Betty Boop took sexuality to the limit

The iconic cartoon character was reined in by the Hays Code and forced to cover up.

by Shahan Cheong

 

One of the most famous and iconic cartoon characters of the 20th century, up there with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Fred Flintstone and Bart Simpson, Betty Boop hit the movie screens of the world all of a sudden in the early 1930s, bringing untold joy and laughter to thousands of Americans who were out of work in the struggling times of the Great Depression.

Betty Boop is the perfect icon for Valentine's Day. (All images copyright King Features Syndicate, Inc./Fleischer Studios, Inc.)


Made of pen and ink

Animator Grim Natwick created Betty Boop in 1930 as a character for the animated-film company Fleischer Studios (founded in 1921 as Inkwell Studios, reflecting the company's area of production of animated films). She was originally a female cartoon dog (as in those furry things that go 'woof!'), made to go with the cartoons then being produced and directed by brothers and company founders Max and David Fleischer.

The girlish Betty Boop made her first appearance in the short film "Dizzy Dishes", on Aug. 9, 1930. She had a more dog-like face, with long, flapping ears, to reflect her original role as an animal character in the studio's line of films. Betty Boop was modeled after then-popular singer Helen Kane, whose distinctive scat-singing style gave rise to Betty's well-known "Oop-boop-a-doop!" catchphrase.

Photo of Helen Kane, the human inspiration for Betty Boop.


The fact that Kane was an inspiration for Betty was so well known that in 1932, Helen Kane tried to sue Fleischer studios for the stupendous sum of $250,000, an absolute fortune in the struggling, Depression-era years of the 1930s. Unfortunately for Kane, she wasn't able to prove that her singing style was uniquely hers (other singers besides herself, who also sang in a similar 'oop-boop-a-doop' scat-style were brought forward as proof of this) and she was also unable to prove that her appearance had been copied by the artists at Fleischer studios (who had based Betty's appearance on the likeness of equally-famous 1920s actress Clara Bow). Ultimately, Kane lost the lawsuit and Betty was here to stay.

Throughout the early years of the '30s, Betty's appearance continued to change. Originally drawn as a dog, she eventually became more and more human until by 1932, Max Fleischer had decided to make her totally human. In keeping with 1920s and '30s contemporary style, Betty was drawn up as a stylized flapper girl; a good dancer, young in appearance, innocent and with a short, above-knee length flapper dress. Her long, doggy ears became ordinary-sized ears, with large, hoop earrings.

She can win you with a wink

Betty Boop, showing off her legs, shoulders and arms and sporting her signature hoop earrings.

Betty became famous as one of the earliest
known sex symbols. Betty surely had more sex appeal than Mickey Mouse. But therein lies the very reason. Betty wasn't Mickey. Betty wasn't
an animal. She wasn't a mouse. She was drawn
as a person, as a human being, as a woman.

Before Betty entered the scene, all cartoon female characters were crudely drawn, basically looking like male cross-dressers. No thought was given to the female form – it wasn't really seen as being necessary. But with Betty, that all changed.

She was drawn with hips, breasts, big, batting eyes and a proper female figure, something that nobody had ever done before. This, combined with her (then) skimpy outfits, which showed off her arms and most of her legs, added to her sex appeal.

There was a great deal of sexual exploration in
the 1920s and early '30s, with women dressing
up in men's clothing and men dressing up in clothing intended for females! Men tried on
makeup and women smoked cigarettes in a day and age when only men smoked. The popular
song "Masculine Women, Feminine Men", from 1926, shows that sexual exploration was nothing new in the '20s and '30s.

Because of all this, Fleischer studios were simply going with the times and decided to make a more overtly sexual character than had previously been allowed. Even though this was 1932, the Victorian Era was still a vivid memory for many, and during those years in the late 19th century, the mere glimpse of a woman's arm or leg by anyone other than her husband or a medical doctor was considered scandalous.

Betty was also somewhat controversial because of her age. She is supposed to be only 16, although if you look at some cartoons, she does some very adult things such as running hotels and boarding-houses, and if you watch a few more cartoons, it's implied that she is still a virgin and it's been suggested that her 'oop-boop-a-doop' as a euphemistic nonsense term created to allude to her virginity.

Ain't she cute?

Betty does the hula in her earlier, sexier, appearance.

Betty was an instant screen sensation. Her popularity soared and she became famous the world

Grampy with his thinking cap on, hard at work.

over. The Betty Boop cartoons had a cast of supporting characters, which only added to the comedy and hilarity of all the insane and crazy situations where Betty found herself. Most notably amongst these were Koko the Clown, Bimbo, a dog-like character and another one of Betty's friends, and probably most famously, Professor Grampy, an eccentric, elderly inventor who helps Betty out of numerous jams.

He was famous for his skittish dance and for donning his thinking-cap (a mortarboard hat with
a light bulb on top) when trying to figure out solutions. The hat's light bulb would light up when he got an idea which invariably led him to jump
up and cry out: "Ha ha! I've got it!"

Oop-boop-a-doop!

