Max Fleischer Universe: Betty Boop
I fell in love with Betty Boop upon first seeing her cartoons at Yale, when I was a director of the Yale Film Society from 1971-74.
I started a splinter horror film society at Yale in late ’71 entitled “Things That Go Bump in the Night,” with my partner Bill Moseley, who went on to horror film renown (in films such as Rob Zombie’s 2005 The Devil’s Rejects and Tobe Hooper’s 1986 Texas Chainsaw Massacre II)… Bill and I regularly screened many of the pre-Code Betty Boop early 30’s classics at our weekly midnight screenings along with other Fleischer Studios gems such as the 1930 surrealist masterpiece “Swing You Sinners.”
Swing You Sinners (Max Fleischer Studios 1930)
For some reason, Betty Boop was kept off the early 60’s cartoon TV shows I grew up on in my hometown of Syracuse NY; the broadcast stations instead leaned heavily on the wonderful cartoons featuring her older brother Popeye (and why do you think that was? probably due to a combination of copyright issues and broadcaster fear that exposing pre-teen adolescents to such a saucy little gamine might result in unhealthy libidinal stirrings…or something like that). Anyway, I adored Betty Boop’s character and the wonderful music that surrounded her (which also features heavily in the early Popeye cartoons).
There was something of the urban grit and hustle of the Times Square atmosphere (naturally, for Fleischer Studios was located at 1600 Broadway) in the vaudeville and Broadway music hall turns heard to great effect in these early cartoons; also the lowdown ragtime jungle jazz courtesy of such Cotton Club greats as Cab Calloway, who cuts such a dashing figure in the 1932 Betty Boop classic “Minnie the Moocher,” and also in 1933’s Betty Boop “Snow-White” (perhaps the finest Boop of them all). And, Louis Armstrong, whose first ever appearance on film is in the classic 1932 Fleischer cartoon gem “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You.”
Snow White (1933), with Cab Calloway (as Koko who turns into a ghost) singing “St. James Infirmary Blues”
Betty first appeared in some of the earliest Fleischer soundies (courtesy of chief animator Grim Natwick who went on to work for Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney) as a kind of half-dog half-woman with long floppy ears, literally bursting out of her seams – I mean bursting onto the scene – as a waitress in the Fleischer’s 1930 talkartoon “Dizzy Dishes” and later that year as the scared witless protagonist in the haunting “Mysterious Mose”.
Dizzy Dishes (1930)
Mysterious Mose (1930)
It wasn’t until 1932’s “Any Rags” thats she finally made the transition to fully human, with her floppy ears morphing into hoop earrings.
Betty’s voice and basic persona was modeled on vaudeville star singer Helen Kane, who basically claimed a patent on her signature phrase “Boop Oop a Doop”– until her $250,000 lawsuit against Max Fleischer was thrown out in 1932 on the grounds that Kane had copped the act of one Baby Ester Jones, who died in 1928, but left behind a recording which included that immortal Boop Oop a Doop phrase. Betty’s voice was originally essayed by Margie Hines…later on, Katie Wright and Bonnie Poe…and of course, eventually, by the wonderful Mae Questel, who personifies the definitive version of Betty Boop to me. Mae was the daughter of Orthodox Jews, who early on forbade her to appear in show business. Lucky for us, Mae threw caution to the wind and entered a talent contest doing impressions (chief among them, “Boop-Oop-a Doop” gal Helen Kane) — and that particular impression caught the attention of Max Fleischer, who began starring her in his Betty Boop series, and eventually featuring her as Olive Oyl when the “Sailor with the Sock” was licensed from cartoonist EC Segar who brought along his friends Olive, Bluto, and Wimpy…
But that’s another story!
– Gary Lucas for Classic Movie Hub
Dubbed “one of the best and most original guitarists in America” (Rolling Stone), Gary Lucas is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and composer, and an international recording artist with over 25 solo albums to date. As a fan of classic cinema, Gary tours extensively, playing live accompaniments to legendary horror films including Dracula, Frankenstein, and Vampyr among others. He has also recently released two classic-related albums: “Gary Lucas’ FLEISCHEREI: Music from Max Fleischer Cartoons” featuring 2015 Tony nominee Sarah Stiles as Betty Boop, and “Cinefantastique,” a collection of themes and incidental music from classic films, ranging from South Pacific to Psycho! You can learn more about Gary at GaryLucas.com or by following him on twitter @lucasgary.