I was 18 years old when I got my first dose of Betty Boop. It was at a three day film festival at the University of South Florida where cartoons and shorts had been programmed to screen between the movies. I remember the first encounter was Betty Boop, M.D. (1932)—and let me tell you, it was your proverbial love at first sight. This was just amazing stuff—like nothing I’d ever seen before. Oh, I’d heard of Betty Boop, but whatever reason she’d never been a part of any cartoon package that had come my way as a child, and at that time (1973) film history hadn’t paid much attention to animated films as more than a footnote. In many cases, cartoons were considered an almost evil development that was blamed for killing off the short film.
There were 16 features screened that weekend—some I’d seen, others I hadn’t—but I doubt it anything I encountered for the first time came anywhere near the impact of the Betty Boop cartoons. There were only three, so we’re talking about 21 minutes of screen time all told. But what a 21 minutes it was. For those who don’t know Betty Boop, only know the image of the character, or—God forbid—only know the cartoons after the production code sanitized the cartoons into a vomitable morass of treacle that bore only a nominal relation to the original. Betty is hard to comprehend. You have to see her.
There was no pretense—at least early on—that these cartoons were aimed at children. Betty—even in her earliest incarnation when they can’t seem to decide whether she’s human or a dog—is meant to be sexy. She dresses provocatively. Her skirt is very short—to the degree that when she bends over her panties are often exposed. And when that doesn’t happen, there never seems a lack of invention about her skirt being blown upwards. She wears a garter. She has cleavage and wears backless dresses that defy the law of gravity. Occasionally, her clothes fly off her altogether. And should she be wearing a long gown, it’s very sheer—often backlit so we see through it—and clings to her contours. Other characters are openly lecherous in their pursuit of her. In Boop-Oop-a-Doop (1932), the lecherous villain strokes her bare leg in his attempt to take her “boop-oop-a-doop” away. The Old Man of the Mountain (voiced by Cab Calloway) in the 1933 cartoon of the same name waggles his tongue at her obscenely. Olive Oyl she ain’t—even if Mae Questel (usually) voiced both roles.
It doesn’t stop there. The jokes tend to be risque, and on a Freudian level the imagery is almost constantly sexual. Some of this was likely unconscious on the part of the Fleischer Brothers—Max and Dave—who were responsible for the cartoons. I suppose that it is possible—as has often been put forth—that they were unaware of the drug references in the Cab Calloway song “Minnie the Moocher,” but I’m hard-pressed to believe they were so naive that they didn’t understand Louis Armstrong singing, “You bought my wife a bottle of Coca-Cola so you could play on her vagola,” in his version of “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal, You.” How that got past even in the pre-code era still baffles me.
And there’s also a nightmarish—occasionally downright horrific—element to the cartoons. In fact, the aspect of Betty Boop, M.D. that really grasped my interest was its ending where a baby drinks a bottle of “Jippo” (some medicine show panacea Betty is peddling) and transforms into the Fredric March Mr. Hyde from Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). Something very like the Frankenstein Monster (Bimbo even says, “It’s alive!”) pops up in Betty Boop’s Penthouse (1933). Ghosts of all kinds, ambulatory skeletons, witches, demons and monsters show up with very little provocation in places not always expected. And then there is the uncertainty of everything. These cartoons are as surreal as it gets. Anything might transform into something else without warning and supposedly solid inanimate objects often have the texture of human flesh (and the shape is often phallic). It’s all pretty disconcerting—but in a good way.
Beyond that is the animation style itself. You may think you know the Fleischer style their 1930s Popeye cartoons—the good ones with the cabin doors opening and closing for the credits—and to some degree that’s true. The drawing style is similar and the backgrounds the same cracked plaster, slightly rundown motif. Then too, a kind of rhythmic style achieved by the intelligent use of cycles (repeated actions) is there, but the Boop cartoons have a rhythm all their own. They’re more rubbery—for want of a better word—and some of them seem to almost throb. There simply isn’t anything quite like them.
