Sunday, October 4, 2009

Betty Boop Film Class Part 6

In between Bimbo's Initiation and the seminal Minnie the Moocher came a few less memorable Betty cartoons. They're noteworthy for seeing the beginning of Betty's rise from secondary character behind Bimbo to being the primary star of Fleischer Studios.

Bimbo's Express is the first cartoon to list Betty as one of the stars. She was on screen for less than a minute during Bimbo's Initiation, and perhaps has total screen time of no more than five minutes in all previous cartoons.

I love Bimbo's Express because many of the details are such a great throwback to a time not that long ago, but where things like horse-drawn moving carts are represented as though the audience would recognize them as every-day objects. Because they did. It was only 78 years ago, and yet a scant 60% of the nation's households had electricity. If you look at rural areas, that number dropped to less than 10%.

This cartoon isn't very memorable from a story or direction standpoint. The energy is low and lots of stuff seems pointless. The cartoon basically starts three minutes in. I LOVE how Bimbo suddenly turns into a tenor at 5:05. Coherency was not a big concern for Fleischer. It should be noted that their lip-syncing is getting much better by this point. They're still missing some of the finer principles, but what they have gets the job done.

A month later would bring Minding the Baby, which is notable for some of the most extensive uses of lip-synced dialogue up to this point, and also for some of the most explicit language in the series. At 3:15, Betty sings a song to try and get Bimbo to come over, since her parents are both gone, and all but states that it's a booty call. Bimbo responds by saying his parents are having a fight over an ice man (again, a great reference) who keeps coming over even though they have an electric refrigerator. A not-subtle reference to his mom having an affair.

Minding the Baby is otherwise forgettable, but the historical references are fun, especially the "Stuck Market" newspaper the baby reads. Remember, this was 1931. We were only two years into the Great Depression.

Two months would pass until the next Betty cartoon, and by now Betty is the only character getting top billing. This is a Betty cartoon. It's also time to say hello to the full-human Betty for the very first time.

Mask-A-Raid is another cartoon that seems to follow no rhyme or reason. There is total chaos on screen for five solid minutes. While not as weird as Bimbo's Initiation, it's up there.

The next film, Jack and the Beanstalk, was released after Mask-A-Raid but had begun development earlier.

I think it may have been a leftover from Grim Natwick's days, judging from the design of Betty and Bimbo. Regardless, this is the last cartoon to feature Betty as a dog. I guess it's debatable as to whether she's a dog in the next cartoon, Dizzy Red Riding Hood, since her ears are hidden the whole time, but since the overall design follows Mask-a-Raid more closely, I'm assuming she's human.

UPDATE: Where Jack & The Beanstalk fits in is something interesting that I didn't touch on. Bimbo's design is most useful in this cartoon. First, it can't be too old, since the animation principles for lip-syncing were more advanced than in Mysterious Mose. Second, Bimbo's head has become uniformly white by the time of Jack. Unfortunately, many Bimbo cartoons are not available online for me to watch, so I have to go on this website, which indicates that Bimbo had gone white, as seen The Bum Bandit, in Tree Saps.

The same website lists The Herring Murder Case as the debut of the modern Bimbo. I'm assuming that the redesign happened in time for production of Bimbo's Initiation, which is the second cartoon to feature the modern Bimbo. This Bimbo is seen in all following pictures except for Jack & The Beanstalk.

The lines in Bimbo's eyes are very simplistic in Jack, so much so that they almost never fully surround his pupils. By Silly Scandals, and even The Bum Bandit, Bimbo's eyes were much more coherent as opposed to just two dots and a line for defining expression. So I think that Jack had begun production before Bum Bandit. Jack & The Beanstalk may very well be the first cartoon put into production with the newer Bimbo design, but since I can't find some cartoons to watch, I can't be sure.

Still, this means that Jack sat on the shelf for nearly a year before being released. I wonder what was going on behind the scenes. Whatever it was, Jack & the Beanstalk is definitely a relic from Grim Natwick, released after he left.


Dizzy Red Riding Hood isn't terribly noteworthy, I only make mention of it because you can see more directly that with Disney's work the connection between Japanese animation and American animation, which was the stated inspiration of the early anime and manga authors. The wolf is very strongly similar to later Japanese work, so much so that he looks like Sonic the Hedgehog.

Much like Minding the Baby, Betty and Bimbo partake in actions at the end that represent sex. I also think that his usage of the word eat might be a rather blatant reference to oral sex. It's a tough call. It's first recorded usage is 1927, which usually means it had been around in the vernacular for some time before, but Fleischer might not have known that context at all and was just using it to describe passion.

Next up is Any Rags. This is a serious throwback for people today, to the point where the setup makes almost no sense.

