Hands down, the most indispensable DVD/Blu -ray collections released in 2013 are the two volumes of the Fleischer original Betty Boop cartoons from Olive films. Betty Boop, The Essential Collections, Vols 1 & 2 (2013) are long overdue. Although Volume 1 is not perfect (more on that later), it is the best Boop collection we have seen since the eight volume Definitive Collection distributed by Republic on VHS in 1996. (Earlier this year, Legend Films released The Uncensored Betty Boop, which is exactly what it says it is: pre-Hays Code Betty, but of fairly low-grade quality).
The Definitive Collection conceptually broke the Fleischer shorts into “the Birth of Betty” (she debuted in 1930), “pre-Code,” “Surrealism,” and “Musical Madness.” However, the collection also featured the later, watered down, post-Code Betty, complete with her Promise Keeper-styled housedress and a boyfriend (to keep her monogamously domesticated). Since Republic strove to release a complete collection, this inclusion was necessary, but it’s certainly not Betty at her best. Indeed, it is the post-Code Betty which is indirectly responsible for the bland fridge magnets and license plates we have been saturated with by companies and persons who have probably never seen Betty in in her original incarnation.
The basic rule with Betty Boop is that the shorts are best up through 1934. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) Betty (making her first on-screen appearance in 49 years) tells Bob Hoskins that she was ruined by color. Actually, Betty Boop was spayed and destroyed by the Legion of Decency and by Will Hays. The proof of pudding is in shorts like The Foxy Hunter (1937) from Volume One, in which Betty is anything but foxy. Stuck in a servile, matronly role, she plays second banana to man’s best friend. Her trademark garter is long gone; remnants of a past sex life. In its place is Betty, stuck in a Dan Cathy-approved dress and relegated to June Cleaver’s kitchen. (Most, if not all, the Betty shorts featuring Pudgy the dog are painful to watch, especially after seeing Betty in her prime. Fortunately, her prime makes up most of Volumes 1 & 2).
Flappers Clara Bow and Helen Kane were the primary models for Max Fleischer and animator Grim Natwick when creating Betty. Kane attempted to sue Paramount and Fleischer studios for wrongful appropriation. Her suit was unsuccessful, despite the fact that Betty was clearly modeled after Kane’s distinct baby Bronx accent, look, persona, and songs such as “I Wanna Be Loved By You” and “Boop Boop a Doop.”
Four different actresses had the dual job of voicing Betty and Olive Oyl from Fleischer’s “Popeye the Sailor” cartoons: Margie Hines (who was the first, hired because she sounded like Kane), Bonnie Poe (the only one of the four who played a live action Betty, in a 1933 “Hollywood on Parade” short opposite Bela Lugosi as Dracula) Kate Wright (briefly and sporadically, a fill-in), and, most famously, Mae Questel (who voiced Betty the longest, from 1931 all the way to her 1988 Roger Rabbit cameo). Fleischer spotted Questel performing in a club act that mixed elements of both Bow and Kane.
It is surprising that Olive Films has not included any of Betty’s jazz-scored shorts, but this concern may be premature, since the distributor has announced these are the first of four volumes (the next two are slated for a 2014 release). Reportedly, Olive does not plan to release any of the public domain Betty cartoons—which is odd since the company has previously released several volumes of public domain works, to well-deserved accolades.
Although the shorts have been beautifully remastered, they have not been restored, which means, yes, they still look like film stock. Considering how some of the Disney classics (most notably Pinocchio) have been digitally restored to the point of losing their visual film edge, this is probably a good thing. There are no supplemental extras, just the cartoons.
Volume One opens with Betty, already fully evolved, in Chess Nuts (1932). Betty, along with other Fleischer “Inkwell Imp” favorites, Bimbo and Koko the Clown, all literally become chess pieces to liven up a boring game played by two old geezers. Mixing a bit of live action with animation, Betty almost becomes victim to a fetishistic old King Cole. During the ensuing chaos, Betty shows a tad too much tush, but a table obligingly closes the blinds on her draft. Koko was taken out of temporary retirement to join Betty and he, like many of the early Fleischer characters, deserves a retrospective release all his own. (1928’s mind boggling Earth Control, starring Koko, is an example of Fleischer’s bizarre, unorthodox style).
Betty Boop M.D. (1932) finds Betty and Koko hawking medicine oil. Koko enlists Betty’s sex appeal to loosen the change of a financially conservative crowd. The results of Betty’s Jippo wreck havoc, of course, with no less than a cameo of Frederic March as Edward Hyde.
Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle (1932) features Betty and Bimbo setting sail for an exotic island. Bimbo was one of the stars of Fleischer’s “Talkartoons” and would occasionally appear, as he does here, as Betty’s canine boyfriend. Due to the hints of bestiality, Bimbo would go the way of the dinosaur with the advent of the Production code. Racial stereotypes abound here, as does a semi-topless Betty engaged in a hula dance.
