In the eight decades since her 1930s heyday, Betty Boop has been licensed and merchandised to the point of pure excess, appearing on everything from key chains and coffee mugs to bed sheets and car floor mats. I think it may be safe to assume that a good majority of those who recognize the character only know who she is because of the ubiquitous marketing blitz of her image. After all, Betty herself has not appeared onscreen since the 1980s, which saw two ill-fated television specials and a cameo appearance in the Disney film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and her cartoons have not been aired on television in years.
But in the pre-Code era, Betty was the queen of animation, and she had no peer. And yet, her popularity seemingly came out of nowhere. Originally intended to be a minor supporting character, Betty was introduced in 1930 in Max Fleischer’s Talkartoons, as the girlfriend of that series’ main recurring character, Bimbo. In her first appearance that year, in the cartoon Dizzy Dishes, Betty has a minor role as a singer in the restaurant where Bimbo works.
Thought not officially christened “Betty Boop” until the 1932 short Stopping the Show, the character, a quintessential flapper type, was a hit almost from the start. Like Bimbo, Betty was initially designed to look like an anthropomorphized version of a dog–in her case, she was poodle-esque in appearance, with low-hanging, floppy ears, a dog-like button nose, and a jaw structure that suggested a muzzle. Her general look, attitude, and voice were based in large part on singer and occasional actress Helen Kane; animator Grim Natwick used Kane’s wide eyes, bow-shaped mouth, and unique, scatting singing style as reference points in crafting the character. Betty retained her canine features until 1932, when she was redesigned to be more overtly human. [This ultimately signaled the death knell for Bimbo; though Betty maintained a romantic relationship with Bimbo for a short while, he was ditched in 1933, as it was considered unseemly for a human girl to be in love with a dog.]
In defining Betty Boop, Natwick once said, “Although she was never vulgar or obscene, Betty was a suggestion you could spell in three letters: s-e-x.” Indeed, every aspect of the character is designed to entice, from those Kewpie-doll features to her short, low-cut dresses and garters. And yet there is an innocence to Betty that is encapsulated in her breathy, squeaky, baby-talk voice, brought to life most memorably by voice-over artist Mae Questel (who also provided the voice for Fleischer’s other popular leading lady, Popeye’s paramour Olive Oyl). This makes for a character who is a potent combination of girl and woman, protecting her chastity from wolves and scoundrels while punctuating every song with an alluring wink and a shake of the hips.
That pervasive sexuality is a hallmark of the Betty Boop cartoons, and most of them–at least, the ones produced before 1934–are not intended for children. There is a darkness to many of the earlier Boop shorts, which reference controversial themes such as rape (1932’s Chess-Nuts), sexual harassment (1933’s Betty Boop’s Big Boss), and even ephebophilia (after all, Betty’s supposedly only sixteen years old!). Tied into these darker themes is an inescapable atmosphere of innuendo and risqué imagery. The scenarios in which Betty finds herself can be quite disturbing, and the innuendo is sometimes overly heavy-handed. This is not to say that these early shorts are not enjoyable, however; quite the opposite, in fact, and they seem incredibly tame by today’s standards (as one might expect). But they are most definitely a product of their time.
That time, all told, was relatively brief. By mid-1934, Production Code strictures demanded the raising of Betty’s necklines, the lowering of her hemlines, and a serious shift in the sexual tone of the cartoons. With that, some of the magic of the character was lost. For the most part, the post-1934 Betty Boop shorts lack bite and verve. The humor is watered down, and the naughty appeal of the first few years of the series is lost in a haze of family-friendly blandness as Betty takes up more “housewifely” duties. By the time the character was retired in 1939, Betty was merely a shadow of her former self, and would soon be largely forgotten until syndication of her theatrical cartoons on television brought her briefly back into the spotlight in the 1950s.
Most of the post-1934 Betty Boop cartoons have lapsed into the public domain and can be found on cheap DVD compilations or through the Internet Archive. As for the non-public domain cartoons from the pre-Code period, many of them have been released on Blu-ray and DVD over the past year through Olive Films. Three collections of Boop classics have already been released; one is forthcoming in September. All of the cartoons have been newly remastered in 4K from the original 35mm source materials, and Betty looks especially fantastic on Blu. If you’re a fan of her “boop-oop-a-doop,” you owe it to yourself to buy these sets.
Or you could buy another cheaply-made, mass-produced Betty Boop alarm clock. Your choice.