Saturday, October 6, 2012

Betty Boop - she's such a bitch

The cartoons I used to watch very early on Saturday mornings (I mean before the REAL cartoons came on, like Huckleberry Hound and Bullwinkle and Linus the Lion-Hearted) were way, way old. I mean, these barely had any talking in them, mostly just wacky music from some distant era, and I loved them.

There was something called Tarrytoons, early Warner Brothers cartoons called Merrie Melodies, very old Disney (I particularly remember "Bugs in Love"), and of course ancient Popeye, a figure so coarse and ugly he should have scared me. Not only was he smoking a pipe, one of his eyes really was popped out!

At the end of these antique Popeyes there was just a split-second glimpse of an inkwell, trademark of the animator Max Fleischer (video posted above). As a kid I used to wonder if I was imagining it, it was over so quick. I thought it was magical. Much later, when my kids and I got into the habit of taping bizarre old cartoons, we used to try to freeze-frame on it, usually with no success.

But before Popeye, even, there was Betty Boop, a frenetic little sexpot hallucinated by the Fleischer studio. These cartoons had a fever dream quality combined with non-stop, manic activity. The characters, as far as I could make out, were all animals, some of them very hard to identify. (And let's not get into that Goofy versus Pluto debate, and how a mouse could own a dog.) When they first brought out Betty Boop in the surreal Dizzy Dishes - she isn't even named but just sort of appears standing on a table - it all gets very strange, indeed.


It gets very strange because Betty has bulldog jowls,long pendulous ears, and a snout that keeps popping out grotesquely. Betty either has some sort of bizarre facial deformity, or else. . .

She's a dog.

A dog wearing garters and high heels. In other words, a bitch.

In subsequent cartoons the animators decided to turn her into a human being, making her flappy ears into earrings that still looked suspiciously canine. Mae Questel's squeaky voiceovers helped bring her decidedly flaky character into focus. 

People have come out with all sorts of boopery about this subject: how Betty reflected the morals and mores of the times, how her barely-there skirt (always showing at least one garter) and wispy top, which sometimes fell off altogether, illustrated the daring style and energy of the madcap twenties and early '30s. Turner Classics made a whole documentary about this, about pre-Code Hollywood and the racy, suggestive language and dress that was common in movies before Will Hays and the suffocating legion of "decency" (read: sexless repression) shut it all down.

You can see what happened to Betty over the years, and it's alarming: her barely-there dress evolves into a suffocating uniform, completely destroying her giggly, girlish flapper/vamp image. But the thing to remember about Betty is, she was a caricature right from the start.

If anyone had a head that size, for one thing, they'd bloody fall over. (Though note that the later Boop incarnation shows a head much more in proportion with her body.) Her huge eyes with their fans for lashes are almost scary. She's a sexpot who jumps out of an inkwell, but she might as well be jumping out of a cake at some LSD-inspired stag party. 

You have to ask yourself: was this character really created for children? Cartoons started off as general entertainment, a way of padding out the bill (you really got your money's worth in those days), usually shown with a movie feature or double-bill along with the newsreel and short subject. People had longer attention spans in those days and could stand to sit in a theatre for three or four hours.

If the movie was adult in nature, then - most likely - so were the cartoons. In the early 30s, this trampy little vamp ran around in her nearly-nothings, showing cleavage, having little "accidents" that tore her clothes away entirely so she had to dive behind something.
Meant for kids? Though it was hardly Fritz the Cat, I doubt it.

Somewhere along the line, maybe when TV came in, cartoons began to gravitate kidward and grow more tame. I never even saw most of the outrageous Boop cartoons I've found on YouTube: they must have been banned as unwholesome. Don't want innocent 8-year-old boys having fantasies about some trampy little tart!

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