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Betty Boop

Betty Boop

Betty Boop, the first major female animated screen star, epitomized the irresistible flapper in a series of more than one hundred highly successful cartoons in the 1930s. From her debut as a minor character in the 1930 Talkartoons short feature "Dizzy Dishes," she quickly became the most popular character created for the Fleischer Studio, a serious animation rival to Walt Disney. Unlike Disney's Silly Symphonies, which emphasized fine, life-like drawings and innocent themes, the Fleischer films featuring Betty Boop were characterized by their loose, metamorphic style and more adult situations designed to appeal to the grown members of the movie-going audience. According to animation historian Charles Solomon, Betty Boop "was the archetypal flapper, the speakeasy Girl Scout with a heart of gold—already something of an anachronism in 1930." Although her appearance rooted her to the Jazz Age, Betty Boop's popularity remained high throughout the decade of the Great Depression, as she was animation's first fully developed and liberated female character.

For a character that would come to personify overt female sexuality, the original version of Betty Boop created by animator Grim Natwick was a somewhat grotesque amalgamation of human and dog features. In her first screen appearance she was cast as a nightclub singer attempting to win the affection of then-Fleischer star, Bimbo, an anthropomorphized dog. Subsequent appearances reveal her gradual evolution into a fully human form. Her "French doll" figure was modeled after Mae West's, and she featured a distinctive spit curl hairdo and a singing style inspired by popular chanteuse Helen Kane ("the Boop Boop a-Doop Girl"). Miss Kane, however, was outraged by the animated character and claimed in a 1934 lawsuit that the Fleischers had limited her earning potential by stealing her distinctive singing style. Although Betty Boop certainly is a caricature of Kane, the singer lost in her claim against the Fleischers after it was proven that a black entertainer named Baby Esther had first popularized the phrase "boop-oop-a-doop" years earlier. Actress Mae Questel provided Betty's high-pitched New York twang for all of the character's screen appearances, beginning in 1931.

Betty's growing popularity prompted the Fleischers to promote their new female sensation to main character status and relegate the formerly top-billed Bimbo to the supporting role of Betty's constant admirer. Betty's femininity was repeatedly highlighted throughout her cartoon adventures, as her legs, busty frame, and frilly undies were displayed for the audience. Her personality was that of an innocent vamp who was not above lifting her skirt, standing in provocative poses, and batting her long eyelashes to achieve her goals. The series was also filled with humorous double entendres for adults that would generally pass over the heads of Betty's younger fans. For all the sexual antics, however, Betty often displayed proto-feminist qualities. She was generally portrayed as a career girl, who had to fight off the advances of lecherous male characters. The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace is most strongly presented in 1932's "Boop-Oop-A-Doop," where she confronts a lewd ringmaster who demands her affection so that she may return to her job at a circus. By the cartoon's end she firmly proclaims, "He couldn't take my boop-oop-a-doop away!" The Fleischers even had Betty enter the male-dominated world of politics in Betty Boop for President (1932).

One of the most popular features of the Betty Boop cartoon series were her encounters with many of the most popular entertainment figures of the 1930s. At various times Cab Calloway, Lillian Roth, Ethel Merman, and Rudy Vallee all found themselves singing and dancing with the cartoon star. These appearances were designed to promote the recordings of the stars on the Paramount label, which also distributed the Betty Boop series. To further capitalize on the animated star's success, Betty Boop soon appeared on hundreds of products and toys. In 1935 King Features syndicated Betty Boop as a Sunday comic strip, which toned down the character's sexuality.

Betty Boop remained a popular character until the mid-1930s, when she fell victim to Will Hays and the Hollywood Production Code. The censor demanded Betty no longer be presented in her trademark short skirts and low tops. There were even claims that her "romantic relationship" with the dog Bimbo was immoral. The Fleischers responded by placing Betty in a more domestic setting and surrounding her with a more wholesome cast, including an eccentric inventor named Grampy and a little puppy called Pudgy. In several of these later cartoons Pudgy, not Betty, is the primary character. Ironically, a dog character reduced Betty's role in the same manner she had replaced Bimbo years earlier. The final Betty Boop cartoon, Yip, Yip, Yippy!, appeared in 1939. However, Betty's racy flapper persona had vanished sometime earlier and had been replaced by a long-skirted homemaker.

Betty Boop sat dormant until the mid-1970s when her cartoons began playing on television and in revival houses. Her increased visibility led to a resurgence of Betty merchandise in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1988, Betty made a brief appearance in the feature film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, where she complained of her lack of acting jobs since cartoons went to color. Today, Betty Boop, remains a potent symbol of the Jazz Age and is considered a pioneer achievement in the development of female animated characters.

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

Callan, Kathleen. Betty Boop: Queen of Cartoons. New York, A&ETelevision Networks, 1995.

Solomon, Charles. The History of Animation. New York, Knopf, 1989.

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