Betty Boop suffered the indignity of lewd and lascivious employers groping her and threatening her for sexual favors. Then the hapless creature suffered the indignity being called naughty by the Code.
The cartoon heroine with the giant head with its coy rolling eyes burst from the Fleischer studio in the early 1930s and made full use of what the new sound technology had to offer. Mae Questel, who voiced Betty, did a Helen Kane impersonation, and “boop-oop-a-doop” became a catch phrase.
An interesting evolution of Betty and the Fleischer manner of production is noted in “Serious Business” by Stefan Kanfer (Scribner, 1997), which notes that unlike the Disney studio which recorded the dialogue before creating the cartoon, a method which continues today, Fleischer did it the other way around. Max Fleischer had the cartoon created first, a kind of stream-of-consciousness storytelling on the part of the cartoonist (which led to some pretty weird dream-like scenarios for Betty and her crew), and then the sound came afterwards.
Mae Questel was reportedly very good at ad libbing, as this is what she was required to do in the recording session after the cartoon was filmed. The actors watched the cartoon and then invented lines to go with what was happening on the screen. (A technique which led to Popeye, another Fleischer production, noted for its humorous extemporaneous patter of dialogue.)
Some of Betty’s earliest outings have been called by some critics, including Leonard Maltin, as a kind of “cartoon noir” because of the menacing shadows and looming backgrounds, and the inanimate objects that spring to life in threatening manner. Betty started as a guest in “Bimbo’s Initiation” (1931). Bimbo and Ko-Ko, a clown, were the Fleischer stars through the 1920s. By the time Fleischer’s “Snow White” was released in 1931 (not a bit like the Disney’s version), Betty was established as the star of Fleischer Studios.
From “Stopping the Show”, “Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle” both from 1932 we get Betty singing, stripping, and pouring her heart out. Naiveté was never so suggestive. The cartoons always had at least one song, and the scenarios were usually risqué.
Cab Calloway’s dance steps were Rotoscoped on the body of Ko-Ko, and he wailed “St. James Infirmary.” Betty imitated Fanny Brice and Maurice Chevalier. It was raucous, and riotous, and freewheeling.
Then the Code, and Betty had to clean up her act, or rather, the Fleischers did. Glimpses of her underwear were no longer allowed. Her dress was lowered to cover the garter, and the neckline was raised. Pals Bimbo and Ko-Ko were pushed aside for a cute puppy, a cute nephew, and Grampy, who never leered at Betty.
The run-down houses and apartments were Betty struggled to keep up like everybody else did the Depression became cozy cottages and swanky digs. Betty was doing well. But her saucy underdog persona suffered.
She became matronly, where she no longer appeared as a race car driver or circus performer, but sang songs about housecleaning. Finally, Betty no longer starred, but was the supporting player to the new cast. Though Betty had always been a black and white cartoon, now she was truly colorless.
A new cast member in a minor role, a guy named Popeye, broke free from the mundane polite menagerie and became a star on his own. “Boop-a-doop” may have been outlawed by the Code, but bashing somebody’s skull in, as Popeye and Bluto repeatedly did to each other, was good clean all-American fun. Fortunately for Miss Questel, she took on the job of Olive Oyl’s voice, and continued to ad lib while watching a cartoon, and doing a splendid job.
Decades later we see Betty again in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) in the nightclub scene where she is a lowly and somewhat forlorn cigarette girl making small talk with Bob Hoskins. But nobody is pinching Betty, or even noticing her, despite that she is portrayed in black and white in a room packed with cartoon characters in full color. There is something poignant in her down and out manner of telling Mr. Hoskins that work for her has been, “kinda slow since cartoons went to color.” But it wasn’t color that got our Betty. It was the Code, as omnipotent a master as one of her old lecherous employers.
“I still got it,” Betty pitifully jokes, boop-a-dooping once more. Mr. Hoskins gently agrees that she does, but his response is only an act of kindness to a worn out dame who’s seen better days.
But she does still have it, or she must, or we wouldn’t see her on mugs, T-shirts, novelty clocks and radios, depicted as a biker chick on the backs of leather jackets, still coy, still innocent, still suggestive, but less a victim of sexual harassment than an assertive modern woman. Yeah, I got your Code right here, buddy. Betty lives, in full color, in the world of merchandizing. Max Fleischer might well be amazed.
Perhaps Betty’s plight is best assessed by the sexy Jessica, voiced by Kathleen Turner in “Roger Rabbit.” Protesting her own innocence she remarks, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”