The following is a draft of the chapter on Betty Boop for my book "Made of Pen and Ink: The Fleischer Studio." Please post comments on my other blog Out of the Inkwell for quicker responses. Thanks for reading!
The legend is that in the crowded studio at 1600 Broadway in mid-town Manhattan, Grim Natwick was given the assignment of animating part of the Fleischer Studio’s newest sound cartoon “Dizzy Dishes.” Part of Natwick’s assignment was creating and animating a nightclub singer. For inspiration, he was handed a photo of then-popular Helen Kane, a bouncy brunette who was acclaimed for her high pitched child-like, but none-the-less sexy, singing voice.
That was the beginning of Betty Boop, quite possibly the most popular female cartoon character in the world. Despite the fact the Betty Boop cartoons stopped being a staple on local television decades ago and two contemporary versions of the character failed to ignite a revival, Betty’s popularity in licensing has guaranteed the immortality that few cartoon characters have been able to maintain.
The Web site www.welovebettyboop.com reports it has over 1,150 products, while another site. www.bettyboopstore.com has over 1,000 items featuring the character. Bank of America even offers a Betty Boop Master Card. One could make the argument the character is generating more money today for its owners than it did when the cartoons were in their heyday.
And one might safely say that many of the teen and young adult women who buy the Boop tee-shirts, purses and other merchandise may never have seen a single Betty Boop cartoon. The cartoons themselves have not had an authorized release on DVD as of this writing. The only cartoons available on DVD are those that have fallen into the public domain.
When the Betty Boop cartoons were released on home video in a boxed set in 1996, they were met with critical success and proved to be a good seller. Their qualities still seem to attract an audience 70 years after they were made.
The often times surreal and risqué Boop cartoons are revered today for their imagination and hipness. Their funky urban qualities continue to delight audiences 70 years later. Of all the studios producing animation in the 1930s, the Fleischer Studio made cartoons which best reflected the blend of emotions that characterized that time; a contradictory blend of hope and despair and of domesticity and running wild.
In 1930, The Fleischer Studio was in a state of change. Max had recovered from the economic failure of his Red Seal distribution company just four years previous. He was back in charge of his own operation with his brother Dave as the vice president. Establishing a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures, Max was trying to regain the prominence he once had in the industry.
The challenge, though, was coming from the introduction of sound. The “talkies” had revolutionized the movie industry with only a handful of silent films produced for the few holdout theaters in the country. The two biggest stars in silent animation were Felix the Cat and Ko-Ko the Clown. With the coming of sound, Ko-Ko, a classic pantomime character, seemed out of place.
Max produced his “first” sound cartoon in 1929, and wisely adapted his Song Cartunes with the famous Bouncing Ball to sound production. (Fleischer was no stranger to sound as he had produced the first synchronized sound cartoons with Dr. Lee DeForrest in 1924. Both inventors were ahead of their times, and Disney’s triumph with “Steamboat Willie” obscured their earlier accomplishments to generations of film historians.)
The success of the Song Cartunes aside, Max needed a new star to replace Ko-Ko. A dog-like creature named Bimbo was created as an obvious answer to Mickey Mouse. The design was crude, and the character was actually little more than a stick figure. Bimbo didn’t make much impact in the early Fleischer Talkartoons.
The late Myron “Grim” Natwick was a fairly recent addition to the Fleischer operation. An animation vet, Natwick had entered animation prior to the First Word War at the studio set up by publisher William Randolph Hearst to publicize his newspaper’s comic strip characters. Later, Natwick studied art in Europe for three years and came back to the United States where he worked on Felix and Krazy Kat shorts.
Producing shorts at the Fleischer Studio in 1930 was a far looser process that one could imagine. Animators had more responsibility for plots and gags, and there wasn’t direction in the accepted sense. The early sound Fleischer shorts were, more often than not, merely a collection of gags linked together by a very general “plot.” The creative process was a carry-over from the silent days, but it was clear a more standardized method of production was needed to meet the demands of sound.
Grim Natwick recalled to me in a 1978 interview, “the animator simply received a scene or a group of scenes or a whole picture. An animator like myself would receive an entire picture, and they’d put a couple of younger animators to work with us. The animator was virtually the director of the picture. If there were any characters necessary, the animator created them and animated them. There was no supervision.
“I remember on this picture [“Dizzy Dishes”] there was a ‘Boop Oop A Doop ‘ song and it had been recorded by Helen Kane, and I believe at the time, before the unions got tough, they may have even used her original track.
“In the first picture...I animated a big part of it. I created the character [who would become Betty Boop]. They had this little dog Bimbo. She had to sing and dance and I forgot about the dog thing. She became looking more and more like a girl. In her early pictures, the first two or three perhaps, she retained those long poodle ears.”
“Dizzy Dishes” is a remarkably crude affair. There really isn’t a plot, but instead a string of gags centered in a nightclub. The Bimbo character was a waiter trying to accommodate the needs of his customer. He was attracted to the singer – clearly a caricature of Kane – who sang one song.
Kane looked like a flapper from the 1920s. She wore her hair short and in curls and her fashions included the shorter dresses preferred by many young women at the time.
Natwick’s time at the Fleischer Studios was brief. He accepted an offer in 1931 to join the Ub Iwerks Studio in California. In 1934, Walt Disney hired him where he eventually did his most significant work on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and by 1939, he was back with Fleischer working on “Gulliver’s Travels.”
“Their [the Fleischers] comedy is typical American slapstick comedy the way it impressed them. You look at some of the Betty Boops and they are wild. They’re really wild. Disney never got that wild,” Natwick said.
Natwick worked on the first six shorts, which featured Betty as part of the cast. He insisted to me that, other than changing her dog-ears to earrings, the design and personality changes to the character were “insignificant.” While Natwick was a trailblazer, the ultimate success of the character rested on the animators, writers, voice actresses and composers who would follow him after he left the studio.
Among animation historians and fans, this version of how the character came to be was accepted to be true. In Max’s biographical writings he never took credit for Betty Boop’s creation. In his son’s Richard’s memoir of his father, “Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution,” Richard wrote: “The script for ‘Dizzy Dishes’ called for a female entertainer to play opposite Bimbo. Since Bimbo was a dog, Max devised a character that was half dog and half human female. In its first appearance the character was nameless, but what a character is was – gross, ugly with an enormous bouncy behind. However it did have round, saucer-like eyes and shapely feminine legs.
“The executives at Paramount flipped for the dog-lady and wanted more films made with her. Max was delighted to oblige and made her the lead in every cartoon. But Max immediately began to work with his animators on refining the character. The dog-like features didn’t last very long…
“Since my father’s death in 1972, Grim Natwick, one of Fleischer Studios’ oldest and most talented animators, has often been quoted as claiming to be the creator of Betty Boop. But before his death, my father had sworn under oath in two lawsuits that he, Max Fleischer, was the sole creator of the character. He acknowledged that many animators contributed to her development, not just Natwick, but also Seymour Kneitel, Myron Waldman, Doc Crandall, Ted Sears, Willard Bowsky and Al Eugster. I find it more than passing strange that, to my knowledge at least, Natwick never made such a claim while my father was alive.”
Stephen Worth is the director of the animation archives for ASIFAS-Hollywood, the southern California chapter of the international association that promotes animation. Worth sent me the following reaction to Richard Fleischer’s claims:
“At the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive, I have an exhibit hanging on the wall that proves conclusively that Grim created Betty Boop.
“Included in the exhibit are Grim’s character designs for Betty from ‘Dizzy Dishes,’ ‘Barnacle Bill,’ ‘Accordion Joe’ and ‘The Bum Bandit,’ as well as a studio gag drawing of a beautifully drawn Grim Betty from ‘Mysterious Mose’ asking a horribly drawn Betty Boop, ‘What happened to you little girl?’ The badly drawn Betty replies, ‘Boo hoo! Eggy made me!’ On the back of the sketch is a note from Grim saying, ‘Rudolph Eggeman’s drawings were messy.’ This confirms Grim’s stories about how after Betty became successful, they tried to have other animators draw her, but none had the chops to draw a pretty girl like Grim did.
“I believe Grim’s account of how Betty Boop was created.
“Grim said that Dave Fleischer told him they had found a girl who could do a perfect impression of Helen Kane. They wanted to do a cartoon with her, so Dave gave Grim a photo of Helen Kane clipped from a magazine and told him to make the girl look like the photo. At ASIFA, we have the inked key cleanup of Grim’s design. It isn’t crude and grotesque the way the film looks. Grim said that he was rushed, trying to do all the girl animation himself, while Ted Sears focused on Bimbo and the restaurant gags from Grim’s thumbnail layouts. Grim animated the girl very loose and fast, expecting the assistants to follow his key cleanup, but they weren’t able to. I attended a screening of ‘Dizzy Dishes’ with Grim at the LA County Museum of Art, and Grim grumbled through the song. After the cartoon, Charles Soloman introduced him from the stage as the creator of Betty Boop, and Grim took a bow. After he sat down, I asked him why he had been grumbling during the film. He said, ‘The damn assistants messed up my lipsync!’
