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Betty Boop

Entry updated 24 July 2023. Tagged: Character, Film.

US animated film shorts (1930-1939). Fleischer Studios. Created by Max Fleischer. Directed by Dave Fleischer. Animators include Willard Bowsky, Roland Crandall, Grim Natwick and Myron Waldman. Betty's voice actors include Margie Hines, Little Ann Little, Bonnie Poe and Mae Questel. In this period Betty Boop featured in 89 short films, including cameos; this excludes Yip Yip Yippy (1939), advertised as a Betty Boop film, in which she does not appear. Shorts of circa 6-7 minutes. Black and white, with a single exception in colour.

Though created by Max Fleisher, Betty's animators played a large part in her evolving design, in particular Grim Natwick. A scantily clad, sixteen-year-old jazz-age flapper, she first appeared in Dizzy Dishes (1930); early on her head was dog-like, but by 1932 had joined her body in being human, albeit remaining over-sized. Initially playing the romantic/sexual interest of Bimbo, an anthropomorphized dog who underwent several design changes himself, she quickly became the star of the shorts, with Bimbo relegated to a supporting role. Bimbo, like many male cartoon leads of the early 1930s, was a dull fellow (a curious shift from the more lively previous generation – see Felix the Cat and early Oswald the Lucky Rabbit), perhaps explaining why the Fleisher Brothers eventually revived an earlier character, Koko the Clown, from their Out of the Inkwell (1918-1929) series, to join him and Betty.

Betty's 1930s career was split in two by the Hays Code or Motion Picture Production Code, Hollywood's response to moral panic about the Cinema; though imposed in 1930 it only began to be strongly enforced from mid-1934. Prior to this latter date the Betty Boop shorts were full of innuendo ("I can't open the door now, I'm in my nightie." "All right, I'll wait until you take it off.") and Fan Service (see, for example, Barnacle Bill [1931]), with Betty often being strong-willed and feisty; subsequently she became chaste, demure and modestly dressed. Bimbo also disappeared; clearly respectable women do not date dogs. The shorts were often built round a musical number, sometimes by black performers, though not after 1934. The best cartoons date from the pre-Hays Code era; the animation, though variable early on (some animators clearly had difficulty getting Betty right), is often surreal and lively, using the rubber-hose style (that is, bodies and objects being very flexible).

In Bimbo's Initiation (1931) Bimbo is abducted by a cult who play tricks with his environment and perspective to disorientate and so persuade him to join them. He repeatedly says no, until the cult members are all revealed to be Bettys, whereupon he says yes. The Robot (1932), has Scientist Bimbo building a car that can transform into a Robot; he has also invented closed circuit television, allowing him to view his girlfriend's bathroom from the car. The plot involves Bimbo trying to win $5,000 at a carnival boxing match (which he does by using the robot). This seems to have been made a couple of years earlier and released belatedly – Bimbo looks as he did in Hot Dog (1929) and his girlfriend's resemblance to Betty fluctuates (Wikipedia plausibly suggests her close-ups were new inserts). In Minnie the Moocher (1932) Betty is sick of being lectured by her immigrant parents, so runs away from home with Bimbo. That night they shelter in a cave, whereupon a ghost walrus (a rotoscoped Cab Calloway) sings the title song as ghosts and skeletons join in (see Supernatural Creatures): Minnie flees back home, having learnt her lesson. Crazy Town (1932) has Betty and Bimbo arrive in Crazy Town and witness many surreal sight gags, including a bus that remains stationary as towns on wheels roll past (see Transportation); birds swimming in ponds as fish fly over; a man wearing a shoe on his head and hats on his feet, then shrinking to nothing as if walking away; a fish (this one in a pond) fishes for a human; a beauty parlour sells replaceable heads (see Absurdist SF). Chess-Nuts (1932), has a live action Chess game: Betty, Bimbo, Koko and others become animated pieces. In Betty Boop M.D. (1932), Betty and friends sell the cure-all Medicine "Jippo" from the back of a wagon: its effects include Rejuvenation, ageing, elasticity and turning a baby's head into Fredric March as Mr Hyde from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1932). Betty Boop's Ups and Downs (1932) initially reflects the Great Depression – Betty has to sell her house, then everybody's house goes on the market – but escalates to the whole Earth being on sale: the Moon auctions it off, with Saturn (see Outer Planets) bidding the highest. On a whim he pulls out the Earth's magnet, meaning people have to cope with zero Gravity until the magnet is restored. Betty Boop for President (1932) has Betty running against Mr Nobody for President (see Politics). She wins. One of her proposals is an electric chair that turns criminals gay instead of killing them. Betty Boop's Penthouse (1933) shows Bimbo in his Experimental Laboratory, where his chemical formulas cause various transformations, however, distracted by a swimsuit-clad Betty in her rooftop garden, he fails to notice an experiment creating a Monster until too late – it goes after Betty, but her garden spray transforms it into a balletic flower. Betty Boop in Snow White (1933) has Betty as Snow White: animated by Roland Crandall over six months, this is a pleasing succession of weird imagery, rightly considered a classic. Some cartoons feature Betty's inventions, which usually tend to be rather humdrum, though in Betty Boop's Crazy Inventions (1933) a sewing machine runs amok and sews up a river. Ha! Ha! Ha! (1934), like several others, is an animated/live action hybrid: on a live action background, Koko develops a toothache so Betty grabs a pen and draws a dentist's surgery; the laughing gas leaks, reaching the street, affecting live action cars and bridges, which are animated laughing hysterically (though the blending of live action and animation is more polished, this was essentially a reworking of the Out of the Inkwell short The Cure [1924]). In Red Hot Mamma (1934) Betty dreams a visit to hell – amorous demons literally get the cold shoulder, the devil an icy stare. Betty in Blunderland (1934) has Betty dreaming of being in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, where she is kidnapped by the Jabberwock.

Many of the shorts are entertaining, with imaginative animation; Betty herself is often portrayed strongly – as a racing driver; lion tamer; all-action, hard-drinking, cigar-smoking cowgirl; and, in Betty Boop for President (1932), what seems to be only the second female US President in any media production – the first was in the film The Last Man on Earth (1924), but there only because a disease wiped out all but one adult male, whilst Betty is elected by both genders. Her sexual harassment is a too common plot point; though sometimes she is self-confident, able to put the devil and his cohorts in their place, at other times she is a damsel in distress. As mentioned above, the Hays code meant the shorts after mid-1934 became largely bland and forgettable: some feature her relative, Grampy, an inventor of the Rube Goldberg or W Heath Robinson school, who first appears in Betty Boop and Grampy (1935).

In the 1970s the shorts were colourized in an attempt to make them suitable for television, but this was done so poorly that the results were never broadcast. Subsequently Betty appeared in two unexceptional 25-minute Television films, The Romance of Betty Boop (1985) and The Betty Boop Movie Mystery (1989), as well as a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). The only regular female lead in early animation (see Feminism), she remains one of the most recognizable of twentieth century cartoon characters. [SP]


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