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The Birth of Betty Boop: A Pre-Code Sex Star is Born

Birth of Betty Boop

Betty Boop was a huge star in the early thirties with a whole line of tie-in products and a nationally syndicated comic strip.  By 1939, her popularity had waned and the production of her cartoons was stopped. In the 1960′s she was rediscovered by a new generation and became more popular than ever.  This program features her first cartoon appearances and shows her cinematic evolution from dog to woman. See notes at bottom.

Program List:

My Palm Is Red (1933)
I start with this cartoon because it purports to be a biography of Betty Boop starting in her baby days. Of course this is a lie. The rest of the program sets the record straight.

Dizzy Dishes (1930) The first appearance of Betty Boop appearing as a singer in a saloon where Bimbo works as a waiter. She has dog ears and no name.

Mysterious Mose (1930) Again a nameless Betty Boop appears with Bimbo. She is much slimmer than in Dizzy Dishes, has a square face, and still has dog ears.

Any Little Girl That’s A Nice Little Girl (1930) Still not knowing what to do with nameless Betty, Fleischer turns her into a cat for this sing a long cartoon.

The Herring Murder Case (1931) Here she makes a cameo appearance as a grieving widow singing fish.

Kitty From Kansas City  (1931) Betty appears here as extremely obese muse for the singer Rudy Vallee.

Bimbo’s Initiation (1931)
Still with dog ears, she makes a late but crucial appearance in the story. .

Mask A Raid (1931)
With her new name, Betty gets a better part. Here she is the carnal interest of Bimbo and a lecherous king.

Dizzy Red Riding Hood (1931)
Betty gets to play Little Red Riding Hood. Bimbo is hot after her. To get her into bed he kills the wolf and dons his skin. A kinky cartoon.

Any Rags (1931)
For all intents and purposes Betty is now a human being. She no longer has the long ears. Still, she is fooling around with the dog Bimbo. She will not officially be a human being until Boop Oop A Doop made a few weeks after this.

Notes:
One of the first cartoons I bought for the Rosebud Movie Palace was “Bimbo’s Initiation” made in 1931 by Max Fleischer. I still consider it the greatest cartoon ever made. Bimbo (a dog) descends through an open manhole cover into an existential nightmare land. When things look the worst for him, three shrouded figures appear and chant “Want to be a member, want to be a member?” Bimbo replies “NO!!!!” He then has to suffer more surrealistic torture. Finally one of the shrouded figures reveals herself to be BETTY BOOP!!. Bimbo promptly says “YES!!!”, and is soon dancing in front of a chorus line of Betty Boops.

In “Bimbo’s Initiation”, Betty Boop has ears like a dog. Inntrigued by this, I pursued other early Betty Boop cartoon appearances. By the time I was running the Pike Street Cinema, I had collected enough of them to make a feature length program Birth of Betty Boop, or My Life as a Dog. It played at the Cinema Village in New York in 1996, and I took it to Europe in 1998. I also showed it at the Interfilm Film Festival in Berlin in 1999. The question is: Why did Betty Boop start out being a dog?

Before answering that question, a word must be said about the Fleischer method of making cartoons in the early sound era. The Fleischer Studio had no writers. It was just the Max, Dave and Leonard Fleischer, and a bunch of animators. Leonard Fleischer was wild about jazz music. His job at the studio was to buy the latest hot jazz records and bring them to the studio where Max and Dave would then pick through them hoping to find inspiration for a cartoon. Once they found a title they liked, they would come up with a simple plot, a few gags, and then give the record to the animators and tell them to animate to the music. This is opposite of most cartoon studios. Usually animators work from storyboards sent them by the story department, and the music for the soundtrack is added later. What made the Fleischer cartoons so surrealistic was their backwards system. They had no story department. Their animators would listen to jazz and come up with visual things to go along with it.

This system worked fine until the head of the New York musician’s union found out about it. He didn’t like the use of records without paying royalties. Max invited him to the studio and made him a deal. He offered to have the musicians come to the studio and be paid for performing. He would then film and record them. The filmed images of the jazz performers would appear in a Fleischer cartoon based on their record, exposing them to wider audiences. This was fine with the musicians union. As a result we can see Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman and other jazz greats of the early thirties in Fleischer cartoons. (This did not sit well with bigots. The appearance of black performers with white Betty Boop elicited threats from the Ku Klux Klan.)

In 1924, the Fleischers made the first sound cartoons ever, using the Lee DeForest phonofilm system. They were called Song Car-tunes. They failed to achieve wide distribution and were junked. Four years later, when Disney made a hit out of a talking , singing Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, the Fleischers felt the time had come to return to the art form they had pioneered. They needed a new character. They came up with Bimbo the Dog, and starred him in a new line of sound cartoons called Talkertoons. The problem with Bimbo is the Fleischers had no idea what his persona should be. At first Bimbo was tall and skinny. He later was short and round. He appeared at times as all black. He also appeared as black with white spots, white with black spots, sometimes within the same cartoon. Obviously he was no threat to the fully realized Mickey Mouse. Instead of scrapping Bimbo, the Fleischers decided that what his cartoons needed was SEX!

So in “Dizzy Dishes” in 1930, where Bimbo appears as a waiter in a cafe, singing at the cafe was a very sexy female dog. This was the first appearance of the character who would become Betty Boop. Her singing is similar to her later style. Her look is similar, but heavier, with dog ears, and a more dog like face. The cartoon was marginally successful.The Fleischers produced twelve more Talkertoons before the (nameless) girl-dog again appeared in the Bimbo cartoon “Mysterious Mose”. Here we see she has slimmed down, still has dog ears, and has a more square face. She plays a terrified character trying to sleep in a house that is haunted by Mysterious Mose (Bimbo). This was her last appearance in 1930, and apparently the Fleischers still didn’t know the gold mine they were sitting on.

In early 1931, she appeared in cat form in the cartoon “Any Little Girl That’s a Nice Little Girl.” She still did not have a name. This was followed by another doggie appearance in “Silly Scandals”. To show how little the Fleischers cared for the character, her next appearance was as a fish in the cartoon “The Herring Murder Case”. This was followed by “Bimbo’s Initiation” where she really only appears as a cameo. Shortly after that, Leonard Fleischer brought the record Betty Coed by crooner Rudy Vallee into the studio. Max and Dave thought it had a great title for a cartoon. Betty appears in it, still a dog. She finally has a name, though. She is Betty. The last name Boop will naturally follow, as it does in the song’s refrain.

All of Betty Boop’s other 1931 appearances are as a dog. After all, she is the carnal interest of Bimbo, and if she were human their romance would be illegal in most countries, and even too kinky for a Fleischer cartoon. In early 1932 she made her last appearance opposite Bimbo in “Any Rags.” In her next cartoon , “Boop Oop A Doop“, she is a full fledged human being.