While Betty's nonsense catchphrase,
"Oop-Boop-A-Doop" was taken from the singing-style of the aforementioned Helen Kane; Betty was probably more famous for her signature, high-pitched, teenage voice. This was provided by numerous voice-actors over the years, but Betty was most famously voiced by Mae Questel, who won the role of voicing Betty in a talent-contest when she was only 17, by imitating the singing-style of Kane.

A scene from Minnie the Moocher.

From 1931 to 1939, Questel voiced Betty in more than 150 animated cartoon shorts, gaining worldwide fame as a voice-actress. Questel also voiced several other famous cartoon characters, including Casper the Friendly Ghost, Felix the Cat, Minnie Mouse and Olive Oyl, the longsuffering girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor.

Apart from voices, Betty's cartoons were famous for including new and popular songs in their soundtracks, most notably, Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher". Several short theme songs were also written for the cartoon series.

"Made of pen and ink, 
She can win you with a wink, 
Ain't she cute?
Oop-Boop-A-Doop, 
Sweet Betty!"

That short ditty was played at the start of several of the Betty Boop shorts, occasionally substituted with this one:

"She's our little queen,
Of the animated screen,
Ain't she cute?
Oop-boop-a-doop,
Sweet Betty!"

A significantly longer theme song went:

"A hot cornet can go 'wah-wah-wah'*
Playing hot and blue,
But a hot cornet can't,
Oop-boop-a-doop,
Like Betty Boop can do!

"A saxophone can go 'doo-doo-doo'
Playing all night through!
But a saxophone can't,
Oop-boop-a-doop,
Like Betty Boop can do!

"This little miss,
Would never miss,
A chance for vocal tuning,
And anytime and anywhere,
You can hear this lady crooning!

"An old banjo can go 'plink-plink-plink'
That's no news to you!
But an old banjo can't,
Oop-boop-a-doop,
Like Betty Boop can do!"

The last Betty Boop cartoons were released in 1939, and a few made attempts to bring Betty into the swing era. In her last appearance, "Rhythm on the Reservation," (1939). Betty drives an open convertible, labeled "Betty Boop's Swing Band" through a Native American reservation, where she introduces the people to swing music and creates a "Swinging Sioux Band".

Sweet Betty!

Betty and Bimbo the dog.


For the past 86 years, Betty Boop has remained one of the most famous and popular animated characters ever, with her distinctive voice, appearance and singing style. But Betty wasn't always this sweet. While she was originally rather scantily clad, the Motion Picture Production Code (more famously known as the 'Hays Code', after the man who instituted it) put an end to all this. In the late 1930s and into the '40s, Betty Boop's figure had to be changed to meet the new, stricter censorship laws. Most notably amongst these changes was in Betty's wardrobe.

Betty's dresses became less revealing, changing from the 1920s sleeveless flapper dresses which showed off her legs from her thighs down, to more conservative dressing which covered up her arms, back, shoulders and brought the hemline of her dress farther down to below her knees.
Despite these changes though, Betty Boop has remained a popular and beloved character by thousands of people around the world.

After the Hays Code was enforced, Betty had to cover up more. Here she is with Henry, another popular cartoon character of the day.


Marketers rediscovered Betty Boop in the 1980s, and Betty Boop merchandise has far outdistanced her exposure in films, with many not aware of her as a cinematic creation. Much of this current merchandise features the character in her popular, sexier form, and has become popular worldwide once again.

Shahan Cheong, is a history buff, antique collector and blogger from Australia. Read his blog at www.throughouthistory.com

 

 

Collecting Betty Boop remains popular

Fans of movies, television, cartoons and comic strips have always collected objects related to their favorite characters. And in 86 years Betty Boop built a strong fan base to fuel continuing interest in collectibles bearing her image.

"Red Hot" Betty Boop figurine.

While many forms of Betty Boop memorabilia
have proved worthy of collecting, including plates, mouse pads, signs, music boxes and cookie jars, one of the most enduring incarnations is the Betty Boop figurine. Figurines present Betty three-dimensionally in all her sensual glory.

Of course as with any collectible, the older, nearly antique Betty Boop figures are most rare and, consequently, the most valuable. Nevertheless,
as Betty Boop has retained popularity for so long, a plethora of figurines have been created in more recent years that are extremely affordable to casual collectors.

"This affordability combined with Betty's natural appeal have made her one of the most popular collectibles with a rabid and avid fan base,"
said Roland Fraser, an avid collector himself, who writes about collecting Betty Boop items
at bettyboopfigurines.wordpress.com.

"There are also a few special edition collectibles available such as the 'Calendar Girl' series. Special editions are typically all are hand
brush painted, with certificates of authenticity."

Our recent search on eBay shows figurine prices ranging from about $15 to $75 for newer items. Specifically, a vintage Betty Boop Danbury Mint Hawaiian Holiday Collector Figurine was listing for $29.95. Also, a 24" "Red Hot" Betty figure, new in the box was selling for $65.

Prices from the Danbury Mint, the firm officially licensed to manufacture Betty Boop figures shows new figures selling for $79, showing Betty in a variety of costumes and postures. www.Danburymint.com.

Hula Betty for sale on eBay.

Avid collectors shop for Betty Boop items at www.welovebettyboop.com.
Of course, Betty has her own website devoted to promoting her image at www.bettyboop.com


Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com.

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