“The most telling drawing in the ASIFA exhibit is a drawing that Grim referred to many times in interviews. Grim said that Dave Fleischer came to his desk one day and said, ‘Mickey Mouse has Minnie. Do you think Bimbo needs a girlfriend?’ Grim thought about it and said he would come up with an idea for a girl for Bimbo. Dave explained he had the idea to do a Talkartoon based on the song ‘Barnacle Bill the Sailor,’ and told Grim that he would check back to see what Grim came up with for the ‘fair young maiden.’
“Grim had just finished ‘Dizzy Dishes,’ so he proceeded to adapt his Helen Kane caricature to serve as Bimbo’s girlfriend. He drew a sketch of Betty Boop looking out a window as if to say ‘Who’s that knocking at my door?’ Dave returned to his desk and Grim showed him the sketch. Dave said, ‘I like the face, but Bimbo is a dog. Shouldn’t she have a dog body?’ Grim grabbed his pencil and drew Betty Boop’s head with a four legged canine body and pointed at it and the voluptuous one leaning out the window and replied, ‘What do you want? A dog’s body or a pretty girl’s?’ Dave laughed and said, ‘You’re right, Grim.’
“Grim told me these stories on his front porch in Santa Monica. After he passed away, his family asked me to sort through his artwork that had been in storage for decades, and I found the very drawing from ‘Barnacle Bill’ he was referring to. It shows Betty Boop leaning out the window, and below it in the margin is a small sketch of Betty with four legs and a stubby tail. The dog Betty is circled and a line from the circle points to the Betty in the window. When you look at the drawing, you can see Grim gesturing with his pencil as he says, ‘What do you want? A dog’s body or a pretty girl’s?’
“Grim spoke very highly of Dave Fleischer. He said that he considered him a fine director, even if he didn’t do his own layout or timing like the directors at other studios did. Grim said that Max was a fine gentleman too, but indicated that Max was more interested in running the ‘front office’ and working with the camera department on technical developments. His day-in, day-out creative supervision was from Dave. The only aspect of Betty Boop that Max could possibly have had a part with is the casting of the Helen Kane sound-a-like, but I tend to think that was most likely either Dave or Lou Fleischer.
“Grim told me a story about the last bit of Betty Boop animation that he did. When he was working on ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ Max came into his office one day, (which was unusual). Max told Grim that he appreciated that Grim had created Betty Boop. He told Grim that they had had a good run with her, but they were making the last Betty Boop cartoon, and he wanted Grim to work on it ‘for old time’s sake.’ (My guess is that the last cartoon would have been ‘Musical Mountaineers,’ because there’s quite a few scenes in there that look like they may be by Grim.)
“Grim said that Max told him as a sign of his appreciation, that after the completion of this cartoon, he would make a gift of the character to him. Grim thanked Max for the gesture, and shook his hand. Grim went on thinking that he owned the character, until years later, he read in the trades that Max had licensed his rights to the Fleischer characters for a great deal of money. The article mentioned that Betty Boop was one of the properties Max had licensed.
“Grim was always on good terms with Max, so he picked up the phone and called him. A woman (Max’s daughter?) answered and Grim asked to speak with Max. She asked who was speaking and Grim told her. She went away from the phone and was gone a long time. Finally Richard came to the line and told Grim that his father was sick and couldn’t be disturbed. Grim asked when would be a good time to call back because he had a question about the licensing deal he had read about. Richard told him that there was no good time, told him never to call the house again, and hung up on him.
“Being treated like this rankled Grim. He spoke to a lawyer who filed a claim with the Fleischers for a portion of the money from the licensing deal. Grim ended up losing, because he had never filed the paperwork necessary to prove the transfer of ownership.”
The authorship of the character has become more and more important with the increased amount of licensing. Natwick wasn’t the only person who had a claim. Long-time Fleischer animator Myron Waldman created Betty’s dog Pudgy that is prominent in currently licensed products. Waldman never received any money for his contribution.
Who’s the Boss?
Dave Fleischer took the screen credit as director of nearly all of the Fleischer shorts through the demise of the studio in 1942. For animation fans and scholars who understand the role of a director, Dave’s constant screen credit makes him appear an animation genius or that “director” meant something else than at other studios.
The truth is that Dave was not a director in the same way as Chuck Jones or Tex Avery. Directors such as Jones and Avery headed their own animation units, and were responsible for working with writers on a short, overseeing the design of the characters, drawing key poses, directing the voice actors, and even animating sequences.
Dave acted as a line producer. He was more of a general supervisor of the shorts rather than the primary creative force. He did direct the voice actors in the recording schedule, and, according to ASCAP records, he also dabbled in composing some of the music for the cartoons.
This could certainly account for the differences in how characters such as Betty Boop looked from cartoon to cartoon in the early sound era. Characters often even looked differently within the same cartoon due to the use of several animation units and how each would draw the characters.
“Dancing Fool” (1932) is an excellent example of the problems of weak direction. The short was animated by units headed by Seymour Kneitel and Bernard Wolf and involves the slenderest of plots in which painters Bimbo and Ko-Ko happen upon Betty’s dance studio, join in dancing and literally shake the building down around them.
Not only is the story is non-existent, but Betty, Bimbo and Ko-Ko change appearance depending upon which animator had that particular scene to do.
A story on the studio in the Dec. 28, 1930 edition of “The New York Times” described the story process at the studio during the early sound era.
“The complex, efficient mechanism which transfers Bimbo’s madcap adventures to the screen is not a little prosaic. Properly speaking, there is not even a scenario. Somebody, anybody, one of the photographers, perhaps, suggests an abstract subject – a bullfight, a mailman, a steelworker, and a sailorman. Thereupon the idea is approved, the basis of approval being simply the probability of its being fertile in humor and the gagmen consult in Dave Fleischer’s office.
“The whole thing is quite informal. Any one who is not busy at the moment drops in [Dave Fleischer’s office] and takes a hand in the proceedings. A rough scenario emerges from the discussion. The cartoonists then receive their assignments, each to draw a sequence in the mad narrative. The artists are informed of the hatching plot and instructed to prepare backgrounds and scenery, which will later be blended with the action drawings of the cartoonists.”
Even after the studio began to use a separate story department, Fleischer animator Myron Waldman told me that he remembered getting scripts without an end, “They hadn’t thought of a gimmick, yet,” he said.
I believe that Max enjoyed participating in the production of the cartoons as revealed by his continuing role as Ko-Ko’s straight man in the silent shorts. When the new Fleischer Studios was set up, though, there was an apparent arrangement that Max would handle the business end of the studio while Dave would oversee production. Dave’s role apparently included the screen credit as director much to the chagrin of the real directors of the Fleischer cartoons. Max’s interest in the production of the shorts, though, can be seen in his inventions, such as the tabletop 3-D process.
Part of the vitality – and perhaps the roughness as well – of the early Betty Boops may be attributed to the influx of young artists at the studio. Al Eugster told this writer that in 1930 a number of the head animators left for other employment, including veteran artists Dick Huemer and Sid Marcus.
“The experienced animators left for elsewhere and left Max without a staff,” Eugster said. He was then in-betweening along with artists such as James “Shamus” Culhane and Willard Bowsky.
“We became instant animators with a contract,” said Eugster. Despite their lack of experience, he recalled, “it worked out somehow.”
The Birth of a Star
Considering the somewhat haphazard way the Fleischer Studio used to create cartoons, it’s little wonder that it took them a while to figure out what exactly to do with Natwick’s Helen Kane-ish singer.
Bimbo was the star of the early cartoons, but he was a character with little or no definition. His voice changed from short to short as well as what he was and what he could do.
These were shorts driven by a string of gags or by a popular song, rather than by a strong narrative.
In “Barnacle Bill,” the still unnamed Betty character is the “fair young maiden” who is the object of the rough sailor’s attention. Although the lyrics are cleaned up from the sexually explicit ones when know from the folk song, it is still a sexually charged cartoon and typical of the Fleischers’ work prior to the Production Code in 1934 that censored sexual material in films. As in “Dizzy Dishes,” the star of the show is Bimbo.
The Fleischer animators – and Max and Dave themselves – obviously had no problem with using the female character as a vehicle for naughty gags. In “Mysterious Mose,” the Betty character loses her nightshirt and display some cleavage twice.
This cartoon shows the free association that some might interpret as sloppiness – a fish from underneath Betty’s carpet, an odd enough image, is transformed into a saxophone-playing caterpillar for no real narrative reason. It just happens.
That sort of free-flowing association marked the style of the silent Ko-Ko cartoons and was clearly a holdover from those days. It also reflected the lack of structure in the writing of the cartoons at that time.
