Cartoon character Betty Boop took the world by storm upon her debut in 1931. Her unique voice, signature “Boop-Oop-a-Doop” catchphrase and Jazz-age flapper dancer look made her standout from her Disney and Looney Tunes animation contemporaries. She was aimed at an adult audience and was considered one of the first Hollywood sex symbols. Like many other areas of American cinema at the time, when the Production Code was implemented in 1934, Boop saw drastic changes in representation and personality. She went from a carefree, sexually confident independent woman to a conservative fully dressed introvert.
Boop was the brainchild of Max Fleischer. He was born on July 18, 1883, and was also known for bringing the Popeye the Sailor Man comic strip to the silver screen. After completing a commercial art degree, Fleischer worked in various forms in the entertainment industry. He started Inkwell Studios with his brother, Dave, in 1921. Besides Betty Boop and Popeye, Inkwell Studios are also famous for creating the first Superman cartoons. Dave directed all one hundred plus Betty Boop shorts.
Changing the name in 1929, Fleischer Studios pioneered sound in animation. The first series was Song Car-Tunes in 1924. It beat Disney’s Steamboat Willie – Mickey Mouse’s debut – by almost four years. Each Song Car-Tunes entry was approximately three minutes long and also started the “follow the bouncing ball” trend. Audiences could now singalong by following a ball on the screen as it moved to music and subtitles. Talkartoons was another series of short animation films introduced in 1929. This is where Boop first appeared.
Betty Boop’s first incarnation was an anthropomorphic French poodle. Within a year of her first short, Dizzy Dishes, Boop’s appearance changed to a woman. Her human form was modelled after Clara Bow, Helen Kane and “Baby” Etsher Jones. Bow was known for her supporting roles in It and Wings. Both films came out in 1927, with Wings winning Best Picture at the first Academy Awards. Kane and Jones were both 1920s Jazz singers. Kane was known as “The Boop Boop a Doop Girl”, eerily similar to the character’s famous catchphrase “Boop-Oop-a-Doop”.
A handful of women have voiced Boop, but Mae Questel is by far the most recognised. Born in 1908, her original plan was to become a teacher. Questel got the role after participating in a Helen Kane impersonation contest. She won and received $100 (no figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation). The contest ran yearly from 1928 to 1938 and women aged between six and eighteen could enter. Questel was also famous for voicing Olive Oil in the Popeye cartoons.
In 1932, Kane sued Fleischer and his studio for using her likeness as Betty Boop without permission. She demanded $250,000 in compensation and the lawsuit dragged on for a couple of years. Kane said to Fleischer she would drop the case if he fired the other women and made her the sole voice of Boop. He only wanted Questel and the case continued. The lawsuit ended when footage of “Baby” Etsher Jones performing surfaced that proved that she was the real caricature and inspiration for Boop. Jones was unable to be located to testify. It was later believed she had died the year before.
At the height of her popularity, Boop was shown in cinemas all over the world. She was especially well received in Japan. So much so that Boop sings in Japanese in A Language All My Own (1935). Fleischer wanted to make sure the cartoon was as authentic as possible and used Japanese exchange students as a test audience.
A stricter Motion Picture Production Code was introduced in 1934. It was a way of censoring film content before distribution. It was regulated within the industry itself by the Legion of Decency, a group that had strong ties to the Catholic Church. The doctrine consisted of a list that was thought to be offensive to a film going audience. Some areas that were boycotted included homosexuality, interracial lovers, drug and alcohol use, abortion and nudity. Couples were no longer allowed to be seen in the same bed together on screen. Boop was caught in the crossfire.
Her appearance changed drastically and she started wearing long dresses and cardigans. Her hoop earrings and bracelets disappeared. She slowly lost her signature curls and got a boyfriend, Freddie. Her personality changed and she became quieter and less outspoken. Over time, the stories began to focus more on Boop’s supporting cast members – Pudgy the dog, Koko the Clown and the eccentric Grampy – and less on her. The audience began to lose interest and production of new Boop cartoons came to an end in 1939. Questel retired from voice acting to start a family around the same time. Fleischer Studios had financial issues and was defunct by 1942. Boop faded into obscurity.
Betty Boop cartoons were among the first to enter television syndication in the 1970s. She found a new audience and resurgence here. Boop made a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). She appeared in her original black and white form and was, again, voiced by Mae Questel. Besides some failed TV specials over the last thirty years, no new Betty Boop comeback has occurred. Questel passed away in 1998. Boop’s creator, Max Fleischer, died in 1972. These days Boop exists only in merchandise and for her nostalgia factor.
Author’s Note: Betty Boop Through the Years is dedicated to my mum, Sherryn Mary Kernaghan, an original Boop revival fan who left this world too soon. Your love and inspiration still guide me, and I still hear your voice in my head telling me off whenever I do something stupid.
This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on July 12th, 2017. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)
100 Little Known Facts About Betty Boop (http://bettyboop.wikia.com/wiki/100_Little_Known_Facts_About_Betty_Boop)
Betty Boop and the Production Code of 1934 (http://www.oocities.org/d-patanella/boop.html)
Betty Boop – Under The Production Code (http://www.liquisearch.com/betty_boop/under_the_production_code)
Betty Boop Wiki (http://bettyboop.wikia.com/wiki/Betty_Boop)
Clara Bow Biography.com (https://www.biography.com/people/clara-bow-9221851)
Helen Kane (http://bettyboop.wikia.com/wiki/Helen_Kane)
Mae Questel: The Voice Behind Betty Boop (https://www.biography.com/news/voice-of-betty-boop-mae-questel)
Max Fleischer Biography.com (https://www.biography.com/people/max-fleischer-082515)
The Forgotten Black Woman Behind Betty Boop (https://www.thecut.com/2017/03/the-forgotten-black-woman-behind-betty-boop.html)