Sunday, August 31, 2008

Betty Boop History

Betty Boop is an animated cartoon character appearing in the Talkartoon and Betty Boop series of films produced by Max Fleischer and released by Paramount Pictures. With her overt sexual appeal, Betty was a hit with theater-goers, and despite having been toned down in the mid-1930s, she remains popular today.


Betty Boop made her first appearance on August 9, 1930 in the cartoon Dizzy Dishes, the sixth installment in Fleischer's Talkartoon series. She was originally designed by Grim Natwick, a veteran animator of the silent era who would become lead director and animator for the Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney studios. The character was modeled after a combination of Helen Kane, the famous popular singer of the 1920s and contract player at Paramount Pictures (the studio that distributed Fleischer's cartoons), and Clara Bow, who was a popular actress in the 1920s who had not managed to survive the transition to sound because of her strong Brooklyn accent which nevertheless became a trademark for Betty. By direction of Dave Fleischer, Natwick designed the original character in the mode of an anthropomorphic French poodle. The character's voice was first performed by Margie Hines, and was later provided by several different voice actresses including Kate Wright, Ann Rothschild (a.k.a. Little Ann Little), Bonnie Poe, and most notably, Mae Questel who began in 1931 and continued with the role until 1938.

While the original design was rather ugly and awkward, she was developed further after Natwick's departure under Berny Wolf, Seymour Kneitel, Roland Crandall, and Willard Bowsky. Betty became finalized as completely human by 1932 in the cartoon Any Rags. Her floppy poodle ears became hoop earrings, and her black poodle nose became a girl's button-like nose. Betty appeared in ten cartoons as a supporting character, a flapper girl with more heart than brains. In individual cartoons she was called "Nancy Lee" and "Nan McGrew", usually served as a girlfriend to studio star Bimbo.

Although it has been assumed that Betty's first name was established in the 1931 Screen Songs cartoon Betty Co-ed, this "Betty" was an entirely different character. Though the song may have led to Betty's eventual christening, any references to Betty Co-ed as a Betty Boop vehicle are incorrect. (The official Betty Boop website describes the titular character as a "prototype" of Betty.) In all, there were at least 12 Screen Songs cartoons that featured either Betty Boop or a similar character.

Betty appeared in the first "Color Classic" cartoon 'Poor Cinderella', her only theatrical color appearance (1934). In a cameo appearance in the feature film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), in her traditional black and white, and voiced by Mae Questel, Betty mentioned that work had "gotten slow since cartoons went to color," but she still had "what it takes."

Betty Boop became the star of the Talkartoons by 1932, and was given her own series in that same year beginning with Stopping the Show. From this point on, she was crowned "The Queen of the Animated Screen." The series was hugely popular throughout the 1930s, lasting until 1939.

Betty as sex symbol

Betty Boop is known as the first and one of the most famous sex symbols on the animated screen; she was a symbol of the Depression era, a reminder of the more carefree days of Jazz Age flappers. Her popularity was drawn largely from adult audiences, and the cartoons, while seemingly surrealistic, contained many sexual/psychological elements, particularly in the "Talkartoon", Minnie the Moocher, featuring Cab Calloway and his orchestra. Minnie the Moocher is perhaps the one cartoon that defined Betty's character as a teenager of a modern era at odds with the old world ways of her parents.

Betty is at odds with her parents and opts to run away from home, only to get lost in a haunted cave with her boyfriend Bimbo. A ghostly walrus (rotoscoped from live-action footage of Calloway), sings Calloway's famous song "Minnie the Moocher", accompanied by several other ghosts and skeletons. This haunting performance sends the frightened Betty and Bimbo back to the safety of "home, sweet home". "Minnie the Moocher" was a huge success on two levels. It was a tremedous promotion for Calloway's subsequent stage appearances, and also established "Betty Boop" as a cartoon star. The eight Talkartoons that followed all starred Betty, leading her into her own series beginning in 1932. With the release of Stopping the Show in August of 1932, the Talkartoons were replaced by the Betty Boop series, which continued for the next seven years, with Betty being one of Paramount's top stars.