The viewer can kind of piece together what's supposed to be going on, but only with a complete historical context do the events seem coherent. Bimbo is playing the role of a rag man, or rag-and-bone man. Believe it or not, we had one of these in North Kingstown, RI up until the late 1990's, which is the only reason why I knew what it was.

This cartoon is also the first of Koko the Clown's return episodes, where, strangely, he's apparently gay. It's funny that the effete stereotype of a gay man was already entrenched in popular culture way the hell back in 1931. It's also of extreme interest that this gay character is displayed in a positive way. I wonder if Fleischer had gay friends or family members. History seems to indicate pretty strongly that none of Fleischer Studio's primaries were gay, so it makes you wonder.

Take note of how, even though by now Betty was the most popular of Fleischer's characters, that cartoons starring Betty had not really made it through the production pipes. Even though Betty gets top billing, this is very much a Bimbo cartoon. Betty is on screen for a scant 23 seconds. I counted. But, in that short time, we get to see her bra twice. Ohh, Fleischer. You pervert.

Moving on, we have Boop-Oop-A-Doop. Notice how we still have not gotten to the point where the cartoons are completely about Betty. Over half of the screen time is taken up with random characters and Bimbo being an ass. And lord knows why he's trying to sell peanuts to his little brother from Minding the Baby, who appears to be be voiced by Mae Questel. It's also Koko's first non-cameo appearance, after his five seconds of screen time in Any Rags. Appropriately, Koko is drawn out of the inkwell.

Boop-Oop-A-Doop continues the sexual themes of Betty cartoons, with the ringmaster being overtly perverted. He gropes Betty and makes an obvious insinuation that if she wants to keep her job, she better put out. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is the first film portrayal of workplace harassment in history. This cartoon also references Betty's Boop-Oop-A-Doop in a noun form, subtly implying that it means her virginity.

And that's that. After all of this build-up, we come to Betty Boop as one of the most persistent and iconic stars of the cartoon age, and Minnie the Moocher, one of the greatest works in cartoon history. These seven cartoons represent an immense amount of growth in cartoon and animation principles over less than a year. We saw the push for ever-more explicit sexual references, only to be killed in less than three years by the Hays Commission. We saw the exeunt of Grim Natwick, Betty's founding animator, who would go on to a job as lead animator on Walt Disney's Snow White and mentor to Chuck Jones. Basically, we saw the solidification of modern cartoon principles as we saw the solidification of Betty herself. The rise of Betty IS the rise of cartoons.


  1. yes it is unknown if betty boop is a dog in Dizzy red riding hood,

    her ears/earrings are hidden beneath her hood,

    but the design looks like her doggy design sheet

    and her nose turns black in a few scenes in dizzy red riding hood

    lol you seem to see me lurk from nowhere when you post about betty boop lol

  2. Haha. Indeed. I'm glad to have someone interested in Betty.

    I still think that she's likely human. Her nose does turn black, but it spends the bulk of the film as a human-like button nose.

    Moreover, Jack & The Beanstalk has got to be old, from a developmental standpoint. Both Betty and Bimbo had evolved to the designs seen in Minding the Baby, so the only issue is Mask-A-Raid to Dizzy Red Riding Hood.

    I'm guessing that production on Dizzy began after Mask because of the title cards. We can follow their production based on Betty's popularity.

    Bimbo's Express still gives Bimbo top billing along with Betty. Minding the Baby reverses the top billing. Then, in Mask, Betty is given primary billing, then the title, then Bimbo as secondary billing.

    We then see a short reversal for Jack, where Betty and Bimbo are both listed as top billings. I think this is because production this film had begun long before.

    But then, for Dizzy, we're back to Mask's title screen, where Betty gets top billing, then the title, and then Bimbo. This title screen layout is maintained thereafter, just with Koko also getting secondary billing.

    This further cements my belief that Dizzy began production after Mask, thus maintaining design elements started in that film. As such, I suspect that Betty is human.

  3. I just realized I never mentioned where I think Jack & The Beanstalk fits in. I'll add that to the post.

  4. You are correct about Koko's appearance in "Any Rags?" At about the 5:00 mark, a figurine of Atlas is being auctioned off by Betty's friend, Bimbo. Koko the clown agrees to purchase the figurine, acting very effeminately in the process, and Bimbo shouts, "SOLD to the man in the red tie!" The inside joke here is the reference to red ties, which were sometimes worn by Gay men in the early 20th century as an identification symbol.

    1. Wow! Thanks for the point. That truly does confirm it. It was more than just "sometimes," too. It is a definite reference.

      It is very interesting that the badge of "sexual inversion" would have been widely known. It makes me wonder about the sexual progress that we have made as a culture. This was over thirty-five years before Stonewall and it was a salient enough element of society to reference it as a joke.

      I find the fact that homosexuality, "confirmed bachelors" as it were, was accepted, just so long as you kept it behind closed doors. Try to actually go outside and you ended up with "gay raids."


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