Why Betty Boop Still Tickles Our Fancy
Before Willem Dafoe and Anthony Hopkins, Boris Karloff was the go-to character actor when it came to portraying all facets of the seedier side of hum
In Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), private detective Eddie Valiant is slumped at a table at the Ink and Paint Club, awaiting suspect Jessica Rabbit’s performance,
when a voice calls from off-screen, “Cigars? Cigarettes?” With just two words in that warbling baby voice, Eddie knows who the cigarette girl is before he sees her: Betty Boop.
“What are you doing here?” Eddie asks Betty. The 1930’s star is out of place in the 1947 film noir setting.
“Work’s been kinda slow since cartoons went to color,” Betty bashfully rolls her shoulders.
Betty Boop in fact starred in one color cartoon, Poor Cinderella of 1934. That it was Fleischer Studios’ first foray into color speaks to Betty’s popularity. Poor Cinderella boasts lovely painted backgrounds, and the surprise of Betty as a redhead, supporting her longstanding likening to Clara Bow. Her direct model, however, was singer and Paramount star Helen Kane, known for her boop-boop-be-doop laden rendition of “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” The song is also associated with Marilyn Monroe’s rendition in Some Like it Hot (1959). Notably, Monroe’s character is named Sugar Kane. Adding to the palimpsest, Helen Kane, a white adult, copied her act from a black child performer Esther Jones, known as Baby Esther. The discovery of Kane’s plagiarism didn’t leave her a leg to stand on when she attempted to sue Fleischer Studios and parent company Paramount for stealing her act with the creation of Betty Boop.
There’s a dose of Shirley Temple in Betty’s giggly naïveté as well, with an equal measure of Mae West in her curvaceous sexuality. Betty Boop “combined in appearance the childish with the sophisticated,” the judge wrote in the 1934 case of Fleischer Studios v. Ralph A. Freundlich, Inc., adding that she has “the most self-confident little bust imaginable.” That very combination of coy and come-up-and-see-me-sometime was no doubt essential to her stardom in Japan, where she remains an icon. Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of anime and a child of the 1930’s, is widely suspected of finding inspiration in Betty’s big eyes.
Fleischer Studios paid tribute to Betty Boop’s Japanese fan base with 1935’s A Language All My Own. It’s a favorite cartoon of modern day chanteuse Janet Klein, bandleader of Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys, who plays songs from the 1910’s-1930’s and who has also found fans in Japan. In A Language All My Own, Betty flies her own plane to the Land of the Rising Sun, a nod to Amelia Earhart’s recent solo flight across the Pacific. There Betty takes to the stage in a theater packed to the rafters, donning a kimono and singing in Japanese as well as English. Head animator Myron Waldman took pains with his depiction of Japanese culture and even previewed the cartoon for feedback from Japanese exchange students. Fleischer Studios can’t be said to have shown such cultural or racial sensitivity in any other Betty Boop picture.
The studio did have to adhere to other “moral” considerations when enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code ramped up that year. The Hays Code, as it’s commonly called, prompted Fleischer Studios to dress their star flapper more modestly and give her more conventional roles such as secretary and school teacher. A Language All My Own marks the vamp’s last appearance in her classic skimpy dress. These changes tasted all the more bitter given that Betty Boop was for adults as much as children. Betty Boop soared to fame precisely because of the adults in the theater, a Depression audience whom she reminded of better times in the Roaring Twenties. The Hays Code’s stifling of Betty’s spirit gradually cost her popularity. 1939 would see her last original Fleischer picture. If left to her sexy style and zany escapades, she surely would have gone on to color in the 1940’s.
“But I still got it, Eddie,” Betty assures Valiant back at the Ink and Paint Club, giving a boop-boop-be-doop *boop*!
Even the hardboiled detective has to smile, “Yeah. You still got it.”
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was released in 1988. The 1980’s was a decade preoccupied with nostalgia, proving ripe for a Betty Boop comeback. She enjoyed two television specials, and an explosion of merchandise. Betty Boop merchandise has kept the character in the public eye ever since.
“This merchandise has reached such a high level of popularity that even drug dealers have been known to use it,” the judge wryly noted in the 2011 Betty Boop merchandise rights case Fleischer Studios, Inc. v. A.V.E.L.A., Inc., referring to a prior case in which methamphetamine was shipped inside a ceramic Betty Boop doll.
In 2017, fashion designer Zac Posen created two Betty Boop inspired dresses. Pantone developed the color “Betty Boop Red” for the fabric, and the revived Fleischer Studios released a promotional Betty Boop cartoon co-starring Posen and his designs. Being that Posen is a judge on Project Runway All Stars, his endeavor was channeled into a Betty Boop challenge on the show in 2018. The winning designer received the opportunity to create a Betty Boop collection for Torrid, the plus-size women’s clothing company. On the beauty front, big-eyed Boop appeared in a 2012 Lancôme mascara commercial, while the 2016 YouTube video “Betty Boop Makeup Transformation Tutorial” has received over twenty-six million views.
The fashion and cosmetics vein of Betty Boop fandom points to the #1 reason for the character’s enduring appeal: She’s a woman. Created in 1930 as a poodle girlfriend for Bimbo the dog, she quickly proved the more lovable character. Poodle-like only in her ears and jowls, Betty was redrawn as fully human in 1932, a transformation that would seem to allow greater expression of her sexuality. It also seems to make Betty Boop the first human female protagonist of an animated series. There have been precious few in the eight decades since, and even fewer who aren’t children. That Betty Boop was not conceived as a heroine but was received as one attests to the hole she fills in the animation cannon.
