I have a deep affinity for Betty Boop. My mom would sing me silly Betty Boop songs when I was little, and we would watch the cartoons on the rare occasion they were shown on the local TV channel. Betty was a weird girl with a funny voice who had unruly hair and talked to animals – she was me in cartoon form. So I liked her.
Betty was the 1930 creation of Max Fleischer, with considerable input and animation assistance from Myron “Grim” Natwick and Bernard “Berny” Wolf (among others). Brought to life at Paramount, she was originally sidekick to Bimbo, an anthropomorphic dog. Betty herself started life as a sort of poodle-person hybrid, and played ditzy second banana to her male counterpart. Eventually her popularity surpassed Bimbo’s, she became fully human, and she got top billing.
Betty was a caricature of a Jazz-era Flapper – cute but not so bright, a little naughty, ready for fun, and dressed to attract attention. That is, she was until the 1934 Hays Code required her to cover up her cleavage and be more lady-like. Her later cartoons have her in garb more suited to housewife than hellion. She remained popular until the end of the 1930s, but was eventually retired to make way for other stars.
She’s made cameos on occasion, the most recognizable being Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as a waitress at the Ink & Paint Club (where Jessica Rabbit performs). Mae Questel even came back after a nearly 50 year hiatus to voice her.
These days, Betty is enjoying a resurgence of popularity. There’s a Betty Boop Diner in Tokyo. Zac Posen has designed two Betty Boop dresses (and they’re pretty darn cute). You can find all manner of goods, from clothing to collectibles, emblazoned with her image. There’s even an official website, held by King Features/Fleischer Studios, Inc.
I like all the Betty cartoons I’ve ever watched, but here are a few of my favorites. You can view these and plenty more for FREE over on the Internet Archive.
One of the earliest (and naughtiest, and politically incorrect-est) cartoons is the 1932 Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle. It opens with a brief live-action shot of the Royal Samoans performing, complete with a hula dancer. (Later, Betty does a very similar dance, wearing only a grass skirt and strategically placed lei.) Betty, as a dusky, exotic islander, is picked up by Bimbo in his boat, and they are cast onto the titular Island. The big-lipped, long-nosed, scantily clad “islanders” are seemingly on the war path, so Bimbo covers his face in dirt to darken up. He is somehow elected king, and various entertainments are set before him. Until it starts raining and he is revealed as a haole – then he and Betty are chased away.
The hula sequence exists in several places, but the full 8 minute cartoon was sold to distribution company U. M. & M. TV Corporation in the 1950s, and bears that title card. The print is a little dim at times, but it’s an interesting glimpse into what was considered appropriate cultural reference.
In 1934, Fleischer put out Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame, a collection of clips from earlier cartoons interspersed with live action. It’s framed as an interview by a local paper, with the journalist interviewing Max and Betty in the studio. There’s pieces of her interactions with Fanny Brice and Maurice Chevalier from Stopping the Show, the hula sequence from Bamboo Isle, and a piece of Old Man of the Mountain, which features Cab Calloway as the Old Man.
Also from 1934, in a rare color appearance, we have Betty in Poor Cinderella. There’s still a bit of pre-code naughty here; when her fairy godmother preps her for the ball, she uses her wand to divest Betty of her rags, so we see her bloomers and bra before the gown comes into place. We also see plenty of Betty’s legs while she dances with the prince, and at one point the prince’s sword lifts the skirt of one of the ugly stepsisters. Time has not been kind to the early color process; most of what is left is blue or red. The image is clear, the sound is decent, and at about 10 minutes and change, it’s a fun thing to watch. Take note of the depth created by layered backgrounds – a trick Disney used extensively in their pictures from the same era.
By 1936, Betty’s popularity was beginning to wane, so she had a series of popular co-stars. In Betty Boop and Little Jimmy, she and Jimmy (a well-known newspaper comic strip character) are exercising. She is using one of those “shake you thin” electrified belt stands (an infomercial product if I ever saw one), when the controls break and she sends Jimmy out to find an electrician. Easily distracted, by the time he returns, she has been slimmed down to a rail and they both laugh uproariously. The furniture and exercise gear also laugh, and it’s pretty disturbing. Bizarre as it is, the print is in good shape (it’s another U. M. & M. copy), and the song “Keep Your Girlish Figure” is one of my favorites to this day.
By the time we get to Musical Mountaineers in 1939, Betty has been transformed into more of a demure career-girl (even if that career is dancing). Her car having run out of gasoline, Betty asks for help from some caricature hillbilly folk, who greet her with shotguns and a bad attitude. That is, until they learn she can sing and dance; then there’s a regular ho-down! They fill her tank with “Corn Drip’ns” and she drives off. Think of it, biodiesel in 1939! This print is in very good condition, with clear sound and good picture quality.
If you want more Betty, check out the collection of toons available for FREE at the Internet Archive.