Olive Films continues to roll out its Paramount-licensed holdings of classic Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons with Betty Boop: The Essential Collection, Volume 2, featuring 12 more razor-sharp one-reel shorts that, for the most, part, look just sensational. Further, this set strikes me as a bit more varied compared to Volume 1, as it covers noticeably varying animation techniques and styles. Some of the shorts are story- or character-driven while others are more surreal when not flat-out bizarre. Some are preoccupied with realistically recreating motion and changing perspectives while others still are chiefly interested in capturing a wide range of emotion from Betty's tomato-shaped face.
Hard-core animation buffs weren't entirely happy with the transfers on Volume 1. Some complained that the movies were optically stretched, as the Fleischers were among the last to use a 1.2 (not 1.33:1 or 1.37:1) aspect ratio during the early talkie era. In essence, circles were stretched into pudgy ovals. Others griped about an alleged unawareness or uncaring attitude toward the Betty Boop series, buffs and animation historians suggesting the series' project managers weren't fully aware of their holdings and of Betty's various appearances, and/or that they deliberately want to avoid cartoons already in the public domain. (This latter complaint is odd because Olive has released quite a few PD features of John Wayne Westerns which met with rave reviews, including by me.)
My feeling is that up to now Olive has done a near-perfect job with their Blu-ray discs of Paramount-owned titles. Nevertheless, they'd probably benefit from the free expert advice being offered them by these highly-respected animation historians who want the same thing they do: the best-possible release. But whether this is happening now or not is unknown to this reviewer.
Max and Dave Fleischer's trifecta of classic animation series, one that included the black-and-white and early color "Popeye" cartoons and the first screen appearance of "Superman," began with a uniquely hallucinatory series of one-reel cartoons eventually starring Betty Boop, the innocent but sexy jazz baby, a throwback to the risqué Roaring Twenties. Indeed, so sexy was "The Queen of the Animated Screen" that like Mae West and Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane in the early Tarzan films, Hollywood's Production Code eventually insisted Betty "put more clothes on," and forced her to assume a subtly degrading, housewifey demureness, no matter that she was single. Betty never lost her charm, however, and soldiered on through the end of the 1930s, often with Betty playing a supporting part in her own cartoons (she's not even in the very last "Betty Boop"), though her image can still be found on merchandise everywhere, all over the world.
But Betty's best, the two-dozen or so cartoons from 1932-34, and even many of those made later on, positively ooze the Fleischer house style, one more adult and surreal than his rivals, with imagery at times more Dali than Disney. As animation historian Leonard Maltin and others have pointed out, where Disney exploited the natural fears of children, the Fleischers' cartoons explore the darker psychology of adults. (This is not to say kids can't enjoy them, too. My nearly six-year-old couldn't get enough of "that little girl.")
Though hugely popular in their day, probably because the Betty Boop cartoons were made in black and white, their marketability has (nonsensically) been limited in recent decades. Further, like various Popeye cartoons and most (all?) of the Superman cartoons, many Betty Boop shorts have fallen into public domain, and home video versions of those shorts have been of variable quality.
Happily, the shorts here have been remastered in 4K using the original negatives and, in some cases, fine grains. All the shorts are missing their original Paramount logos. Presumably that's because their original negatives were cut in order to release the picture (but not the audio) with the logo of the U.M.&M.TV Corp., who syndicated the cartoons beginning in 1955.
What's important though is that these logos aside, the shorts themselves all look fantastic, especially considering their age, convoluted ownership and distribution history. As before, I'm a bit dismayed that the set contains just 12 cartoons (total running time: 83 minutes), and that Olive is organizing these sets out of chronological order and without extra features (as Warner Home Video did with its Fleischer Popeye DVDs). But if the trade-off is shorts looking this good, I'm all for it.
Included this time is Betty Boop's first screen appearance, in the 1930 short Dizzy Dishes, with Betty sporting floppy dog's ears and other vaguely canine features. The other shorts are Bimbo's Initiation (1931), Boop-Oop-A-Doop Boop, Betty Boop Limited, Betty Boop's Bizzy Bee, Betty Boop's Ups and Downs, Betty Boop's Museum (all 1932), Betty Boop's Big Boss, Morning, Noon, and Night (all 1933), Betty Boop's Little Pal, Betty Boop's Prize Show, and Keep in Style (all 1934).