Betty Boop is important to animation history for being the first cartoon character to fully represent a sexual woman. Other female cartoon characters of the same period, such as Minnie Mouse, displayed their underwear or bloomers regularly, suggesting children or comical characters, not fully defined in a woman's form. Many other cartoon "girls" were merely clones of their male co-stars, with alterations in costume with the addition of eyelashes and a female voice. Betty Boop wore short dresses, high heels, and a garter belt. Her breasts were suggested with a low, contoured bodice that showed cleavage. In her cartoons, male characters tried to sneak peeks at her while she's changing, or simply walking along minding her own business. In Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle, she does the hula topless, wearing only a lei and a grass skirt, which she repeated in her cameo appearance in the first Popeye cartoon, Popeye the Sailor (1933). Her "Bamboo Isle" performance was also included in the short Betty Boop's Rise to Fame, featuring a staged quasi-interview with studio head, Max Fleischer.

There was however, a certain girlish quality to the character. She was drawn with a head bigger than normal for an adult, but normal for a baby. This suggested the combination of girlishness and maturity many people saw in the "flapper" type which Betty Boop was supposed to represent. While compromises on Betty's virtue were always a challenge, the animators kept her "pure" and girl-like, on screen, anyway. The studio's 1931 Xmas card featured Betty in bed with Santa Claus, winking at the viewer. Also in 1931, the Talkartoons Bimbo's Express and Dizzy Red Riding Hood were given distinctly "impure" endings. Officially, Betty was only 16 years old according to a 1932 interview with Fleischer.

Attempts to compromise her virginity were reflected in Chess-Nuts (1932) and most importantly, Boop-Oop-A-Doop (1932). In this cartoon, Betty is a highwire performer in a circus. The villainous Ringmaster lusts for Betty as he watches her from below, singing "Do Something," a song previously performed by Helen Kane. As Betty returns to her tent, the Ringmaster follows her inside and sensually massages her legs, surrounds her and threatens her job if she doesn't submit. This is perhaps one of the earliest portrayals of sexual harassment on the screen, and was very daring at a time when such subject matter was considered taboo. Betty begs the Ringmaster to cease his advances, as she sings "Don't take my Boo-Oop-A-Doop Away." Koko the Clown is outside of the tent, practicing his juggling and hears the struggle from inside the tent. He leaps in to save Betty's virtue, struggling with the Ringmaster who loads him into a cannon, firing it, thinking that he has sent the hero away, laughing with self-satisfaction. But Koko is hiding inside the cannon, and strikes the Ringmaster out cold with a mallet, returning with "the last laugh." Concerned about Betty's welfare, she answers in song, "No, he couldn't take my boop-oop-a-doop away!"

Betty Boop's Big Boss (1933), however, wrong-foots the audience. After the usual menacing advances, there is a vast mobilization of outraged citizens, the Army, the Navy etc. to rescue Betty. The rescuers break in and discover Betty and the Big Boss happily embracing - it seems she likes this one after all! The cartoon closes with astonished exclamations of disgust.

Helen Kane lawsuit

In April 1934, Helen Kane launched a major lawsuit against Max Fleischer and Paramount Productions for the "deliberate caricature" that produced "unfair competition" that exploited her personality and image. While Kane had risen to fame in the 1920s as "The Boop-Oop-A-Doop Girl" star of stage, recordings, and films for Paramount, her career was over by 1930. Interestingly, Paramount promoted the development of Betty Boop following Kane's decline. As Kane's claims seemed on the surface to be valid, it was proven that her appearance was not unique, as both she and the Betty Boop character bore a resemblance to Clara Bow, another major Paramount star. However, the largest evidence against Miss Kane's case was her claims to the origins of her singing style. While an outgrowth of jazz "scat singing," testimony revealed that Kane had witnessed an African American performer, Baby Esther, using a similar vocal style in an act at the Cotton Club nightclub in Harlem some years earlier. An early test sound film was discovered of Baby Esther performing in this style, disproving Kane's claims.

Betty tamed

Betty Boop's best appearances are considered to be in the first three years due to her "Jazz Baby" character and innocent sexuality, which was aimed at adults. However, the content of her films was affected by the National Legion of Decency and the Production Code of 1933. The Production Code guidelines imposed on the Motion Picture Industry placed specific restrictions on the content films with references to sexual innuendo. This greatly affected the content of the films of Mae West at Paramount, as well as the Betty Boop cartoons until the end of the series.