“Silly Scandals,” the seventh cartoon to feature Betty, illustrates how the character was definitely a second fiddle to Bimbo.
“Silly Scandals” (1931) is an example of what was right and wrong with the early Fleischer sound shorts. The plot involves Bimbo sneaking into a theater to see Betty perform. After she sings her number, the gags shift around a stage hypnotist.
Nothing remarkable has happened in the short until the very end when Bimbo, under the spell of the hypnotist, has hallucinations that seem to have come straight out of the psychedelic era of the 1960s.
At least the character was given the name “Betty” in this short.
Betty was still very much a supporting player in these shorts. Although her very next Talkartoon was a quantum leap over “Silly Scandals,” she was still just part of the punch line.
“Bimbo’s Initiation” (1931) introduced a new Bimbo, a design that actually looked like a dog and was much more appealing than the stick figure. Here the Fleischer “looseness” served the cartoon well. There isn’t really a plot; Bimbo, innocently walking the street, stumbles into a trap laid by an anxious secret fraternity who would like him to join. When he refuses, he is put through a variety of tortures and perils designed to make him change his mind. He only changes his wind when the ominous figure who keeps asking him “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?” turns out to be Betty.
“Bimbo’s Initiation” is one of the studio’s best shorts. Genuinely creepy at times with a truly surreal concept – who are these guys and why are they so insistent? – it’s quite funny and very well animated. It’s only marginally a Betty Boop cartoon, though.
Throughout these early cartoons, Mickey Mouse, or a character that looks very much like Mickey Mouse, keeps making little cameo appearances. In “Bimbo’s Initiation,” he appears as Bimbo disappears down a manhole for his first encounter with the fraternity. Why the Fleischers were winking at their colleagues at Disney has never been explained.
With “Bimbo’s Express,” (1931) Bimbo had to share the billing with Betty and the two had a memorable exchange of dialogue. “I can’t let you in. I’m in my nightgown,” Betty said. Bimbo replied, “I’ll wait until you take it off.”
Betty’s footage increased in “Dizzy Red Riding Hood” (1931) as she had the title role, but it was “Boop-Oop-A-Doop” (1932) in which the Boop character really started to gel. Betty is more than just an attractive accessory. She is definitely the star of the short, while Bimbo and Ko-Ko are her co-stars.
Betty plays a circus performer who is the object of unrequited affection from the ringmaster. This is one of the most openly sexual of the Boop shorts. The ringmaster corners Betty in her dressing area and rubs his hand up and down her thigh. He then tells her if she wants to keep her job she’ll... and he whispers something in her ear that horrifies her. She then launches into the song “Don’t Take my Boop-Oop-A-Doop Away.” Ko-Ko manages to save her and winds up the hero.
So what is “Boop-Oop-A-Doop?” The refrain that singer Helen Kane made famous was essentially meaningless, but when used in the right context it could inspire risqué interpretations. Betty prevails over her unwanted suitor with the help of Ko-Ko who receives a burning kiss as his reward.
“Boop-Oop-A-Doop” marks the first phase of Boop’s cartoon persona. She is the sexy but innocent star in a no-holds-barred cartoon universe. Sometimes her co-stars are animals, sometimes humans, sometimes something in-between. A few of her cartoons resemble the classic silent Ko-Kos in which Betty emerges from an inkwell into the “real” world.
With “Boop-Oop-A-Doop” Betty’s character began to be more developed as a working class person, often times involved in some sort of performing. One could see in these early cartoons, the Fleischer animators struggling to present Betty as something more than just sex appeal and more than just a foil for gags in the surreal Fleischer universe. Sometimes Betty could as innocent as a child and other times she was as knowing as Mae West.
Ko-Ko the clown had been a cinematic version of “Peck’s Bad Boy,” the brat you love to hate who rebels against his father, but Betty was far more difficult to define.
The next Boop cartoon was another milestone. “Minnie The Moocher” (1932) featured Cab Calloway and his big band playing one of their signature tunes. The Fleischers, with their base in New York and ties to Paramount and its Famous Music division, began using well-known singers and big bands in their Betty Boop and Screen Song cartoons. Radio stars such as Arthur Tracy, Singing Sam, Broadway performers such as Lillian Roth and Ethel Merman, and recording artists such as Rudy Vallee, the violinist Rubinoff and the Mills Brothers were among the stars featured in Fleischer shorts.
If nothing else, the Fleischer Betty Boop and “Screen Songs” provide a fascinating musical time capsule of some of the best-known popular artists of the time. No other animation studio during the 1930s seemed as interested in presenting contemporary music as the Fleischer Studio. Dave had a keen interest in music, while Lou was a violinist. Sammy Timberg was the studio’s composer during the period and he had a strong Tin Pan Alley background.
Lou and Timberg worked on the musical tracks for the cartoons and were able to use songs that had appeared in Paramount films. Sometimes these songs are used to accompany the action, while at other times Betty performs them.
This interest in music was coupled with the use of live-action footage that was part of the Ko-Ko silent cartoons. Although other studios had used live action in its animated shorts – most notably Walt Disney in his “Alice in Cartoonland” shorts and Walter Lantz in the “Dinky Doodles” series – the Fleischers became known for the technique. The result was that in the period of 1930 to 1935, the Fleischers’ cartoons, with their use of popular music and live-action, continued to be singular. No other studio at the time was apparently willing to go to the extra expense and trouble of filming performers to be used in an animated short.
“Minnie The Moocher,” like “Bimbo’s Initiation,” is almost plot-less. Betty, living with her parents, decides to run away from home, accompanied by Bimbo. At nightfall they stay in a cave, which they discover they’re sharing with a variety of ghosts who launch into the title song. The lead ghost, who sings and dances, is a rotoscoped Cab Calloway. His antics scare the two back to their homes.
Calloway’s song of the life and death of a drug-user was a popular hit, but one wonders if people at the studio understood what the urban slang meant.
The eerie backgrounds and the macabre jokes in the cave are typical of the sense of humor of Fleischer vet Willard Bowsky who worked on 11 of the Betty Boop shorts. A significant talent at the studio who contributed much to the Popeye series, Bowsky was a controversial figure. He was among the “inner circle” of confidants surrounding the Fleischers, but had a reputation, ironically, for anti-Semitism among many of his co-workers, according to Waldman.
Lou Fleischer, who headed the music department at the studio, told animation historian Ray Pointer about Calloway’s reaction to the shorts.
“When Cab saw this [his cartoon form] he screamed in laughter and stretched himself out on the floor!...Some months later I met Cab Calloway and asked, ‘Did our cartoon help or hurt your show when it went on the road?’ He said, ‘Are you kidding? We had your cartoon shown the week before we arrived at every theater, and on its account none of the houses could accommodate the crowds that came. Are you kidding?’”
Calloway was delighted with the results of the short and returned to the studio twice to do more. He and his band appeared in “Snow White” (1933) and “The Old Man of the Mountain” (1933). No other musician, other than crooner Rudy Valle, appeared as many times as Calloway and his band.
The Fleischer version of “Snow White” takes the basic plot of the fairy tale and presents it in seven minutes. The centerpiece of the film is a performance of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” another Calloway hit and another song rife with drug references. Once again the action takes places in a cave in which the wicked witch has transformed Ko-Ko into a singing ghost who accompanies the seven dwarves as they transport Betty’s body to its resting place.
“The Old Man of the Mountain” has Betty daring to confront a violent recluse who is terrifying a mountain town. As Betty travels up the mountain she is met with a parade of refugees who all cite “The Old Man of the Mountain” as the source of their unhappiness. One woman pushing a baby carriage flips the carriage open to reveal three bearded babies; a gag that couldn’t be used after the Production Code was implemented.
Jazz legend Louis Armstrong appeared with Betty in “I’ll be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” (1932). The Armstrong band not only performed for the soundtrack, but Armstrong was transformed into a cannibal in this less-than politically correct cartoon.
Perhaps the most elaborate use of a guest star musician was in “I Heard” (1933). Instead of performing a song or two, Don Redman and his band provided the entire soundtrack to the cartoon. Guest musicians were often filmed before a non-descript curtain, but Redman’s band was shown in front of an elaborate backdrop with mechanically animated Fleischer animal characters.
Once there seemed to be some stability about the name and character of Betty Boop, some of the kind of experimentation that was fairly common in the silent Ko-Ko cartoons began to be seen in the Boop series.
In “Chess-Nuts (1932),” the short opens with two middle-aged men playing a game of chess and studying the board intently. The shot shifts to the board itself where the pieces move by themselves before the three dimensional animation switches to cel animation. The last shot of the short shows an altered photo of the two men now with long grey beards.
Animated photographs were featured in “Ha! Ha! Ha!” (1934) when Betty, attempting to play dentist for Ko-Ko and his aching tooth, releases laughing gas into the city. Photos of city buildings are animated to literally laugh along.