Betty Boop for President (1932) has Betty morphing (albeit briefly) into Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Durante as she runs for prez against Mr. Nobody. Clever lyrics (which I stole for the Hillary Clinton caricature in W The Movie) secure her win (yes, it’s a cartoon). It’s an idealized portrayal of America, in which neither left nor right are extremist loons and misogyny is a thing of the past. Under Betty’s watch, the thugs of the world get transformed by receiving a large dose of femininity (obviously, Phil Robertson’s vision of hell), everybody gets ice cream, and Prohibition is forever repealed delightfully dating the short).
Predating Jimmy Stewart’s voyeuristic Hitchcock protagonist, Bimbo and Koko get an eyeful of Betty bathing (shades of the biblical King David) in Betty Boop’s Penthouse (1933). Our inkwell imps rush to save her from a would-be rapist modeled on Boris Karloff‘s Frankenstein’s monster. Al Jolson’s “Mammy” characterization makes a cringe-inducing cameo.
We are invited to a triptych of 1933 Boop-styled parties with Betty’s Birthday Party, Betty’s May Party, and Betty’s Halloween Party. Predictably, the best is saved for the All Hallow’s Eve get together, with King Kong himself crashing the proceedings in his attempt to ravage our heroine.
Max and Dave Fleischer appear in Betty’s Rise to Fame (1934). She pays homage to Fanny Brice, pulls a Victor/Victoria for Maurice Chevalier, and arouses Dave’s pen. Cab Callow voices the Old Man On The Mountain and joins Betty in a little “Hi De Ho.”
Betty Boop’s Trial (1934) features a male cast of raging libidos as Betty is tried for resisting an officer.
The androgynous Freddy is Betty Boop’s Life Guard (1934). He can’t save Betty from her poor swimming skills, which transform her into a mermaid.
Volume One ends depressingly, with Betty’s boop-oop-a-doop stolen in the aforementioned Foxy Hunter.
Thankfully, Volume Two quickly sets things right again with Betty’s premiere as a nameless, floppy-eared, French poodle caricature of Helen Kane in Dizzy Dishes (1930).
An army of Bettys show up (in a Dr. Moreau-like half-canine, half-human state) near the end of Bimbo’s Initiation (1931). In tackling the secret society of the Masons, Fleischer and company attempt to out-Dalí Salvador Dalí. The Mason are transformed into… whatever the hell they are, and Bimbo is put through a phantasmagorical rite. This balls-to-the-wall, off-the-meter entry is the best from either volume.
The ringmaster attempts to throw Betty on the casting couch in Boop-Oop-A-Doop (1932), but she she responds to his dirty whispers with a slap in the face and retains her boop-oop-a-doop, even when taming lions.
Betty Boop Limited (1932) is a rare, unfocused early misfire with Betty and Koko singing and dancing on a train (and not much else).
Betty Boop’s Bizzy Bee (1932) has flying wheat cakes, a surreal moon, and rowdy patrons being served up by hostess Betty.
There is plenty of surrealism afoot in Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs (1932) when Betty’s house and the earth itself go up for sale. A flapper Venus tries to outbid a Semitic caricature in the guise of Saturn. Of course everything that goes up, must come down.
We tour through Betty Boop’s Museum (1932) and find Imhotep practicing Yiddish; a model for future Arab-Israeli relations. Flying skeletons and a musical number close this portion of the tour. Now, to your right for…
Betty Boop’s Big Boss (1933) who does not know the difference between innocent flirting and spewing naughty limericks in poor Betty’s ear. Naturally, an extended chase scene follows the harassment, but by the time the “poleece!” come out in full force, Betty has succumbed to the fat guy’s advances.
Popular violinist David Rubinoff brings his famed Stradivarius to add a touch of artistic class to Betty Boop’s Morning, Noon and Night (1933) . This is a direct takeoff of Disney’s Silly Symphonies (which, of course eventually evolved into Fantasia). True to form, the Fleischer Brothers stamp the pastoral scene with their own idiosyncratic touch (the sun bedeviled with a bad case of influenza, and Tom Cat’s amorous Social Club).
With the inevitability of the enactment of the Production Code on the horizon, the rot stars setting in with Betty Boop Little Pal (1934). Betty is already taking on the mantle of a desexualized mother, and the equally offending surrealism of the early shorts is fast becoming a distant memory.
A femme lifeguard gets manned up in Betty Boop’s Prize Show (1934). Betty herself is claustrophobically glued inside of a dress, playing a Beth Marion schoolmarm to her Johnny Mack Brown. While Johnny and Beth were delightful in their B-Western environment, this dynamic is depressingly ill-fitted to our favorite boopster.
A saccharine Betty is reduced to following instead of creating trends in Keep in Style (1934). She tries on a variety of Decency approved dresses for an audience which, understandably, no longer cared.
Neither the classic “Minnie the Moocher,” Cab Calloway’s head flying through hell, nor the glorious jazz shorts are anywhere to be found, making the Essential moniker for these selections not entirely accurate. Hopefully, these oversights will be rectified in the upcoming volumes. Until then, these will mostly satisfy. Quibbles aside, overall, these are excellent gifts from Olive.