The original idea did not center around Betty, but rather around Bimbo the dog. Betty was an afterthought—a kind of girlfriend for Bimbo. That’s the reason why the earlier versions of Betty give her long, floppy ears. That these dog ears are attached to an otherwise basically human figure is actually downright peculiar, but then so are most of the Bimbo cartoons that contain the dog Betty. Take Mysterious Mose (1930), which based on the novelty song by that name. There’s really little more here than a situation, which finds Betty cowering in bed, apparently from the threat of the title character. She’s so scared that her nightgown keeps flying off. Not long afterwards, Mysterious Mose—who appears to be Bimbo—shows up and all manner of hallucinatory things occur as the song is taken up by various morphing creatures and musical instuments, including a disconcerting caterpillar playing the saxophone. Finally, Bimbo/Mose explodes and proves to have been a wind-up toy.
One of the best—and weirdest—of the Bimbo-centered efforts (at least those involving Betty) is Bimbo’s Initiation (1931). Again, it’s little more than a situation. Bimbo is happily walking along a street when he falls down a manhole and slides down a long tunnel into a roomful of strange robed figures with heads that resemble bearded bowling balls topped with candles. They exhort him to join their secret society, but Bimbo is simply not interested. These fellows, however, aren’t prone to take “no” for an answer and proceed to thrust Bimbo into a nightmare world of threats and tortures that all lead to the question, “Wanna be a member?” After a variety of these scenarios (one of which was copied exactly in live action in Richard Elfman’s 1981 film Forbidden Zone), one of the robed figures reveals itself to be Betty, at which point Bimbo wants to be a member, whereupon the others disrobe and they’re all Betty. As if to celebrate, Betty and Bimbo take turns spanking each other. No comment.
As Betty became increasingly popular—and increasingly human—she took over the lead and the Fleischers resurrected their original star, Koko the Clown, to add to the mix. Perhaps they realized that there was something not quite normal about Betty having a dog—however humanoid—for a boyfriend. Taken to its logical conclusion that sort of thing just won’t play in Peoria. (Of course, today it would find a home as a website for specialized tastes. Perhaps it already has, but I don’t know and am afraid to find out—and would as soon that those with such knowledge keep their links to themselves.)
If the focus on characters shifted, the central preoccupations with surrealism and the outre did not. Betty’s adventures could take her anywhere from Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle (1932) to Betty Boop’s Museum (1932) to Mother Goose Land (1933). In Red Hot Mamma (1934) she even went to hell, where she gave some lecherous demons the (quite literally) cold shoulder and froze Satan himself with an icy stare. Betty was unstoppable even by the big cheese of hell himself. She was not, however. immune from the Breen Office and the Production Code of 1934, and soon Betty as we knew her would be gone—replaced by an impostor in demure clothing, robbed of her garter, shorn of a number of her spit curls. She was given new sidekicks and thrust into saccharine scenarios and adventures that weren’t worth being called adventures.
But let’s not dwell on the inglorious ending of sweet Betty. Let’s go back to those first exposures I had to her in 1973 for a bit. While Betty Boop, M.D. intrigued me and I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You (1932) had amused me, it was Snow-White (1933) that sealed the deal. I groaned when I saw the title, thinking this was going to be a lame affair. I was perplexed when the film announced “Vocal Chorus ‘Saint James’ Infirmary Blues’ sung by Cab Calloway.” I only vaguely knew who Cab Calloway was—and that consisted of one song, “Jumpin’ Jive,” discovered on one of my parents’ Remember How Great? LPs that collected songs from Lucky Strike’s Your Hit Parade. Even with that sketchy knowledge, I couldn’t see what this could have to do with Snow-White. About six-and-a-half minutes later, I was Betty’s devoted follower and a Cab Calloway fan for life. I think my friends would say the same.
That was in my earliest days of film collecting. In fact, it was watching these films that prompted me to make the leap from Super 8mm sound (which was never satisfactory) to 16mm prints. That I had no projector seemed of small concern—as long as we had access to the Episcopal Church parish hall and their old Kodak Pageant (not to mention that Coca-Cola machine that dispensed Coke in glass bottles for one thin dime). At that time, the Betty Boop cartoons were fairly common on movie collector lists. They tended to run $16 a cartoon, which seemed pretty reasonable since features were going to ten times that amount and more. Naturally, the first Betty Boop I ordered was Snow-White.