In Universal Studios’ The Mummy (1932), Boris Karloff plays an Egyptian named Imhotep who is revived after 2,700 years of slumber when an archeologist’s assistant reads aloud the hieroglyphics of a cursed scroll. Some version of this story has been regurgitated onscreen nearly every decade since, but the title character has never been performed with Boris Karloff’s astonishing pathos, grace, and intensity. These represent merely a fraction of the attributes that make Karloff an abiding legend of the silver screen.
The Mummy’s loony premise doesn’t seem to faze him as an actor; he enunciates his dialogue with the same focused severity required to play King Lear. Lines like “My love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods” might elicit overacting from lesser performers, but for Karloff it offers a window into a longing, burdened, disturbed soul. Love, from Imhotep’s perspective, requires pain and suffering. When he asks for the same kind of love in return, he is rejected and left to crumble. Those recurring, extremely sinister close-ups of Imhotep linger in the mind because of the mightiness of Karloff’s stare.
A consideration of Karloff’s career, which includes over 200 screen credits (he appears in 14 films released in 1931 alone!), is like encountering a panorama of horror: madmen, monsters, vampires, mummies, psychos, sickos, weirdos, wizards, hypnotists, psychiatrists, sorcerers, interrogators, investigators, instigators, and, occasionally, the mild-mannered and even somewhat shy gentleman who Karloff, by all accounts, actually was off-screen. Is there a disjunction between the man who terrified moviegoers for over half a century and the proper Englishman whose admittedly cliché pastimes included cricket, rugby, drinking tea, and tending to the rose garden that was his prize possession?
Quite the contrary. In fact, it was Karloff’s wholesomeness that allowed him to inhabit such a stunningly diverse panoply of characters. Beneath his foreboding facade, there lurks an unmistakable gleefulness, a subtle and subdued joy in onscreen sadism. You see it in The Body Snatcher (1945), where his smile looks like the razor-sharp edge of a knife. You sense his playfulness in Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) when he switches between lumbering child-monster and delicate brute within a microsecond. You see it most subtly in his rendering of Mr. Wong, the investigator in Doomed to Die (1940), a showcase in simplicity and conviction. When his disembodied head bids the viewer to “come closer, please” at the beginning of Black Sabbath (1963), you can sense his overwhelming presence personified through masterful diction and the deliberate pace of his speaking style. Experiencing any of Karloff’s performances is like watching your ordinarily prim uncle relay a spooky tale and, during the telling, he becomes unusually committed to his own performance. He knows when to let his loose screw fly.
Targets (1968) presents Karloff at his most metatheatrical, and director Peter Bogdanovich, who goes to great lengths to depict his own unqualified adoration for his star, is responsible for devising a premise that offers a glimpse of the gentleman behind such a variety madmen and monsters. In Targets, Karloff portrays a thinly veiled version of himself — a famous horror film actor who is rapidly aging into obscurity. Without layers of prosthetics and heavy make-up, Karloff offers his true personality effortlessly. Notice the careful curiosity and self-satisfied delight he exudes as he watches his own performance in Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code (1930). Then, game as ever, he says, to no one in particular except for the viewer watching him (watch himself), “Who’s that tapping at my chamber door?” This is the true Boris Karloff — a quiet, mannerly man who relished every opportunity to inject a bit of menace and terror into the humdrum reality of everyday existence.
Bogdanovich utilizes this unique quality of Karloff’s as an opportunity to play with the audience’s perceptions and assumptions. The slyly deceptive opening of Targets is actually the ending of Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963), starring a fresh-faced Jack Nicholson. (In Vivian Kubrick’s Making “The Shining,” Nicholson reveals his habit of flagging his lines in a script with checkmarks was inspired by Karloff’s own style of marking his lines.) After the opening credits conclude, the words “The End” appear onscreen, and Targets actually begins after cutting to Karloff, masked in darkness, watching himself drown at the end of Corman’s picture. Indeed, pseudo-reality is a recurring theme in Targets, and Bogdanovich uses Karloff brilliantly as a delivery system for this meditation on the juxtaposition between life onscreen and off.
When you feel unnerved by the menacing, sub-human, almost reptilian eye contact he maintains in movies like The Sorcerers (1967) or Bedlam (1946) or The Raven (1963), there’s also a kind of relief you experience because you can sense safety in the hands of a master storyteller. Witness his uncanny ability to take the most mundane lines and transform them into a master class in perversity, like when he leers unblinkingly at Bela Lugosi in The Black Cat (1934) and says, “The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead.” Consider his absolutely essential performance as Colonel Kurtz in Playhouse 90’s adaptation of Heart of Darkness (1958). His line reading of Kurtz’s famous exclamation, “The horror!…the horror!” rivals Brando’s. Karloff’s steady intensity and commanding enunciation spills off the screen in small gems like The Black Room (1935), where he plays the dual role of twin barons in a tour-de-force knockout of early American cinema.
In his forward to Scott Allen Nollen’s Boris Karloff: A Critical Account of His Screen, Stage, Radio, Television, and Recording Work, Ray Bradbury makes note of Karloff’s idiosyncratic ability to comfort and frighten because “we trusted that man…We knew he would never hurt us, but only try to instruct us to the real ways of the world that is often nightmare.” For all of his remarkable character work, you always got the impression that you’re being intentionally entertained by “a nice chap who could sit around the fire nights with a glass of sherry and converse.” This is a testament to Karloff’s enduring legacy as one of Hollywood’s most iconic actors. His body of work is a tribute to the kind of spooky escapism that once ruled the motion picture landscape. The wholesomeness of Karloff’s personality made his many descents into unwholesome characters that much more enthralling.