Saturday, February 16, 2008


Courtesy of the Pacific Film Archives, I spent a solid hour this afternoon watching Betty Boop cartoons, and what a treasure those were. If the only cartoons you've ever seen are Disney, or Looney Toons (aka Bugs Bunny), you have no clue what a cartoon can really look like.

The first description
that comes to my mind is "pre-Code". Movies, we all know, have been formally censored since the 1930s - they can't "lower the moral standards" of the audience, they must present "correct standards of life," they must not ridicule "natural or human law." Wikipedia's article on the Hays code, as it's also called, is quite interesting.

We're still living with this code, by the way - the R and X rating of movies that include nudity are directly related to it. And the sanitized cartoons of Disney and Warner Brothers, where only the violence is unrestricted, are related to this. (Nowhere in the code do I see any prohibition of violence. Violence is fine.)

Betty Boop cartoons are not sanitized. Betty is sexy - she has little boobs, she wears short frilly skirts and a strapless top, you can see her garter. In one cartoon, her dress falls down and shows her bra, and she pulls it back up; this happens about 4 times. And she flirts. Since Betty is sexy and flirty, male characters in the cartoons hit on her - often, she's delighted, but in one cartoon, her boss puts the make on her and threatens to fire her if she doesn't cooperate, in a sequence that would get a live human employer convicted for sexual harassment today. But her cartoon boyfriend (a clown) races to the rescue and the sexual assault disappears behind a cloud of cartoon violence.

One of the cartoons had Betty in a cameo role (as a hula dancer in a carnival) in what was actually a Popeye cartoon - that had plenty of violence, with Popeye fighting the evil Bluto for Olive Oyl. But you should have seen Popeye up on the stage doing the hula with Betty - in a grass skirt made of a beard which he pulled off the bearded lady in the next booth.

There were several carnivals in the Betty cartoons, with the usual carny games, and in the carnival in the Popeye cartoon, the "throw the baseball, win a prize" game used a target of a little black boy, a la Black Sambo, whose head was stuck through a hole in the back wall of the booth. You wouldn't see that in a later cartoon; but racism was just part of Betty's world.

Betty Boop cartoons are very musical - specifically, they are jazzy. This was the jazz age, and in a Betty cartoon, the mice and dogs pick up trumpets and blow hot licks, and inanimate objects turn into clarinets and do jazz riffs. I've now seen 2 Betty cartoons (one at the Paramount in Oakland) in which Cab Calloway sings the background - in the one today, he sang the Saint James Infirmary Blues and it was fabulous. In the last cartoon, Ethel Merman (not in animation) sang Let Me Call You Sweetheart in an introductory sequence and then afterward in a "sing along with the bouncing ball" - I've never seen Ethel Merman on film before.

I think of Betty Boop as black and white (if you've seen Who Killed Roger Rabbit? you know what I mean), but they showed one that was done in "cinecolor" - they did Betty as a redhead, for some reason. The story was "Cinderella", interpreted fairly straight (for a Betty cartoon), and it was actually one of the least interesting they showed.

Betty cartoons are fantastical, they're another universe. Inanimate objects get up and dance, and talk back. The rag man in Any Rags goes down the street pulling the uniform off the policeman, and the pants off a guy sleeping behind a tree. Dishes dance on the table. Cats and dogs and fish dance and play jazz. People turn into monsters, and vice versa. Buildings rearrange their fire escapes into roller coaster tracks so Betty and her little boy can have a ride. Some of the characters are human and some aren't. It's a fluid world, in which things don't stay the way they appear for long and you never know what will happen next. But it's a lot of fun.


  1. Anonymous4:26 PM

    No wonder I see cars with Betty Boop stickers, and in one case a Betty Boop license plate. I did not know these things about Betty Boop cartoons, although I knew about the Hays Act and its consequences.

    Anonymous David

  2. Yes, Betty was quite a gal in her day. I actually just discovered that Netflix (they have everything) is renting digitally remastered collections of Betty Boop cartoons, including one fiendishly prescient collection where she's - are you ready for this? - running for President... I may have to rent some of those.