A great use of the Fleischer rotoscope process was in “Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle” (1932), in which the Polynesian musical group The Royal Samoans performed. The male dancers were rotoscoped for one scene and a female dancer performed a hula that was the basis for one of Betty’s most memorable moments. Animator Shamus Culhane claimed he did the hula animation without the help of the rotoscope, although the motions appear to have the quality of rotoscoping.
“Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame” (1934) was a bit of cheat as it used the cost-cutting measure of recycled animation from older cartoons, but the short is really a delight. A reporter visits the Fleischer studio to write a story about Betty and Max – in his only sound cartoon appearance – draws the character that obligingly recreates scenes from some of the earlier triumphs. The short features some accomplished blending of live action and animation, staples of the studio’s silent shorts.
In 1934, the studio produced its own Betty Boop color short, “Poor Cinderella.” Since the superior Technicolor process was contractually unavailable to the studio, the staff used Cinecolor, a two-color process that used red and green. The result is not very satisfactory as the color process has a limited palette. The animation is quite good and the backgrounds are impressive.
“Poor Cinderella” also used the 3-D process developed by Max, one of two prominent efforts to bring the look of three dimensions to cartoon animation. Ub Iwerks, the former partner of Walt Disney and the driving force behind Mickey Mouse’s earliest successes, developed a multi-plane camera that allowed a series of background and foreground drawings to be combined with an animation cel when he had his own studio in the mid-1930s. When Iwerks retuned to Disney, he perfected the camera.
Fleischer’s approach was literally three-dimensional. He developed a system in which a background model was built on a revolving turntable. The animation cels were photographed in front of the background model, which was turned to match the movement in the animation. Sometimes the models were cut-out paintings mounted on cardboard to give the illusion of depth, but often times the models would be three-dimensional constructions that would result in even more impressive results. The results could be spectacular. “Betty Boop and the Little King” (1936) has some great 3-D sequences, as does “House Cleaning Blues” (1937).
The humor of the Boop shorts was definitely anything goes and ranged from sentimental and almost cloying at times to adult and cynical. In “Mother Goose Land” (1933), Mother Goose comes alive and takes Betty to meet the characters from her nursery rhymes. As she and Mother Goose are flying off, Betty’s house says goodbye and tells her not to worry because it will keep “the home fires burning.” With that statement, flames envelop the house, and it burns to the ground.
In the early 1930s, the Fleischer artists loved surreal “cartoony” images. A great example is the conclusion of “Betty Boop’s May Party” (1933) when an elephant accidentally taps a rubber tree, spraying the entire area with sap which gives everything the ability to stretch and bounce like rubber. The resulting animation is a lot of fun.
The American cinema before 1934 was a time when filmmakers constantly pushed the envelope on adult themes. The Fleischers took advantage, as did several other animation producers, to give their cartoons the same kind of openness. The results are cartoons that seem delightfully naughty today. They maintain an innocence that keeps them from appearing to be simply pandering towards cheap laughs.
If the Fleischer animators could think of nothing else in these shorts, they would toss in a gratuitous underwear scene. While Betty’s standard costume looked as if she wasn’t wearing a bra, Depression audiences knew she did because they saw it often enough.
The sexual humor can be seen today as offensive. In “Betty Boop’s Big Boss,” (1933) Betty uses her charm to get a job, and then fights off the unwelcome advances from her boss throughout the cartoon. When she is rescued from him, she decides the boss is not so bad.
References to homosexuals are made in several Betty Boop shorts, as well. In “Betty Boop for President” (1932) there is a sequence of gags in which the audience can see what a Boop administration would be like. One of the scenes shows a hardened criminal in an electric chair. When the switch is thrown he doesn’t die, but is transformed into a swishing lisping character.
“Minnie The Moocher” also had, as many other Fleischer shorts of this time, gags aimed at Jewish audience, whether they are inscriptions in Hebrew (such as the Hebrew word for kosher on a ham) or the use of Yiddish phrases. Ethnic humor can be seen in a number of Fleischer shorts, some of which could be seen as offensive today. The cartoons were made during a time in which ethnic humor derived from offensive stereotypes was ubiquitous on radio, in vaudeville, the movies and in print. Rather than stating a point of view, the jokes were simply part of the cultural climate of the time, right or wrong.
The Jewish jokes not only reflected much of the ethnic background of the staff, but also brought a distinctively city flavor to the cartoons as did the cartoons backgrounds and settings. The Fleischer shorts were the most urban of any of the cartoons of the era.
The installation and enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 had a major impact on the Boop shorts. The Fatty Arbuckle scandal in 1921 had brought about the first wave of self-policing by the motion picture industry. The former Postmaster General Will Hays was hired by producers to enforce a content standard. This was mostly a public relations move as Hays had little power over the producers.
By 1934, though, the Catholic Legion of Decency had become a force for change. The group regularly condemned movies with objectionable content and there were calls from some people that movies had gone too far.
The early talkies contained rather frank depictions of sexual material and violence, although audiences certainly seemed to approve. Mae West, the comic actress who built her career on double entendrés, was credited as having saved Paramount Pictures from financial ruin.
In many parts of the country there were already state and municipal censorship boards, and the film industry wanted to prevent the establishment of a federal board. Hays, hired Joseph Breen to enforce a new tough content code for motion pictures that detailed what was acceptable and what wasn’t. A film could not be released from one of the mainstream Hollywood distributors without the Production Code seal of approval. Not until 1953 and the unsanctioned release of “The Moon Is Blue” did the strangle grip of the Breen Office begin to loosen.
The Flesichers were not the only syudio that had laced their cartoons with adult himor, but were the most well known and popular. For instance, in Paul Terry’s “In A Cartoon Studio” (1930), there’s not only a female cat character with considerable cleavage, but a gay reference as well, a marked departure from Terry’s standard mouse and cat gags. At the Van Beuren Studios, a series featuring the comic strip character The Little King frequently featured adult material, including the King fathering a group of children with a mermaid.
Another Van Bueren cartoon featuring Sentinel Louie, a character from the Little King comic strip, in perhaps the nastiest non-racial gag ever featured in a theatrical cartoon. In A Dizzy Day (1932), the sound of a woman screaming with pain can be heard, and the cartoon’s nominal hero follows the cries. He discovers a woman being beaten by an obvious criminal type. The two men look at each other and Louie delivers the knockout blow himself. With the woman now silent, the two men shake hands.
Betty’s antics did get her into trouble. There is one often-repeated story in which the Hays Office, responsible for the self-censorship of the film industry, allegedly ordered Max to remove Betty’s garter, but letters from outraged fans brought it back. While I’ve not been able to confirm this incident, one Betty Boop short was definitely banned in Great Britain. “Red Hot Mamma” (1934) has Betty literally freezing Hell over with her disapproving look. British censors found this comic depiction of damnation to be too blasphemous to show in their country.
The Boop cartoons began to change to meet the new standards and the change in the taste of the movie audiences. The cartoons were more polished and the Boop universe was more defined. Gone was the inkwell and references to Uncle Max. Gone was her trademark short skirt, as well as Ko-Ko and Bimbo. Betty had a re-occurring boy friend, Freddie, a younger brother, a grandfather, and a dog, Pudgy. In many cartoons, she was portrayed as a working girl with a career far from show business. There was greater emphasis on the gags coming from the character or the story rather than just being inserted into the cartoon.
Popeye the Sailor had made his cartoon debut in what was technically a Betty Boop cartoon, and now in the post-1934 period, several other King Features characters would do the same.
“Betty Boop with Henry, The Funniest Living American” (1935) is less than successful. The Henry character, a long-standing fixture of many newspaper comic pages, was a pantomime character that was strictly gag-driven with little or no personality. The highly stylized design of the character (supposedly a little boy with no hair, an odd nose and no mouth) was not attractive in animation.
The studio fared better with its next effort “Betty Boop and the Little King” (1936). Otto Soglow’s comic strip had a little more substance than Henry and the character had already been featured in a series of cartoons produced by the Van Bueren Studio. This short, featuring the Little King sneaking out of the opera to watch Betty’s vaudeville act, is a delight.
The last of the comic strip try-outs came with “Betty Boop and Little Jimmy.” Jimmy Swinnerton was one of the true pioneering geniuses of the American comic strip, but this cartoon didn’t capture the themes or the graphics of the original.
For some modern fans, the post 1934 Boop cartoons are frequently too tame. Although the studio was definitely re-defining the character, there are many gems, which wisely use the Grampy and Pudgy characters.
“Betty Boop and Grampy” (1935) introduced the new character that one can assume is actually Betty’s grandfather. Grampy is an inventor, and considering Max’s interests, a perfectly logical character to come out of his studio. When in a spot, Grampy whips out his thinking cap (a mortarboard with a light bulb) and invents a solution with whatever materials are handy. Other good Grampy shorts include “Be Human,” “House Cleaning Blues,” “Grampy’s Indoor Outing.” Grampy was featured without Betty in the sentimental favorite “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.”
