With a head like a giant peanut, vast mascara’d eyes, too-kissable lips, baby-doll voice (courtesy of singer Mae Questel), flattened marcelled hair, and mere threads of a dress exposing miles of hot flesh, she was the perfect celluloid sex toy.
Recent right-wing attacks on the Internet as not being “safe for children” remind us that there were times in our cultural history when “safe for children” was not at the top of an artist’s agenda. (Maybe when parents, not artists, were expected to police kids.) During the pre-Code era of the early 1930s, Hollywood cranked out an endless supply of movies featuring slick pimps, murderous prostitutes, screaming queens, unrepentant gangsters, and other such characters who make life worth living.
Even kiddie art forms like cartoons weren’t “safe.” This can be attributed largely to the violent, sexy, jazzy, and imaginative work of Max and Dave Fleischer, arch-enemies of the Disney aesthetic and creators of the big-screen Popeye and Betty Boop. The 1995 video compilation Betty Boop Confidential lets us rediscover some of Betty’s best work for the Fleischers, along with a few other Depression-era surprises.
Betty is best remembered for her red-hot jazz baby persona. With a head like a giant peanut, vast mascara’d eyes, too-kissable lips, baby-doll voice (courtesy of singer Mae Questel), flattened marcelled hair, and mere threads of a dress exposing miles of hot flesh, she was the perfect celluloid sex toy.It wasn’t just her flesh, though there was plenty of that; Betty practiced what her body preached. We see her frequently undressing and stealing kisses from clowns and cats and other indeterminate creatures, as well as a more humanish Prince Charming. Not that Betty didn’t have her standards. When the fat circusmaster in Boop-Boop-a-Doop (1931) runs his hand up and down her exposed thighs, Betty recoils in disgust and sings a mock-lament to the sympathetic circus audience: “Please don’t take my boop-boop-a-doop away.” Now, what could she have meant by that? In Poor Cinderella (1934), dressed in her familiar teensy black bra and shredded skirt, she again bemoans the lack of sex — I mean, romance — in her life as she sings, “Always in the way… I can never play.”
In Bimbo’s Initiation (1931) she cooperates with a group of creatures of uncertain ethnicity and species in trying to persuade/force Bimbo (her pal in some of the cartoons) to join their “Mystic Order of the Boom Boom a Latcha!” They try all kinds of violent and mystifying tricks, but only Betty succeeds through sheer attitude by sticking out her suddenly elongated buttocks and coyly whacking them before a jacked-up, mesmerized Bimbo.
Sadomasochists will enjoy Boop-Boop-a-Doop for its image of Betty as dominatrix, eagerly cracking the whip at a group of menacing lions. One of these lions gives jaded modern audiences a bonus, as he turns out to be a mincing queen who’s the soul of dainty decorum: “Pahdon me,” he says to Betty, “you dropped ya handkachief.”Another thing that set Betty apart from the “cute li’l animals” schools of cartooning that abounded in this pre-Warner Bros. era was her association with black jazz. In a Snow White (1932) that capsizes the Disney feature six years later, Betty’s friend Koko the Clown lip- and hip-synchs Cab Calloway’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” right down to the strutting and pimping. Snow White is also a textbook example of what made the Fleischers great, as Koko is magically transformed not only into Cab Calloway, but also a ghost, a gold coin, and a liquor bottle that drinks itself. Like the Fleischer cartoons themselves, Betty’s “simplicity” masks a world of jazz-age sophistication.
This retro is as much about the Fleischers as about beloved Betty and features several non-Betty cartoons. Swing You Sinners! (1930) is a typical example of their handiwork, as Bimbo is terrorized by every piece of a graveyard right down to the grass after trying to steal a chicken. You Try Somebody Else (1932), a “bouncing ball” singalong with a young, brassy Ethel Merman, features one of the Fleischers’ most bizarre (but typical!) images: a group of smiling animal convicts strapped to electric chairs in a careening traincar, laughing while they get fried!