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.
Pictured right: San Francisco Music Box Company Betty Boop™ Piano Trinket Box- plays “I Wanna Be Loved By You”
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, yet 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.
Pictured left: Wade Betty Boop Party Time
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). Betty made a cameo appearance in the feature film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), in her traditional black and white, saying work had “gotten slow since cartoons went to color,” but she still had “what it takes.”
Pictured right: Wade 6″ Betty Boop Christmas Present – launched in 2006
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. But her best appearances are considered to be in the first three years due to her “Jazz Baby” character with 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.
Betty Boop was the subject of additional publicity in 1934 when Helen Kane launched a major lawsuit against Max Fleischer and Paramount Studios for the “deliberate caricature” that produced “unfair competition” that exploited her personality and image. While Miss 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 Miss Kane’s decline. As Miss Kane’s claims seemed on the surface to be valid, it was proven that her appearance was not unique in that she and the Betty Boop character bore a resemblance to Clara Bow, another major star of Paramount. But 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 Miss Kane had witnessed a black performer, “Baby Esther” using a similar characterization in an act at the famous Cotton Club nightclub in Harlem some years earlier. An early test sound film was discovered of Baby Esther performing in this style, disproving Miss Kane’s claims.
While “Betty Boop” continued in production for the next five years, her best films had already been released, since her personality was greatly neutralized from that point on. Due to a combination of policies affected by the Production Code and also changes in the content of Paramount’s films also affected Betty’s later appearances. While her later cartoons were more slick and consistently produced, they relied heavily on self-consciously cute and moralistic preaching, making Betty more of a “good citizen” maiden aunt spinster separated from any references to sexuality, and innocent girlishness. Oddly, Betty became a secondary character in her own cartoons, which began to center on the adventures of her pet dog, Pudgy, and the eccentric inventor, Grampy, who bore an interesting resemblance to Koko the Clown.
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 “Betty Boop” cartoon, “Sally Swing” (1938). While a concept with potential, the character was not well conceived and failed to project an energetic personality of the type later developed by Tex Avery at MGM, or the type emerging from Betty Hutton, a major Paramount star and symbol of the “Swing” and “Jitterbug” craze.
Pictured left: San Francisco Music Box Company Betty Boop™ Piano Water Globe – plays “I Wanna Be Loved By You”
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&qu ot; (1939), she drives an open convertible labeled, “Betty Boop’s Swing Band” while driving through a settlement of Native Americans. While in some ways considered “politically incorrect” by today’s standards and sentiments over racial stereotypes, Betty introduces the natives to “Swing Music” and creates a “Swinging Sioux Band.” The last listed title in the series was “Yip-Yip-Yippie,” but it was a one shot cartoon without Betty.
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.
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 while television revivals were conceived, nothing materialized to the degree originally planned.
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.
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