No longer a carefree flapper, from mid-1934 on, Betty became a husbandless housewife/career girl, wearing a fuller dress or skirt. For a few entries, she was given a boyfriend, "Freddie," who was introduced in She Wronged Him Right (1934) and appeared in five more cartoons. Next, Betty was teamed with her cute puppy, "Pudgy", beginning with Little Pal (1934). The following year saw the addition of the eccentric inventor Grampy, who debuted in Betty Boop and Grampy (1935).

While these cartoons were tame compared to her earlier appearances, their self-conscious wholesomeness was aimed at more of a juvenile audience, which contributed to the decline of the series. Much of this decline was also due to the lessening of Betty's role in the cartoons in favor of her co-stars. This was a similar problem experienced during the same period with Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse, who was becoming eclipsed by the popularity of his co-stars Donald Duck and Goofy, not to mention Fleischer's biggest success, Popeye.

Being largely a musical novelty character, the animators attempted to keep Betty's cartoons interesting by pairing her with popular comic strip characters such as Henry," The Little King, and Little Jimmy hoping to create additional spinoff series as with her pairing with Popeye in 1933. However, none of these films generated new series. While the period that Betty represented had been replaced by the big bands of the Swing Era, Fleischer Studios made an attempt to develop a replacement character in this style in the 1938 Betty Boop cartoon Betty Boop and Sally Swing, which was not a success.

The last "Betty Boop" cartoons were released in 1939, and a few made attempts to bring Betty into the Swing Era. In her last appearance, "Rhythm on the Reservation" (1939), she drives an open convertible labeled, "Betty Boop's Swing Band", while driving through a Native American reservation, where she introduces the people to swing music and creates a "Swinging Sioux Band." The Betty Boop cartoon series officially ended with one more 1939 entry, Yip Yip Yippy, which was actually a Boop-less one shot cartoon.

Betty Boop on television and in other media

In 1955, Betty's 110 cartoon appearances were sold to television syndicator U.M. & M TV Corporation in 1955, which was acquired by National Telefilm Associates (NTA) the following year. NTA was reorganized in the 1980s as Republic Pictures, which is presently a subsidiary of Viacom, the parent company owning Paramount. Ironically, Paramount, Boop's original home studio (via sister company Republic), now acts as theatrical distributor for the Boop cartoons they themselves originally released. Television rights are now handled by CBS Television Distribution, successor to various related companies, including Worldvision Enterprises, Republic, and NTA. The only exception to this is Popeye the Sailor, which was sold to Associated Artists Productions with the rest of the Popeye cartoons. a.a.p. would eventually merge with United Artists Television, which itself became MGM/UA Television in 1981 as part of the merger between Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and United Artists. MGM/UA's considerable library was bought by Turner Entertainment in 1986. Turner would merge with Time Warner 10 years later, and today, Turner/Warner Bros. holds the rights to Popeye the Sailor and all the rest of the a.a.p. and pre-1986 MGM library.

Betty Boop appeared in two television specials, The Romance of Betty Boop (1984) and The Betty Boop Movie Mystery (1989), as well as cameo appearances in television commercials and the 1988 feature film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. While television revivals were conceived, nothing materialized from these plans.

While the animated cartoons of "Betty Boop" have enjoyed a remarkable rediscovery over the last 30 years, official home video releases have been limited to the VHS collector's set of the 1990s. In spite of continue interest, no official DVD releases have occurred to date (Lionsgate Home Entertainment, under license from Republic, owns the video rights to the Boop cartoons). Ironically, the image of Betty Boop has gained more recognition through the massive merchandising license launched by the heirs of Max Fleishcer, with audiences today unaware of Betty's place in cinema and animation history.

A Betty Boop comic strip by Max Fleischer was syndicated through King Features from 1934 through 1937. From 1984 through 1987, a revival strip, Betty Boop and Friends was produced by Brian Walker, Ned Walker, Greg Walker, and Morgan Walker.

Source : Wikipedia


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