave him a girlfriend?
As Natwick would recall years later, Dave Fleischer had an idea:
One morning [he] came over to my desk and handed me the music to the [popular] song ‘Boop-Oop-A-Doop,’ by Helen Kane, and asked me to design a girl character to go with it. At that point, the only characters the Fleischers had in their sound cartoons was Bimbo. So without bothering to ask if they wanted a human, I started drawing a little girl dog. I had a song sheets of Helen Kane and the spit curls came from her. I put cute legs on her and long ears. I supposed I used a French poodle for the basic idea of the character.
And drawing from his years of experience, Natwick also gave her something that few female cartoons had ever had before: genuine feminine curves. ‘Years of art school and night classes, drawing thousands of naked models,’ Natwick said. ‘I knew all the sexy angles and shapes, from the turn of the ankle to the shape of the heel of her toe.’
One more influence on the character’s look: from their Times Square office, Natwick and the other animators ‘made careful observation of the exaggerated strutting of that neighborhood’s ladies of the night,’ and incorporated their strut into the character.
The as-yet unnamed female dog debuted in a cartoon called ‘Dizzy Dishes,’ in a supporting role as a dancer in a nightclub where Bimbo, the main character, was a waiter.
As usual, Bimbo did not light any fires with his audience. But his female co-star was another story- audiences loved her …and Paramount Pictures, Fleischer Studio’s distributor, quickly asked for more cartoons ‘with that girl in them.’
When he realized how popular she was, Max Fleischer had the animators turn her into a human. ‘Somebody changed those ears into earrings,’ Natwick recalled nearly 60 years later. ‘Maybe I did. Everyone thought that as long as she looked like a girl anyway, let’s just make her all girl.’ (Bimbo wasn’t so lucky- he stayed a dog.)
And starting with the 1931 cartoon ‘Betty Co-ed,’ Betty Boop finally had a name.
Betty Boop may have been the Fleischer’s answer to Mickey Mouse, but she was a world apart. Disney sought to entertain without offending anyone, creating characters and stories with not a hint of adult themes or controversy. In contrast, Natwick explained, ‘Betty was a suggestion you could spell in three letters: S-E-X. She was all girl.’
Freak gusts of wind blew up her skirt, and stray branches tugged at her top. In the 1934 cartoon ‘Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame,’ one of Betty’s naked breasts is seen on film for a fraction of a second.
WOMAN OF THE WORLD
Betty Boop was one of the most successful cartoon characters of the early 1930s, not just in the U.S. but also all over the world. She had tremendous appeal for increasingly independent young women growing up in the 1930s. Luminaries such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Gertrude Stein were fans, and her likeness -stamped onto products as diverse as dolls, playing cards, nail polish, and cigarette cases- was one of the most mass-marketed images of the Depression era. Her cartoons also gave important exposure to jazz greats like Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, introducing their music to audiences who might not ever have heard it otherwise.
Armstrong’s performance of ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You’ was one of his first screen appearances ever. However, it was just the musicians’ voices that the Fleischers used -they actually made cartoon characters out of the singers, using a device called rotoscope. So next time you see the walrus ghost dancing in ‘Minnie the Moocher’ (one of Betty’s best cartoons), look a little closer- you’re actually seeing a performance by Cab Calloway.
HEAVENS TO BETTY!
Betty’s innocent sexuality was her strongest drawing card, a fact that was unfortunately proven in the mid-1930s, when Paramount Pictures -under pressure from the Hayes office, Hollywood’s official censor- told Fleischer Studios to clean up Betty Boop’s act.
‘Naturally,’ Fleischer historian Leslie Cabarga write, ‘Betty was never the same.’ Betty short, sleeveless, backless dress was replaced with a much longer dress with sleeves and a collar; her garter belt was never seen again. No longer a nightclub singer pursued by lecherous men, Betty was now portrayed as a schoolteacher, secretary, housewife, or babysitter; about the only man in her life was an elderly, protective professor named Grampy.
Whether or not censorship was to blame, by the end of the ’30s the Betty Boop craze had run its course. Fleischer Studios ended the original series with ‘Yip Yip Yippy,’ released in August 1939.
One person definitely not a Betty Boop fan was the original ‘Boop-Oop-A-Doop’ girl herself, Helen Kane. She was furious that betty’s success seemed to come at the expense of her own singing career. In April 1934, Kane filed a $250,000 lawsuit against Max Fleischer, alleging that Betty was ‘a deliberate caricature of me,’ and had robbed her of both her popularity and her livelihood by imitating her method of singing. Fleischer’s strategy was to deny the obvious link between Kane and Betty.
But what decided the case in Fleischer’s favor was a film clip of a black singer named Baby Esther singing a song containing the phrase ‘boop-oop-a-doop.’ Fleischer introduced testimony that Kane had heard Baby Esther sing back in 1928. That was convincing enough so the judge threw the case out of court.