When it arrived we made our way that night to the parish hall, taking along as many people as we could. The question in the minds of those of us who had seen the cartoon was whether it could really be as wonderful and strange as it had seemed. We needn’t have worried. No sooner had its seven minutes unspooled than someone new asked, “Can we watch that again?” We did. In fact, I’m pretty sure we watched Snow-White at least ten times that night, and we could likely have watched it ten more. It was—and to me remains—endessly fascinating on every conceivable level.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the second of three cartoons—the others being Minnie the Moocher (1932) and The Old Man of the Mountain (1933)—where Betty met up with Cab Calloway. And I mean that literally, since the characters to whom he gives voice are rotoscoped from his movements, so in essence—at least in terms of movement—that really is Cab up there dancing in his inimitable way on the screen. In Minnie the Moocher he appeared as the singing and dancing ghost of a walrus (who the hell thinks in these terms?). In The Old Man of the Mountain he first shows up as an owl and then as the title character. In Snow-White he first inhabits Koko the clown until the wicked step-mother (in witch form) uses her magic mirror to turn him into a ghostly creation that’s mostly legs. I doubt it many would argue that this center film isn’t the best of the three.
Snow-White is one of those rarest of rare works that just become more impressive the more you see it. In its particular case, it just become more mind-blowing the more you see it. I was discussing it with a friend the other night and we started talking about the incredible array of symbolic sexual imagery in the film. We talked about the magic mirror with its fleshy phallic handle, about Koko and Bimbo grinding their tools into powder under Betty’s spell. We discussed all the train-in-the-tunnel moments in the film and the symbolic meaning of the “Mystery Cave” in which the film climaxes amidst a riot of even more phallic imagery. Dr. Freud himself would have fainted dead away at how much of this is packed into seven minutes. And then my friend commented on the way in which Betty tugs of the appendage of the alarm clock-doorbell at the beginning of the cartoon—something I’d never noticed in 37 years and countless viewings. So I checked it out—and damned if he wasn’t right. The thing is that there is so much going on in any given shot—I’m tempted to say any given frame—that it’s virtually impossible to catch all of it. There is always more to see.
The cartoon has a bit more plot than usual, following—more or less—the Snow White story with an obvious belief that the viewer is familiar with it. When her magic mirror not only tells her that Betty is the fairest in the land, but makes a grab for this fairest of all, the wicked stepmother queen orders palace guards Koko and Bimbo to cut off the offending beauty’s head. But they are so moved by Betty’s song that they end up falling down a long shaft. which covers itself with snow to appear to be a grave. The tree she’s tied to takes pity on Betty and sets her free, but she trips over a tree stump and rolls along as a gathering snowball, which is then transformed into a kind of snow coffin that turns into an ice coffin after passing through a lake. The ice coffin slides right through the house of the seven dwarfs. who immediately beome pall bearers and ski with the coffin into the aforementioned Mystery Cave.
At this point, the stepmother discovers her orders haven’t been carried out, so she transforms herself into a witch by passing the magic mirror over her. (This is forever accompanied in my mind’s ear by the sound of a girl from 1973 crying, “Far f**king out!” at the sight.) She then glides down the open shaft and exiting steps on the heads of the unconscious Bimbo and Koko, who are awakened and freed from their suits of armour, whereupon Koko starts singing “St. James Infirmary” and joins the funeral procession in the Mystery Cave. All of this is accomplished so smoothly—aided by a marvelous soundtrack comprised of clever uses of “Please” and “Here Lies Love” from The Big Broadcast (1932)—that there’s never a reason to worry about dramatic logic.
While the other two Cab Calloway cartoons also have their key musical numbers in a cave, this one takes the prize for atmosphere, imagination and creepiness. The whole frame is alive with detail on every level—the backgrounds, which tend to illustrate such lyrics as “Then give me six crap-shootin’ pall bearers,” are particularly notable. Within the frame itself you have not only Calloway’s incomparable moves—here reduced to the barest essentials in terms of form—but various ectoplasmic manifestations move through the air in time to the song. The Calloway form is the ultimate in fleshy impermanence here, transforming into a singing $20 gold piece on a watch chain at one point, and removing its own head which turns into a whisky bottle from which it pours “another shot of that booze.”
Reading about the film doesn’t do it justice. It has to be seen to be believed and to be enjoyed. As far as I’m concerned, you can keep the Disney feature. For me, this is the real stuff. We ran this cartoon before the feature at one of the first Thursday Horror Picture Shows as part of the pre-feature entertainment. Chance are we’ll run it again at some point—maybe more. Why? Simply because it and Sweet Betty are just about the coolest things ever. I can’t think of a better reason.