In 1918, Max Fleischer, the innovative mind behind early Walt Disney Studios rival Fleischer Studios, began producing a series of silent cartoon shorts called Out of the Inkwell. Much like earlier efforts by animation pioneers such as Winsor McCay, many entries in this series combined live-action with animation, showing Fleischer drawing the figures that would then come to “life” on the screen (as demonstrated in the 1921 short “Modeling“).
The Inkwell shorts featured two notable recurring characters: Koko the Clown, who was first animated in 1915 as Fleischer developed his revolutionary rotoscope (a device which allowed animators to trace over live-action scenes in order to recreate them in a relatively lifelike manner), and Fitz the dog, introduced as Koko’s sidekick in 1923. When Koko’s popularity waned by the end of the 1920s, the character was temporarily retired, and Fitz was re-envisioned as a leading man (so to speak) and renamed “Bimbo.” Bimbo became the first recurring character for the new sound-synchronized Talkartoons series, which replaced the silent Inkwell shorts in 1929.
After two successful solo cartoons, Bimbo was given a girlfriend in 1930’s Dizzy Dishes. But little did anyone realize that this new character, an anthropomorphic, stocking-wearing chanteuse/poodle who came to be known as Betty Boop, would become a groundbreaking cartoon character in her own right within months.
Thought not officially christened “Betty Boop” until the 1932 short Stopping the Show, the character, a quintessential flapper type, was popular almost from the start. She retained her canine features–low-hanging, floppy ears, a dog-like button nose, and a jaw structure that suggested a muzzle–until 1932, when she was redesigned to be more overtly human. This ultimately signaled the death knell for Bimbo; though Betty maintained a romantic relationship with Bimbo for a short while, he was ditched in 1933, as it was considered unseemly for a human girl to be in love with a dog (a year later, Betty was given a pet puppy named Pudgy, ostensibly to replace Bimbo as her sidekick).
The Betty Boop cartoons–at least, the ones produced before the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934–are not intended for children. There is a darkness to many of the earlier Boop shorts, which reference controversial themes such as rape (1932’s Chess-Nuts), sexual harassment (1933’s Betty Boop’s Big Boss), and even ephebophilia (after all, Betty’s supposedly only sixteen years old!). Tied into these darker themes is an inescapable, pervasive sexuality, marked by innuendo and risqué imagery. This is not to say that these early shorts are not enjoyable; quite the opposite, in fact, and they seem incredibly tame by today’s standards (as one might expect). But the scenarios in which Betty finds herself can be quite disturbing, and the innuendo is sometimes overly heavy-handed.
Whatever problems arise in Betty’s animated life, the girl just can’t help it: to co-opt Jessica Rabbit’s famous catchphrase, she’s not bad–she’s just drawn that way. As Grim Natwick, the animator who crafted the original design of Betty Boop under the auspices of Fleischer, once said, “Although she was never vulgar or obscene, Betty was a suggestion you could spell in three letters: s-e-x.” Indeed, every aspect of the character is designed to entice, from her Kewpie-doll features (inspired by actresses Helen Kane and Clara Bow) to her short, low-cut dresses and garters. And yet there is an innocence to Betty that is encapsulated in her breathy, squeaky, baby-talk voice, brought to life most memorably by voice-over artist Mae Questel (who also provided the voice for Fleischer’s other popular leading lady, Popeye’s paramour Olive Oyl). This makes for a character who is a potent combination of girl and woman, protecting her chastity from wolves and scoundrels while punctuating every song with an alluring wink and a shake of the hips.
And now, four pre-Code Boop classics with which every self-professed fan of classic animation should be familiar …
Like Chess-Nuts, this short employs rape as a central conceit. Betty is the star of the circus, trying to avoid the advances of the smarmy ringmaster who’s determined to take her “boop-oop-a-doop away.” Can Koko’s interference save her from this awful fate? (Spoiler alert: it can, and he does.)
Minnie the Moocher (1932)
This one is notable for the vocal and musical contributions of the great Cab Calloway; in fact, the short opens with a great live-action shot of Calloway sliding sinuously across the screen in front of his orchestra as the music swells. There’s not much to the story–Betty doesn’t want to eat her dinner, so she runs away from her “mean” parents (with Bimbo by her side) and soon encounters Calloway’s jazzy ghost and his frightening friends–but it’s nonetheless a visual and musical treat.
Snow White (1933)
Betty’s outing as the Fairest of Them All predates Disney’s take on the story by almost four years. Again featuring the vocal stylings of Calloway, this skewed fairy tale is delightful from start to finish. Notably, the entire cartoon was crafted from start to finish by a single animator, Fleischer stalwart Roland Crandall, over the course of six months. Snow White is considered one of the greatest animated shorts ever produced, coming in at #19 on the 1994 list of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of All Time (and the aforementioned Minnie the Moocher is right behind it, at number 20 … as is another 1931 Bimbo-Betty short, Bimbo’s Initiation, at number 37).
Betty in Blunderland (1934)
This was one of the last Betty Boop cartoons to be produced and released before the strict enforcement of the Production Code would take effect in July 1934. As a lifelong, inveterate Alice in Wonderland fan, I’d be remiss not to mention this funny little take on Lewis Carroll’s twisted tale.
For the most part, the shorts produced after 1934 lack bite and verve. The humor is watered down, Betty is covered up, and the naughty appeal of the previous cartoons is lost in a haze of family-friendly blandness. When the series concluded production in 1939, Betty was largely forgotten for a time until the shorts began airing on television in the 1950s. But she has found new life over the years through widespread (some would say “over-saturated”) merchandising, and she even made a brief cameo in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Most of the pre-Code Betty Boop shorts have not found their way to DVD yet, but some of her later, tamer appearances–the ones that have lapsed into the public domain–have been released as part of a number of mass-market, old-school cartoon compilations (though the quality of the transfers is typically lacking). Hopefully, the day will come soon when Betty Boop’s quirky and hilarious filmography will get the DVD/Blu-ray treatment it deserves, so new generations can continue to enjoy her antics!
This post is our contribution to the Short Animation blogathon currently being hosted by Pussy Goes Grrr. Make sure to check out all of the animated (get it?) entries that have been posted throughout the week!