Betty was, initially, modeled by artist Grim Natwick as a kind of combination French poodle (complete with floppy ears, long gone by 1932) and singer Helen Kane, whose "boop-boop-a-doop" voice and face were similar. (Thankfully, Kane did not share Betty's gargantuan, misshapen head.) Kane was not compensated and later sued the Fleischers and Paramount, but she lost the battle when it was discovered Kane herself had based her singing style on Baby Esther, an African-American performer at the famed Cotton Club.
At least five actress alternated in providing Betty's Helen Kane-like voice, most famously (and perhaps most frequently) Mae Questel, who was also the primary (but not only) voice of Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons. An elderly Questel voiced Betty for the character's cameo appearance, appropriately in black and white, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Betty's first movie appearance in nearly fifty years.
The appeal of these shorts lay in their profoundly surreal animation, with a particular interest in the hallucinatory, usually some combination of innocent and not-so-innocent sex, ghoulishness (skeletons jumping out of their skins is a familiar motif), and red-hot jazz (Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, and most famously a rotoscoped Cab Calloway "appear" in several shorts and/or are heard on the soundtrack). Unsurprisingly, the shorts became quite popular with those partaking in the reefer, man.
Part of Betty's charm was her innocent, even girlish yet explicit sexuality, a combination of sweet and saucy almost impossible to pull off in today's much more prudish, politically correct climate. She was no man-eater like Mae West, but Betty was equally seductive in her short dress (so short as to reveal an ever-present garter), pert breasts, and curvy hips. (Reader Sergei Hasenecz adds, "during the trial over the suit Helen Kane brought against the Fleischers and Paramount, the judge, while regarding Betty Boop, remarked, 'She has the most impudent breasts.'")
In some of the shorts villains, usually towering over her and many times her size, clearly want to ravage her generally, while in other shorts the bad guys explicitly commit what would be called sexual harassment today. But, helped by friends Bimbo the Dog and Koko the Clown, Betty always prevails. "Nope," as she declares in Boop-Oop-A-Doop, "He couldn't take my boop-boop-a-doop away." (Oddly, in Betty Boop's Big Boss, Betty turns the tables, explicitly using her sexuality to gets want she wants out of that boss.
Bimbo, known earlier as Fritz, and Koko were both veterans of the Fleischers' silent era "Out of the Inkwell" series, with Koko and Fritz debuting in 1919 and 1923, respectively. (This reviewer's list of Top Ten Animated Shorts would have to include Ko-Ko's Earth Control, a truly mind-blowing cartoon from 1927-28. It's available on YouTube.)
The variety of animation styles this time out is quite interesting. In Betty Boop Limited, for instance, a rotoscoped Koko is seen dancing, while shorts like Betty Boop's Ups and Downs seems to have been made solely to show eye-popping images of gravity undone and everything on earth floating toward outer space. The surreal Betty Boop's Museum experiments with wild angles and perspective shots while, contrastingly, Betty Boop's Little Pal is a touching tale of Betty losing a beloved puppy highlighted by fine character animation.
Video & Audio
As described in more detail above, Betty Boop - The Essential Collection, Volume 2 consists of 12 one-reel shorts on a single Blu-ray disc. The shorts, remastered in 4K from their original negatives and fine grains, retain the spliced on U.M.&M.TV Corp. logos but otherwise look spectacularly good. At least one more volume is promised, though that would fall well short of Betty's entire Fleischer filmography so, assuming sales meet expectations, further volumes might be in the offing. The DTS-HD Master Audio English mono soundtracks sound good considering their age and technical limitations. No subtitle options and no Extra Features.
A must-have for animation buffs and a set guaranteed to enchant children and adults alike heretofore unfamiliar with these phantasmagorical cartoons, Betty Boop: The Essential Collection, Volume 2 is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.f="http://stuartgalbraithiv.wordpress.com/">here.