Pudgy, Betty Boop’s dog, was designed by Myron Waldman to give the series more story potential and made his debut in 1934 with “Betty Boop’s Little Pal.” The addition of the little dog gave the series more potential for sentiment. Waldman called them “ooh, ahh pictures “ because of the reactions of the audiences. Pudgy could also put over a gag, and wound up being the real star of a good number of the post-1934 cartoons. One of the best was “Not Now,” in which Pudgy fights a cat who scratches him. Pudgy touches his wound, looks at the camera and says “He pulled a knife on me!”
While Grampy and Pudgy could be amusing, another character who periodically made visits to the Boop series was simply odd. Wiffle Piffle was a bug-eyed little guy with an amusing flapping arm walk that looked like he was trying to fly. Jack Mercer provided the voice, and the only characterization one could determine about Wiffle is that he had a habit of screwing things up. Wiffle Piffle also made frequent appearances in the Screen Song series.
The Fleischers had taken the same road as Walt Disney had done when Mickey Mouse was running out of steam. Just like Disney added Goofy and Donald Duck, the Fleischers had added Grampy and Pudgy. In some of the post-1934 Boop shorts, Betty is only marginally involved with the lion’s share of the footage devoted to her co-stars. The issue of longevity was addressed in a “New York Times” piece from Feb. 13, 1936. Bosley Crowther, writing about the growing animation industry, interviewed Sam Buchwald of the studio’s management team.
“But an interesting thing about it [the animation industry] says Mr. Buchwald is the way that the familiar cartoon characters rise, have their day of great popularity, and then wane just as real stars do. Although Disney doesn’t say much about it, his lovable Mickey, greatest animated character of all time, is definitely on the way out. And where are Koko the Clown, Mutt and Jeff and other of those favorites of a bygone era?
“Popeye and Betty Boop (the latter an original film creation and the other a recruit from the newspaper comic strips) have been doing quite well for about six years, but it takes imagination to keep them alive. Betty Boop is constantly undergoing imperceptible changes in size, hair, dress and such and is paradoxically growing younger in appearance, Mr. Buchwald confesses. But after all why shouldn’t she? The essence of the animated cartoon’s charm - the universality of its appeal - undoubtedly lies in its accomplishment of the utterly impossible.”
A cartoon such as “Sally Swing” (1938) shows the problems with the character and the series. Betty is some sort of student activity director at a college and she has to find someone to lead a swing band at a dance. By accident she discovers a cleaning woman who can swing dance. Out of her janitorial clothes, she looks like Betty Grable and is the star of the show.
The short is wonderfully animated by Bowsky and Gordon Sheehan and is in many ways a perfect Betty Boop musical cartoon, except Betty is not the star. She had become a straight man.
Exit and Entrance
Buchwald’s words were prophetic. The Boop cartoons were running out of gas, and the series was terminated in the summer of 1939. It was a new era at the Fleischer Studios with Max moving his operation to the Miami, Florida area and a brand new studio, and perhaps Betty was just not part of it.
When Paramount sold a number of its cartoons for television distribution in the mid-1950s, Max Fleischer’s name was blocked out on the 16mm prints used by the television stations. Max sued Paramount, and through the legal action was able to acquire the rights to the Betty Boop characters. This did Fleischer little good during his lifetime as he died in 1972, a few years before the Betty Boop revival began.
In the mid-1970s, a film distributor named Sidney Tager put together two theatrical compilations of Betty Boop, Screen Song and Talkartoons shorts. Although booked only at art houses and revival theaters, the two features drew attention to the character and to the Fleischer Studio. A modest merchandising effort started in the late 1970s.
While the merchandising revival of Betty Boop began to soar in the early 1980s, an effort to revive the economic worth of the cartoons began. National Telefilm Associates, a long-time supplier of television programming, had bought the rights of a number of Fleischer productions from Paramount in the 1950s. The NTA holdings included both Fleischer features, a number of Screen Song cartoons and the Betty Boops.
NTA had successfully sold syndication packages of these shorts throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, but in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the bias against black and white programming was beginning to manifest itself at local stations. The solution? Colorize the Betty Boop shorts.
The Boop shorts were not among the first to undergo the transformation to color. Broadcast executive Eliot Hyman had been at Warner Brothers/Seven Arts when he oversaw the colorization of early Looney Tunes. He then colorized 18 Krazy Kat shorts for Columbia. His company, Feature House, then tackled converting 100 Boop cartoons to color in 1972.
Basically, Hyman had the Boop shorts re-animated with color cels. In Asian animation studios, artists would project the black and white cartoons onto a frosted glass drawing board, trace the action onto a new cel, paint it, and photograph it.
There were problems with the process. To save money, not every frame was re-animated resulting in less-than full animation, The marvelous black and white backgrounds, in such cartoons as “Minnie the Moocher,” were not reproduced in color, and were eliminated in favor of less complex background. Finally, the color selection was often times poor. Granted the Fleischer shorts were often surreal, but one doubts anyone at the studio would have selected purple for the color of a cat.
These colorized cartoons became the basis for an odd compilation film released by New Line Cinema in 1980. Record producer and composer Dan Dalton was approached in 1976 by NTA to create a “new” animated feature from the colorized Boop shorts that would be released in August of that year. The idea was to create a new storyline that would be supported by classic Fleischer animation and a new voice and music track. The theme of the feature would capitalize on the 1976 presidential race.
Dalton spoke to me in 1982, and confessed that the selection of the cartoon sequences and the creation of a new story took him much longer than he had expected. “I knew I was going to start with ‘Minnie the Moocher’ [the scene in which Betty is admonished by her father] and would end with ‘Betty Boop for President,’” said Dalton. His problem was finding a suitable middle for his narrative.
Dalton kept some of the classic Cab Calloway numbers, but junked the 1930s scores for his original songs that were recorded by Debbie Boone, The Association and the singer hired to be the new voice of Betty Boop, Victoria D’Orazi. Working with four other writers, Dalton took scenes from 35 shorts to create his story, which depended on a narrator. Tom Smothers did the honors as the voice of Pudgy.
Dalton missed his 1976 deadline. Apparently NTA was anxious to release the film as they advertised an “all singing, all dancing feature length production” called “Betty Baby” in the Oct. 19, 1977 edition of “Variety.” That incarnation of the film was apparently not released in November of that year as promised.
“Hurray for Betty Boop” finally surfaced in 1980 at the Cannes Film Festival (not in competition) and had two trade screenings in the hopes of attracting worldwide sales.
According to Dalton, the production had a budget of $300,000 that included promotion and a test marketing in the college town of Madison, WI. Dalton blamed the timing of the booking – Labor Day weekend– but what few fans saw the finished product weren’t impressed.
“Everyone said I couldn’t do it and keep the continuity, it was very difficult. You and I could notice things [changes in styles of drawing Betty, her costumes and size] but not others [general audiences],” said Dalton.
Despite the lack of critical acclaim, Dalton was very proud of his film. “It’s a great children’s movie, a great dopers’ movie, a great midnight movie.”
The film went to cable television and then to video. It has not yet been released on DVD. Dalton, at the time of our conversation, reported that NTA was then thinking about re-doing the Fleischer’s second feature “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” by dumping the soundtrack and coming up with new dialogue and a rock and roll score. Those plans never came to completion thanks to the failure of “Hurray for Betty Boop.”
Perhaps part of the problem with Hurray for Betty Boop was that people had seen the real Betty Boops on video and liked them. The Fleischer cartoons became very successful on the exploding home video market. NTA, and its corporate successor Republic Pictures, marketed a wide assortment of Fleischer shorts. Because a number of Fleischer cartoons had fallen into the public domain, there was a seemingly endless parade of “bargain” tapes featuring the same handful of Boop cartoons.
Another revival of the character that never got off the ground in the 1970s involved Sid and Marty Krofft –the then-hot producers of such children’s fare as H.R. Puffnstuff and Lidsville). Richard Fleischer (Max’s son and well-known film director) told this writer the producers wanted to produce a live-action Boop show that would star Bette Midler. The project never happened.
In the early 1980s, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) had formed a division to produce theatrical films and had optioned rights to Betty Boop. In a 1982 advertising supplement to “Variety,” the company announced their slate of up-coming films and listed under “In Development” was a live-action Betty Boop to be produced by Norman Stephens, Barry Krost and Joan Scott. Nothing else was ever announced on the project.
In 1983, plans were announced that CBS would bankroll a Broadway musical based on the character, apparently in response to the success of “Annie.” Those plans never progressed either.
CBS finally did use the character in a half-hour animated television special in 1985. The same team who animated the hugely popular “Peanuts” specials, Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez, produced “The Romance of Betty Boop."
