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The risqué darling of the Depression years, Betty Boop was sensationally popular, almost as popular as Dave and Max Fleischer's Popeye. Like most producers of the 20s and 30s trying to get a toe hold on the barely lucrative animated short subject business, Fleischer and his staff invented or licensed dozens of characters -- but none had the 'special' appeal of "sweet Betty."
A parody of a late '20s flapper, Betty Boop is a pneumatic cutie in an abbreviated costume that accentuates little round breasts (yes! in a cartoon character) and a racy garter on one thigh. At least in the Pre-code era, Betty flaunts her body, winks at men and plays the innocent as she sends out all the desired signals, including the unequivocal "yoo hoo!" call. She squeals with satisfaction at every sign of affection, or even if a gust of wind throws her skirt up. Heck, she'll show her underwear any time at all, followed by a mock gesture of embarrassment. Asked what she, does in one cartoon she answers, "I Boop-boop-a-doop!" In other words, Betty Boop is the animated answer to Mae West, except that being a cartoon character apparently helped her slip more easily under the censorship radar. All those hundreds of local state and municipal censorship agencies were having too much trouble keeping real near-nudity out of live action studio films.
Although other actresses served as well, actress Mae Questel is tagged as Betty's principal voice artist. If the name sounds unfamiliar, Questel has a featured part 35 years later in Barbra Streisand's Funny Girl, and brings the accent with her. Her Betty sounds adorable, almost infantile. Betty has been described as having a baby's head atop a mature female body. Like many animated characters, she underwent an evolution, in this case one that Dr. Moreau might approve of -- Betty started out as a humanoid French Poodle, with doggy ears no less. By 1930 or so she decided to be just plain human. As for the general inspiration, Ms. Boop is awfully close to the stage and screen persona used by comedienne Helen Kane, whose signature was the Boop-boop-a-doop! phrase.
Olive's Betty Boop: The Essential Collection Volume 1 begins in 1932, a couple of years after Betty became a 'solo' star. Two years of talkie cartoons are not accounted for in this collection; many of them may be in the Public Domain. The cartoon dog Bimbo is Betty's constant companion in the early cartoons, many of which mixed and matched our girl with other Fleischer characters. All of the cartoons have lively jazz soundtracks, some of them featuring tunes and vocals by Cab Calloway.
What are the cartoons like? They're insane. Most setups use the Fleischer "Toontown" style perfectly recaptured in 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, in which main characters, background extras, inanimate objects and even background features "bop" with the beat of the music -- usually a jazz band flat four rhythm. Some of the cartoons have a central situation but no linear story, just a framework on which to hang a series of gags. Surreal and Bizarre are good descriptors for the goings-on; Warners' "Wackyland" cartoons are tame by comparison. Inanimate objects come to life or imitate animals for no reason at all, as when a boat anchor momentarily becomes a "dog" to dry itself off. Anything can transform into anything. Betty, Bimbo and Koko the Clown become chess pieces in one cartoon. Anything that can morph into a form that can tickle, molest or simply ogle Betty will do so -- pulling up her skirt is the usual thing to do. After seeing a couple of these cartoons, with their marvelous jazzy soundtracks and completely demented content, one can see why they were a cult item with dopeheads of the '60s and '70s. Tweak this surreal Fleischer world a bit, and you've got the obscene land of Robert Crumb in Zap comix.
Political correctness missed this bus, sorry. The animation design invites the viewer to check Betty out. When Betty dances, it looks as if she were carefully roto-scoped from live-action rehearsal footage -- all of her anatomical (cough) details move in a familiar way. With this series, Fleischer at least found one way to keep the animators' mind on their work. There are also gay jokes - he-men transformed into pansies, etc. -- and the expected black jokes, with ink and soot changing characters into minstrel show caricatures.
Poor Betty was seriously clobbered by the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934. As one might expect, when she stopped being a sexual come-on character, she no longer had a reason for being. Gone were Betty's naughty ways, her abbreviated costume, etc.. She was given a steady boyfriend, which put her under 'sensible' masculine control. In later cartoons a dog named Pudgy provides non-sexual cute gags. The twelve-cartoon collection skips from 1934 to 1937 for one final entry that shows how the bluenoses robbed Betty Boop of her sexuality.
All the cartoons were bought by the UM&M TV Corporation, whose logos wipe out the original Paramount logos. Paramount's mountain still appears in the title art, and we can still hear the "Paramount Fanfare" familiar from newsreels on a cartoon or two. In the earliest titles Betty appears in a character intro strutting with her hands on her hips, interjecting her cutsie voice into a brief jingle: Ain't she cute! (Boop-boop-a-doop!) Swee-eet Betty!
Here's a rundown on the contents, with a note or two:
According to the box copy this is the first of four Boop Collections coming from Olive, so there will plenty more ribald fun on the way. Volume 2 is due in just a month. These are a sure hit and a real eye opener.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Betty Boop: The Essential Collection Volume 1 gives us great B&W HD transfers of the cartoons, in excellent condition. A few have speckles here and there, but the fact that they haven't been digitally cleaned up is a good thing, as the images are so sharp that we can spot minor animation errors and glitches. And the UM&M Logos aren't much of a bother, either.
This should be a solid hit for animation fans -- and we hope somebody rescues the Public Domain titles as well. I remember UCLA showing some titles from 1930 or so that were even more demented than these. Hopefully the elements for them haven't been destroyed.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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