By Joan Amenn
The Jazz Age was a time of short skirts, high heels and wild adventures-and even the animated cartoons got into the act. Betty Boop was the embodiment of a flapper from the 1920’s complete with bobbed curls, long eyelashes and a sassy garter belt peeking from her flippy skirt. She was the creation of a now almost forgotten animator named Max Fleischer.
Max Fleischer was an innovative artist who in many ways was the successor to the creative genius of Winsor McCay. Fleischer was a poor immigrant who came to New York with his family in 1887. He studied to be an artist and got a job as a cartoonist at a small Brooklyn newspaper. But Max was soon joining an old newspaper buddy who had started his own animation studio, John Randolph Bray.
This was the same John Bray who had stolen the animation techniques of Winsor McCay while he was creating “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914) and lost in court for infringement, resulting in him paying McCay a settlement for years. However, his knowledge did lead him to set up his studio along with the same practices as McCay used, only with a more piecemeal way of having multiple animators work on a project simultaneously.
Fleischer created his first animated shorts at Bray’s studio starting in 1918. These were called the “Out of the Inkwell” series because they began with Fleischer sitting at his drawing board and dipping his pen in ink. This combination of live-action and animation was originally seen in McCay’s “Gertie,” but Fleischer’s animated shorts became so popular they enabled him to start his own studio with his brother Dave.
“Betty was originally drawn as a poodle but was quickly redesigned to be the first cartoon woman to be blatantly sexual. She became Fleischer’s biggest hit, making him as popular as Walt Disney in the 1930’s.”
Fleischer Studios was the beginning of some significant innovations. The Rotoscope, which allowed animators to trace over filmed live actors, was invented by Fleischer. Another popular creation was the sing-along where theatre audiences were invited to “follow the bouncing ball” that traced over song lyrics on the bottom of the animated short. And then strolled in the “Queen of the Animated Screen”-Betty Boop.
Strangely, Betty was originally drawn as a poodle but was quickly redesigned to be the first cartoon woman to be blatantly sexual. She became Fleischer’s biggest hit, making him as popular as Walt Disney in the 1930’s. Betty was an obvious caricature with a large head, huge eyes and long legs. She was depicted as being child-like in her innocence and her tendency to use baby-talk. Her tagline, “Boop-boop-a-doop” and her devotion to her small dog friend Bimbo neutralized the potential for the film censors to complain.
“She first appeared in “Dirty Dishes” in 1930 and it was obvious that she borrowed her looks from other famous performers of the time, such as actress Clara Bow.”
However, Betty occasionally found herself being pursued by predatory males who were attracted to her and her style of singing. Bimbo the dog usually came to the rescue, sometimes enlisting the help of Koko the clown. She first appeared in “Dirty Dishes” in 1930 and it was obvious that she borrowed her looks from other famous performers of the time, such as actress Clara Bow.
Audiences loved her and Fleischer once again employed his live-action/animation technique to have Betty sing with Cab Calloway in the short film, “Minnie the Moocher” (1932) named after his famous hit song. Betty would have several years of popularity, but the National Legion of Decency finally weighed in with their objections and Betty was remade a reformed, and not very much fun, girl. She had a great run, however, and made a cameo appearance in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988) where she shared a scene with Jessica Rabbit whose looks were certainly influenced by the original party girl, Betty Boop.