Melendez, interviewed by UPI’s Vernon Scott, said, “I predict Betty will make a comeback like Tina Turner. She’s a good representative of the women’s movement today. Betty wants to settle down, but she wants a career, too. She’s a female paradox.”
In an interview this writer conducted with Melendez in 1982, he commented that he planned to animate the character better than the Fleischer artists ever had, and that unlike the original shorts, his half-hour would have a story. He told me that he had no plans to hire any of the original animators who had worked on the shorts, nor would he consider using Mae Questel, Betty’s long-time voice.
When the half-hour aired over two years after that conversation, it was relatively easy to see that while the special was competently animated, there was no “feel” for the subject matter. The contempt Melendez exhibited in our discussion for the Fleischer originals was quite apparent. Although he followed the traditional Betty model, the supporting characters were of a different design that clashed with Betty. And indeed there was a story, but it was unremarkable.
The fact that the special never was repeated and there was no sequel clearly indicated the program’s lack of success.
The failure of “Hurray for Betty Boop” and “The Romance of Betty Boop” didn’t put a brake on the merchandising success of the character.
In an Associated Press story from 1986, King Features Syndicate, which administrates the licensing of the character for Richard Fleischer and his sister Ruth Kneitel, reported that in the fiscal year 1985-86 300 licensed Boop products grossed “about $100 million.”
In 1984, King Features syndicated a new Betty Boop comic strip, which co-starred Felix the Cat written and was drawn by Brian, Morgan, Greg, and Neal Walker. It was not a success and lasted just two years.
Betty did make a return to the big screen, though, in an appearance in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in 1988. The animation directed by Richard Williams perfectly captured the classic Fleischer look, and Betty is well cast as a cigarette girl in the nightclub where Jessica Rabbit is performing. Questel reprised her vocal characterization, and Boop was the only classic cartoon star in the film presented in black and white.
In the late 1980s, Betty began appearing in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in the form of a huge balloon.
With all of the interest in the character King Features commissioned a new animated television show in 1990. San Francisco-based Colossal Pictures produced a half-hour special entitled “Betty Boop’s Hollywood Mystery.” Unlike the Melendez special, Colossal wisely recreated much of the look and feel of the Fleischer originals. George Evelyn, the show’s director, told this writer that the production company wanted to re-create the Fleischer look and did so in part with the help of Richard Fleischer who supplied materials from the family archives.
Evelyn had wanted to use Mae Questel for Betty’s voice, but the actress was busy filming Woody Allen’s segment of “New York Stories.” Evelyn launched a series of auditions, and in true “Hollywood” fashion, the secretary at the recording studio that was producing copies of the audition tapes had the voice Evelyn wanted. Melissa Fahn performed the Boop voice.
Although originally intended for broadcast over CBS, the special was never aired until it was picked up by the Disney cable channel. Evelyn explained that a new management team at the network decided to shelve the special. Most animation fans have never had the opportunity of seeing what is commonly agreed to be a production of which the Fleischers themselves would be proud.
No one person has been associated as much with Betty Boop as the character’s primary voice artist, Mae Questel. Although several performers voiced the character before Questel, her take is the rendition that stuck with the Fleischer Studios and with the public.
Questel attempted to begin her professional show business career at the age of nine when she auditioned for the Broadway show, “Daddy.” Although the producers liked her, her grandparents didn’t believe the theater was a proper career for a young woman, and Questel’s show business aspirations were put on hold for a few years.
In 1930, her high school sorority sisters entered her name into a Helen Kane impersonation contest. Questel won the contest that meant four days booking into one of the leading vaudeville houses in New York, the RKO Fordham and $150.00 in prize money. Helen Kane even autographed a photo “To Another Helen Kane.” Neither performer could imagine how ironic this inscription would become in just a few years.
Her four days at the Fordham resulted in bookings in the prestigious Palace Theater and then subsequent bookings from Boston to Baltimore. At the relatively tender age of 18, Questel began her show business career with an act consisting of impersonations of well-known performers such as Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante.
Max hired her in 1931 after four other actresses played the role – Margie Hines, Little Ann Little, Kate Wright and Bonnie Poe – to perform the Betty Boop voice, an assignment she had through the end of the series in 1938. Questel told this writer that she didn’t want to move to Florida with the rest of the Fleischer studio, and by that time the Betty Boop series had naturally run its course.
A short brunette with large eyes, Questel bore a resemblance to her cartoon character.
Questel’s mimicry extended to her characterization of Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons. Although at first the Olive voice was a deeper voice, Questel’s version was based on popular screen comedienne Zasu Pitts.
Unlike her frequent partner behind the microphone, Jack Mercer, Questel worked hard to have an acting career in front of the camera. She appeared in two Paramount musical two-reelers with Rudy Valle, “Musical Justice” (1931) and “The Musical Doctor’ (1932) and in the film “Wayward” supporting Richard Arlen and Nancy Carroll (1932). She retired from show business in the late 1930s for three years after the birth of her son.
The Internet Movie Database lists Questel in the cast of a 1933 “Hollywood on Parade” short in which she is credited with playing Betty Boop. Set in a Hollywood wax museum, an unidentified actress plays a Betty Boop statue come-to-life who is attacked by the Dracula statue played by Bela Lugosi. Lugosi has the memorable line as he bites Betty’s neck, “You have booped your last boop!”
The actress is neither Questel nor is it Helen Kane, although whoever it was she performed the voice perfectly and displayed far more cleavage than the cartoon Betty ever did.
Questel returned to voice acting with numerous appearances on radio programs during the 1940s and essaying Olive Oyl and other cartoon voices when Paramount moved the Famous Studios operation back to New York in 1942. She worked on the Casper cartoons and was the voice of Little Audrey. According to Jackson Beck, who played Bluto at Famous, Questel even played Popeye in several shorts made during World War II when Mercer was unavailable.
She provided the voice for the television character Winky Dink on the show “Winky Dink and You,” and did scores of voice-overs for commercials. And at an age when performers worry about making the transition to older parts, Questel had no problem with character roles. In 1960, she was praised for her role in the Broadway hit “Majority of One,” and encored her performance for the movie version starring Rosalind Russell. Other Broadway roles came in “Enter Laughing” with Alan Arkin, “Bajour” with Chita Rivera and “Come Blow Your Horn.” She had prominent parts in Jerry Lewis’ “It’s Only Money,” “Funny Girl” and “Move.” Her television appearances included guest shots on series such as “Mrs. G Goes to College,” “The Naked City” and “77 Sunset Strip.”
Questel even starred on her own comedy record in the early 1970s. “Mrs. Portnoy’s Retort” was a satiric response to Philip Roth’s bestselling book “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Roth’s book was lauded for its candid depiction of obsessive masturbation, and the album took full advantage of this theme for a series of cheap laughs with Questel playing the role of the fictional Portnoy’s mother.
In the mid-1970s Questel was picked for the role of “Aunt Bluebell” in a series of commercials for Scott Towels, and was a fixture on television for years.
I talked to Questel several times since 1977 when I began my research at the Fleischer Studio and always found her to be bubbly, out-spoken, and self-confident. Her character of Aunt Bluebell, who would butt into other people’s problems with her unsolicited but friendly advice about paper towels, never seemed to me to be too far from reality. She wasn’t too happy that she wasn’t selected for Hanna-Barbera’s revival of Popeye, and was quoted by her son in a 1977 article that she was always hoping to get a telephone call from someone making more Betty Boops. She finally did get a chance to do Betty again in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”
One of her performances of note was in Woody Allen’s segment, “Oedepus Wrecks,” of the1989 anthology film “New York Stories.” Although the film as a whole received mixed notices, Questel’s performance was singled out for praise.
In poor health for a number of years, Questel lived to see and benefit from the rediscovery of Betty Boop. She died at age 89 in 1998.
The “real” Betty Boop
Helen Kane, who died in 1966 at the age of 62, enjoys an ironic form of immortality. Her features and style of singing are definitely caricatured by the Boop character, but relatively few people alive today are aware of it. For any performer that kind of twisted anonymity is a mixed blessing.
At the time of Betty’s birth in 1930, Kane was a successful stage and recording star. With her round face, spit curls and pouty little girl singing voice, she projected a curious blend of sexual knowingness and innocence. She was, like actresses Clara Bow and Joan Crawford, a “jazz baby.”
She began her performing career at the age of 15, and eventually reached the top of the vaudeville ranks earning as much as $8,000 a week. She became known for the songs “That’s My Weakness Now” and “I Wanna be Loved By You.”
At the time of the production of “Dizzy Dishes,” Kane was well known for her distinctive kewpie doll looks and high-pitched singing voice. Ironically, Natwick’s caricature of her in “Dizzy Dishes” is not all that apparent until the unnamed nightclub performer sings. Kane’s trademark was a scat-sing chorus of “boop-oop-a-doop,” which was included in the cartoon performance.
