Olive Films' best collection of Paramount-licensed Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons to date is Betty Boop: The Essential Collection, Volume 3, an outstanding jumble of 12 more razor-sharp one-reel shorts. For the most, part, they look just sensational. Spanning Betty's best pre-Code musical shorts to a mix of late-period (but often no less bizarre) cartoons, this set more than Volumes 1 and 2 serves as a great introduction to Betty at her perky, sexy best, even as they leave families looking for conventional cartoons nonplussed.
Though most of the shorts feature early TV syndication titles replacing Paramount's originals, the picture quality remains very high and, overall, are a real feast for the eyes.
Last time as you'll recall, 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. (Here in Japan, I recently asked a young woman carrying a Betty Boop handbag if she was a fan of the cartoons. She had no idea Betty Boop cartoons even existed.)
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 far more surreal than their 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 Betty, though in this set she was scared off by The Old Man of the Mountain, refusing outright to watch it.)
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 apparently 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. Most are missing their original Paramount logos and credits, and where those exist the majority are doctored. 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: 81 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 are: Minnie the Moocher, I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You (both 1932), Mother Goose Land, The Old Man of the Mountain, I Heard (all 1933), Ha! Ha! Ha! (1934), Stop That Noise (1935), Service with a Smile, The New Deal Show (both 1937), Be Up to Date, Out of the Inkwell, and Pudgy in Thrills and Chills (all 1938).
What's nice about this set in particular is that it gathers some of Betty's best cartoons without much regard for broad family appeal or, refreshingly, the kind of overemphatic political correctness that has seriously damaged some Disney and Warner Bros. releases.
Four of the first five are as much jazz shorts as Betty Boop cartoons, one debatably with racial stereotyping. Slightly more conventional cartoons like Mother Goose Land, The New Deal Show, and Pudgy in Thrills and Chills are balanced with oddball one-reelers like Be Up to Date, with Betty's department store-on-wheels servicing the needs of a backwoods hillbilly community, one so painfully stereotypical, far more so than, say, Ma & Pa Kettle, I actually felt a bit sorry for these kuntry folk.
Another later short, Out of the Inkwell, mixes live action and cell animation as Betty interacts with an outrageously lazy African-American janitor (Oscar Polk, his voice apparently dubbed by somebody else) working at, presumably, the Fleischers' Studio. By comparison, Polk's janitor makes Willie Best's Sleep ‘n' Eat character look like Denzel Washington. This does not, however, take away from the quality or cleverness of the animation.
The best and wildest shorts are the proto-music video jazz shorts, musical (and hallucinatory) visualizations of jazz standards years before Disney attempted something similar with classical music via Fantasia (1940). Cab Calloway (in two cartoons), Louis Armstrong, and Don Redman each appear in live-action intros with their respective bands for a minute or two before each short segues into animation. In the Cab Calloway cartoons, Cab takes the form of a kind of ghostly walrus in one and "The Old Man of the Mountain" in the other, each character's dancing achieved through rotoscoping. (Basically, Calloway was filmed then his movements traced and adapted into cartoon form, frame-by-frame. Reader Sergei Hasenecz reports, "Calloway was so delighted on seeing the completed The Old Man of the Mountain cartoon that he fell to the floor laughing, lying on his back and kicking his legs up in the air.") Armstrong taunts Betty as a moon-faced cannibal.
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 actresses 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.
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.'")
Video & Audio
As described in more detail above, Betty Boop - The Essential Collection, Volume 3 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. 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 3 is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.