Happy Belated Birthday, Betty Boop!

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Betty Boop celebrated her 80th birthday this month, as her first appearance on film occurred on August 9, 1930. A relic of the jazz era, she was an icon of hope for Americans suffering through the Great Depression as her flapper persona reminded them of good times from the past.

A Real Dog

Betty's first appearance was in the cartoon Dizzy Dishes, where she was designed to be an object of lust for Bimbo, a dog character who was currently the lead in many of Max Fleischer's Talkartoons. Because she was created for Bimbo, she was originally an anthropomorphic poodle character, but she still had her Betty charms.

The character was based on the looks of singer Helen Kane (pictured), best known for her song "I Wanna Be Loved By You," and actress Clara Bow, who was the inspiration for Betty's Brooklyn accent. As Betty proved to be more and more popular, she evolved into a full human by 1932, her floppy ears turned into hoop earrings and her poodle nose was morphed into a cute button nose.

What's in a Name?

In Betty's first cartoon appearances, the supporting character didn't have a real name and was called "Nancy Lee" or "Nan McGrew" in a few episodes. Many people believe that Betty got her name in the 1931 cartoon Betty Co-ed, but the Betty this one was named after was a different character in the film. Creators say that her appearance in the movie did help inspire her name later on though.

Becoming A Star

By 1932, Betty was the lead star of the Talkarttoons. She was given her own series that same year and dubbed "The Queen of the Animated Screen." Her cartoon series was so popular that many other characters got their start in her series, including Popeye.

Adult Animation

Betty was one of the first sex symbols of animation and she remains one of the most famous. Unlike most cartoons we see today, her episodes were made to appeal to adult audiences. For this reason, there was a lot more sexuality in the cartoons themselves, she not only has cleavage, but in the episode above and in Bamboo Isle,  she didn't even have a top on. Characters would often try to take a peep at her and in many episodes, she would have to fight off a man who was trying to get fresh with her.

Despite all this, she still maintained a girlish innocence. In her appearance with Cab Calloway in Minnie the Moocher, for example, she's just a scared little girl who has run away from home. This was reflected in her design, where her large head is more reminiscent of a baby than of a human adult. This childish sexuality was a perfect balance for the flapper image Betty represented. This also suited her character's age—according to a 1932 interview with Max Fleischer, Betty was only supposed to be only 16 years old.

While on screen, she maintained her virtue, but behind the scenes, the company allowed her to be a little more naughty, sending a Christmas card out in 1931 that portrayed her in bed with Santa Claus, winking at the viewer.

A Feminist Icon

One of the reasons that Betty is so adored even to this day is the fact that many people see her as a feminist icon, oozing with sexuality, but preserving her virtue against dominating men. In fact, there are a few episodes that portray her fighting off intimidating men, even some where she is facing sexual harassment, a highly taboo subject at the time. In Boop-Oop-A-Doop, for example, Betty is a tightrope performer whose boss has followed her back into her tent and then threatens her job if she doesn't submit to his advances. Betty begs him to stop and is saved just in time by Koko the Clown.

But it seems unlikely that the creators actually intended to create her as an icon for women's advancement. In Betty Boop's Big Boss, Betty is harassed by her boss and fights of his advances when outraged police and the armed forces all attack the building in order to protect her. When her purported saviors rescue her, though, they find Betty willingly embracing the boss instead.

Betty In Color

If you always thought Betty had black hair, you're wrong. In her first and only official color cartoon, Poor Cinderella, she was actually portrayed as a redhead. In later years, when the cartoon was being syndicated for television, producers thought it might be a good idea to colorize the character, so they sent it to Korea for colorization, only to have it returned looking sloppy and cheap. No one bought the colorized cartoons and they were largely ignored as part of the library.

Of course, when merchandisers took advantage of her iconic style in the 80s, they colorized her according to the black and white cartoons, which is why she is now often seen with black hair and a red dress.

Controversies In the Real World

Fleischer Studios and Paramount Pictures were sued in 1932 by one of Betty's inspirations, Helen Kane. She claimed that their "deliberate caricature" of her exploited her personality and image and made it impossible for her to find work. After a two-year court battle, Kane lost, with the court determining that Betty also bore a resemblance to Clara Bow and that Kane's singing style was not entirely unique.

Just after the lawsuit ended, the studio was targeted by the National Legion of Decency and the Production Code of 1934. They were forced to reduce Betty's sexuality and she was forced to become a housewife/career girl with a new, prudish wardrobe. Just about everything Betty did was considered "suggestive of immorality" by Joseph Breen, the head film censor of the time, and even her winking and hip shaking were considered to be too suggestive.

The studio figured her new image would no longer appeal to her existing audience, so they started to aim the cartoons at a more juvenile crowd, which made the series decline even faster. Near the end of the series, they tried to make her more relevant to modern audiences by having her adapt to the swing era, but this didn't work either. Throughout her decline, the studio started pairing her with new co-stars and reducing her role in the show. In fact, the last Betty Boop series cartoon doesn't even have Betty in it.

Reviving The Bombshell

It seems that every time Betty's popularity fizzles out, she disappears for a moment only to come back a few years later with an entirely new audience. After her first disappearance from the limelight, she started becoming popular again when she was syndicated in 1955. As color television became the new trend and there seemed to be no place for black and white cartoons, she was adopted by the late 60s, early 70s counterculture movement. In the 80s, marketers realized they could make a fortune by selling all kinds of merchandise bearing her logo, to the point where many people these days don't even know she's actually a cartoon character. Personally, I didn't really like her until I started watching the old cartoons.

The 80s was perhaps her biggest revival period, as she also appeared in two TV specials during this time and was part of a comic strip that also featured Felix The Cat. She also made a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. At the same time, VHS and Beta collections of her cartoons were made public and a new generation of fans jumped on the bandwagon once more.

These days, Betty lives on through characters she inspired, such as Boopsie in Doonesbury and Toot in Drawn Together. There are even plans to release a Broadway show based on the character soon.

Image courtesy of grapitix's Flickr stream.

Are you a Betty Boop fan? If so, when did you first get into the character?

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August 18, 2010 - 10:41am
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