Kane appeared in several early sound films for Paramount, such as the campus musical “Sweetie” and starred in the musical short “A Lesson in Love.” Considering how the Fleischer Studio took advantage of its business arrangement with Paramount, it’s not surprising that a caricature of Kane turned up in their cartoons.
Comic strip historian Bill Blackbeard noted in his collection of the Betty Boop comic strips that Kane contacted King Features in 1933 when she learned that negotiations between the syndicate and Max for a Betty Boop comic strip were stalled. She proposed a strip called “Helen Kane, the Boop-Oop-A-Doop Girl,” which the syndicate accepted and ran in several Hearst newspapers in 1933 and 1934. The strip with its short-term contract was used as a bargaining chip in talks with Max. Once the deal was struck for a Betty Boop strip, the Kane strip was dropped.
Kane was drawn for her strip in a way that closely resembled Betty Boop. Interestingly the Kane and Boop strips both presented a “behind the curtain” view of life in show business.
Kane’s time in the spotlight was waning by the mid-1930s though, while Betty Boop’s career was flying high. Perhaps that is what motivated her lawsuit against Max Fleischer and Paramount in 1934.
On March 6, 1934, “The New York Times” reported that Kane “sails east to her trial in four weeks against Max Fleischer. Besides the previously known demands, Kane wants an accounting of the profits from the Paramount cartoon releases.” Kane was suing for unfair competition and imitation and sought the amount of $250,000. The trial began in April and concluded in May.
At the heart of the argument was just how much of the success of the Betty Boop cartoons could be traced to the spit curls and singing style of Helen Kane. On April 18, the “Times” reported that Max took three young women to court with him who had performed the Betty Boop voice who testified that they had made “no effort to imitate Miss Kane.”
In the April 20, 1934 “Times” story, Max “declared that his character is a figment of his imagination and that the hair dress of Betty Boop also was developed by himself and was in imitation of Miss Kane.” Fleischer had a lot to lose if Kane won the case, and his testimony, clearly a lie, was an effort to keep the lucrative Betty Boop character and to prevent further actions by Kane.
On April 23, Supreme Court Justice Edward S. McGoldrick viewed a Helen Kane sound film with two songs and then watched two Betty Boop cartoons. The “Times” reported McGoldrick was told that out of 46 Boop cartoons 66 songs were sung and of those only four had previously been performed by Kane. McGoldrick saw more footage of Kane on April 24.
“Lou Walton, a theatrical manager, testified that baby Esther, a Negro girl under his management, had interpolated words like ‘boo-boo-boo’ and ‘doo-doo-doo’ in song at a cabaret here in 1928 and that Miss Kane and her manager had heard her there. Justice McGoldrick will hear a sound film of her to aid his decision,” the “Times” reported on May 2, 1934. The implication was clear; Kane’s trademark was not hers and hers alone.
The decision was handed down on May 5, 1934. Kane’s suit was denied on the basis “the plaintiff had failed to sustain either cause of action by proof of sufficient probative action.” Kane and her attorney vowed to file an appeal, but never did.
In a 1935 interview, Kane said she was quitting show business because she was tired. Kane had amassed a considerable fortune during the peak of her fame, and, after fading from the public eye, invested in several businesses. Unfortunately, her investments failed, and Kane tried staging a comeback several times. When Debbie Reynolds portrayed her in the MGM musical “Three Little Words” (1950), Kane’s career was largely forgotten.
The year before her death, she had appeared on the Ed Sullivan’s long-running variety show in her last comeback effort. She had fought cancer for ten years prior to her passing according to her obituary in “Variety.”
Today, performers have greater legal protection over their features and trademark mannerisms and appearances. What Kane endured could not happen again.
Of the 120 Betty Boop cartoons, several head animators stand out as having repeated contact with Betty Boop. Willard Bowsky worked on 11, Roland Crandall on 12 and Tom Johnson on 17. No one at the studio matched Myron Waldman’s association with the series. Waldman worked on 29 of them, more than any other animator at the Fleischer Studios.
The Fleischer Studio did not assign animators and their units to particular characters or series. So, unlike directors such as Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and the team of Bill Hanna and Joe Barbara, few people at Fleischer’s ever became identified with a single character. Waldman’s track record with Betty Boop stands out, though. Waldman, who created Betty’s pet dog Pudgy for the series, was very self-effacing about his career in animation, despite the fact that he was the director of two of the four Fleischer shorts to be nominated for an Academy Award (“Hunky and Spunky” and “Educated Fish”). He did outstanding work on the Fleischer Superman series (“Billion Dollar Limited,” “Magnetic Telescope”) and directed the two-reel “Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy” short.
Waldman told me that much of Betty’s success could be traced to the work of animator Roland “Doc” Crandall. Crandall, born in 1892, left the studio in 1941 and was a commercial artist. He died in 1972.
Crandall’s biographical sketch in the studio newsletter reported “he had an early ambition to be a cartoonist and contributed political cartoons to the ‘Stamford Advocate when he was only 13 years-old and still living on the farm [in New Canaan, CT].
“Doc received his school in New Canaan and at the Yale Art School in new Haven, CT. His first job was in New York City with an engraving company. A few years later he decided to go west. He staked out a homestead in Montana sold it, and then went to Los Angeles, CA where he opened a commercial art studio. A year or so later he tried gold mining in Alaska. His next adventure was with the Yale Battalion Field Artillery during the Mexican border trouble. After this he decided to try animating and after a few minutes instruction was put to work animating ‘Foxy Grandpa’ and ‘The Katzenjammer Kids [two Hearst comic strips of the era]. During the World War, Doc went overseas with the 11th Engineers. He was in the Battle of Cambrai and later promoted to sergeant-major. He was then transferred to General Headquarters where he was put in charge of secret maps. At the close of the war he made a 13-reel animated history of war for the War College.
“Upon his return to New York he worked at the Bray Studios. When Max and Dave went into business, Doc was one of their first employees, some sixteen years ago. Ten years after the war, Doc returned to Paris and did a picture for the Paris Auto Show. He retuned to the studio in 1929 and a couple of years later animated ‘Snow White,’ a Betty Boop picture alone. It took him six months to do it.
“Doc is a genial person well liked by those who know him. He is five feet eight inches tall and weighs 145 pounds. He has brown hair, not very much of it. He keeps his blue eyes half shut because of the smoke coming from a cigarette that is always in his mouth. His most favored food is lima beans or clams. In the line of strong drinks give him gin. Demands that the coffee he drinks be good.
“Doc’s hobbies are stone fireplace building, digging lakes and landscaping. He owns a speedboat named ‘Rose Marie.’ His pet peeve is to get free advice. In 1923 he married Julia Hoffman, their son Davenport was born the following year. Doc is very fond of dogs and has a Welsh terrier named Paddy. Doc is a sound sleeper, once he falls asleep, but he usually resorts to counting sheep. Blue is his favorite color and 13 is his lucky number. Doc is now in charge of a new group [and] their first picture will be a Screen Song starring Wiffle Piffle. Max was the first person to call him ‘Doc’ and the name stuck. Someone we just can’t picture calling him anything else.”
Bowsky, according to animation historian Joe Campana, was a native New Yorker born in 1907. He began working at the studio in the late 1920s and was one of the young group of artists who were promoted to animators when a number of senior artists left in 1930.
Bowsky, according to Waldman, was one of the members of the Fleischer inner circle and was well liked by Max and Dave, despite complaints that he was anti-Semitic.
After the Fleischers lost their studio in a take-over by Paramount in the spring of 1942, Bowsky enlisted in the army and became a platoon leader in the 94th Calvary Reconnaissance Squadron. Campana wrote, “The 14th Armored Division arrived at Marseille, France on Oct. 30, 1944. Within a couple weeks Bowsky’s unit was among those mobilized to join the Seventh Army in the Southern Vosges Mountains (due east of Paris, near the German border.) Willard’s was among the squadrons that comprised The Division’s Combat Command A (CCA). They were soon ordered to advance into an area southwest of Strasbourg, just west of the Rhine. CCA’s mission was to clear German forces from the area and fight its way south to the town of Selestat. Cavalry squadrons were used for reconnaissance and were deployed in front of and along the flanks of advancing armored columns. Bowsky’s unit encountered a German column withdrawing eastward to cross the Rhine. A nighttime firefight erupted and Second Lieutenant Willard Bowsky was killed in action on Nov. 27, 1944. Willard and the men of his platoon were good soldiers who fought bravely. In the end the fight was won. Willard was a genuine war hero. He was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart and is interred at the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Alvold, France.”
Johnson was also a native New Yorker, born in 1907. According to his short biography in the studio newsletter, he had both an interest in drawing – he had his own comic strip at one point in school – and in motion pictures. Although going to school to become a teacher, his artistic bent made itself known through a side job as a sign painter.
He joined the studio as a writer in the story department and then switched to the animation department where he was eventually made the head of a group or unit. He stayed with the Fleischers and then with Famous Studios literally his entire career working on some of the last theatrical cartoons produced by Paramount in the late 1950s. Some of his last work was on the Felix the Cat television series produced by fellow Fleischer alumni Joe Oriolo. Johnson died in 1960.
Born in 1908, Waldman joined the Fleischer Studio in 1930 after graduating from the Fine and Applied Arts Program at the Pratt Institute. At the studio, he started as an opaquer and then moved into the inking department. After winning a studio competition, Waldman was promoted to the in-betweening department and was given his own animation unit in 1933. Waldman’s strength was with sentimental themes and softer gags, although he worked on several Popeye shorts and proved his abilities with the taxing Superman cartoons.
One Betty Boop cartoon of which Waldman was particularly proud is “A Language All My Own” (1935). Betty Boop was very popular in Japan, and this short was designed to appeal to the Japanese market. In the short, Betty travels to Japan and performs there. Waldman wanted to make sure that none of her gestures and movements would offend the Japanese, so he asked a number of Japanese exchange students in New York to check his work.
Waldman was also the creator of Betty’s dog, Pudgy, who was the star of many of the later Betty Boop cartoons.
Waldman was in a unique position at the Fleischer Studio. On one hand he was a talented and loyal team player, but on the other, he was an iconoclast who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. Waldman championed the cause of Lillian Friedman, the studio’s first woman animator when others gave her a rough time. He attempted to persuade Max to talk with striking artists in the lengthy 1937 strike.
Waldman returned to animation after serving in the Army during World War II. He worked at Famous Studios on Screen Songs, Popeye. Little Lulu, and Casper shorts. He wasn’t content just with a career in animation, though. He branched out to create a “novel without words,” “Eve,” that was a critical and financial success when it was published in 1943. He was the artist on the post-war Sunday comic strip “Happy the Humbug.” He appeared on television shows during the 1950s with his “Try A Line” drawing act
In the 1960s and ‘70s, he worked on a number of Saturday morning series, and was the director of the pilot for the “Out of the Inkwell” series produced by Hal Seeger. Seeger, a former Fleischer Studio employee, had convinced Max not only to sell him the rights to do the series, but to appear in the pilot as well. For his final appearance with his silent screen co-star, Waldman recalled that Fleischer had his hair dyed for the occasion. Waldman quit from the series when the budgets would not permit him to do Ko-Ko justice.
He continued to work with Seeger on subsequent series such as “Milton the Monster.”
Waldman stayed very active up to his death in 2006 with providing original artwork for collectors as well as creating limited edition cels. He was the last surviving head animator from the studio.
Betty’s musical directors
Sammy Timberg was the most important of the several tunesmiths used by the Fleischer Studio to compose music and songs for the Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, and other productions. Thanks to the efforts of his daughter Pat, he is beginning to receive the attention being afforded to fellow cartoon composers Carl Stalling and Scott Brady.
Sammy’s contributions to the Fleischer Studio productions reads like a cartoon Top Forty list. His works included the “Sweet Betty” theme song heard to introduce the Betty Boop shorts; the biggest hit from Gulliver’s Travels, “It’s a Hap Hap Happy Day”; “Don’t Take my Boop-Oop-A-Doop Away”; “I’m Sinbad the Sailor”; “Boy Oh Boy” from “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” and many others.
Sammy received an opportunity that Stalling and Brady never got at Warner Brothers and MGM. He composed all the music for the Fleischer Superman cartoons that enabled him to show a wider and more dramatic range of his musical abilities.
In a brief interview in 1977, Timberg told this writer that his favorite assignment at the studio was composing for the Betty Boop shorts. His contributions to the shorts were integral to their success. Since many of the Betty Boop shorts have show biz settings or references, Sammy’s classic Tin Pan Alley pop compositions were always on target. He also contributed greatly to the incidental music of the shorts as revealed by the cartoons musical cue sheets maintained by ASCAP.
Sammy obviously understood the intent of the animators and knew his characters. Some of his music provides a structure for the short, such as the great “I Want A Clean Shaven Man” in the Popeye cartoon of the same name. Other songs set the stage for the action of the short such as the song Popeye sings about looking for his father at the beginning of “Goonland.”
“The music had to be synchronized with the action, and I worked with the artists from the first drawings up to the end,” Sammy told one interviewer.
His compositions for the Superman shorts perfectly match the animation as being one of the true highpoints in American animation. The Superman shorts easily prove that Sammy had the talent to score dramatic films.
Sammy with Sammy Lerner (who composed the Popeye theme song) wrote two live-action shorts “Musical Justice” (1931) and “Musical Doctor” (1932). The two shorts starred Rudy Vallee and Mae Questel and the first short features Questel as Betty Boop.
Sammy had aspirations beyond his success in cartoons. His daughter Pat told this writer that her father never saw the value in that work and instead sought fame as a composer of hit popular songs and “serious” music. Considering that he had a classical music education with a teacher whose students included Aaron Copeland and George Gershwin and the lack of critical attention animated cartoons received in the 1930s and ‘40s, it’s little wonder Sammy favored other projects.
One only has to look at what Sammy was doing prior to his start at the Fleischer Studio. In 1930, he led a 100-piece orchestra at New York’s Capital Theater in performing his jazz rhapsody.
Listening to Pat speak about her father and his life is not unlike reading the plot of an old “behind-the-scenes of a show” musical.
Timberg was born in New York City on May 21, 1903, the youngest of seven children of Austrian immigrants. The death of his father forced the 15 year-old to abandon his training as a concert pianist and join his brother Herman in vaudeville.
Herman Timberg was an up-and-coming comedian, and Sammy was his straight man. A legend in vaudeville, Herman wrote one of the Marx Brothers’ early acts while Sammy provided the music for it, and their sister Hattie performed with them and acted as the business manager for the Marx Brothers.
After 14 years on the vaudeville circuit, Sammy decided to devote himself to his music. He wrote songs for several Broadway shows, and then found work with the Fleischer Studios. His music can be heard on dozens of Fleischer shorts and in several of the live-action musical comedy shorts produced by Paramount in New York featuring singer Rudy Valle. His association with animation lasted through the end of the Fleischer Studios and continued with the Famous Studios where he composed music for Little Lulu and Casper cartoons.
While essentially a New Yorker, Sammy ventured out to Hollywood on several memorable occasions. In the 1940s, the great dramatic actor Lionel Barrymore chose Timberg to compose the score for a recording of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”
Sammy collaborated with lyricists Buddy Kaye and Sammy Cahn on a number of popular songs. The song, “Help Yourself to My Heart,” written by Timberg and Cahn, was recorded by Frank Sinatra and included in a Sinatra retrospective released in the mid-1980s. Pat Timberg has discovered dozens of unreleased compositions among her father’s papers, including four other songs co-written by Cahn.
Later in his career, Timberg produced shows and managed performers such as Don Adams, Jackie Gleason and Edie Gorme. Pat remembers going to show business restaurants with her father and having people such as Milton Berle come to their table to greet Sammy. The Timbergs were truly a show business family as Pat’s mother and Sammy’s first wife, the late Rosemarie Sinnott, was a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer and magazine cover model.
His second marriage to a native of Scranton, PA eventually drew Sammy to that city where he spent the last years of his life. Full of old-fashioned show biz charm, Sammy was a well-known figure in the capital city, and just months before his death in 1992, Sammy was honored by the city with a “Sammy Timberg Day.”
“I did everything - managed people, conducted, wrote music, did everything in all ends of show business,” Timberg said in a 1984 interview. “It’s been a busy life.”
In late 1990s Pat released a CD of her father’s music that included new recordings of many of his songs for the Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons as well as an archival recording of Sammy Timberg performing one of his tunes and his theme from the Superman cartoons.
Lou Fleischer headed the music and sound department and came into the studio and helped make the process that produced the “Bouncing Ball” silent song cartoons possible.
The studio newsletter profile of him noted “he can not remember having any childhood ambitions around the house, which would indicate that his musical talent began to blossom early.
“He studied violin and piano and mastered them both. He is also an expert mathematician and knows the dope, all the way from zero to square root to the fifth power of the fourth dimension. Or whatever you call the higher mathematics.”
“…After the early period of his musical career had passed, he became associated with his brothers-in-law in the jewelry business. Things were going fine until ‘sound’ was introduced into the picture business. Max and Dave, his brothers, wanted him in the studio; his brothers-in-law wanted him in the jewelry business. Lou had helped out in the studio before, on the ‘bouncing ball’ feature. It was a hard decision to make, with two opposing forces pulling him from opposite directions. Max and Dave won, thus making it a twofold honor – that of having their brother with them and at the same time securing one of the best soundmen in the business.
“Lou’s tastes in music are what might be called broad. He likes all good music whether it is classical or popular. This ability to appreciate the best in all grades of music is a valuable asset to him in his present duties as music director of the Fleischer Studios.”
© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs