Her voice was a sultry squeak. Her cheeks were like two Parker House rolls, her mind like a third, and her kiss-puffed lips suggested heavy jabs of Novocain. Betty Boop was no chalk-pale collectible on a pedestal. A saucy, strutting vamp, she minced through her two-dimensional world with unfettered eroticism, flipping her skirt to expose her garter and batting her long lashes in coy provocation. She was chased, not chaste.
When she burst onto the scene 65 years ago this week in the animated short ”Dizzy Dishes,” Betty was a real bitch: Artist Grim Natwick conceived her as a pooch, the fetching girlfriend of a canine named Bimbo. He modeled Betty’s figure after Mae West’s, her spit curls after singer Helen Kane’s. As Boop-mania swept the nation, Natwick reduced Betty’s floppy ears to hoop earrings and shrank her nose to a retroussa button. She appeared on tea sets, soap, and bathing suits, had her own comic strip and radio show, and starred in more than 100 shorts. ”Although she was never vulgar or obscene,” Natwick once observed, ”Betty was a suggestion you could spell in three letters: s-e-x. She was all girl.” And her suitors were often all letch. In ”Boop-Oop-A-Doop,” Betty barely eluded a circus ringmaster so grabby even his handlebar mustache had fingers. ”You can feed me bread and water,” she pleaded, ”or a great big bale of hay. But don’t take my boop-oop-a-doop away!”
Drawn at Fleischer Studios in Times Square, Boop’s ‘toons, accompanying feature films, reflected the edgy, gritty urban feel of Depression-era New York. A kind of anti-Disney, they were informed with Chaplinesque surrealism and Keatonesque Dadaism. For the astounding ”Snow White,” the image of bandleader and ”hi-de-ho” singer Cab Calloway was rotoscoped into a cake-walking ghost wailing ”St. James Infirmary Blues.” In one racy — and racist — short, the head of Louis Armstrong was superimposed on a cannibal.
Still, Betty remained unsmudged by scandal until 1933, when her ”Boilesk” was banned in Philadelphia for being risque. A year later, Helen Kane filed a $250,000 lawsuit, claiming Betty had stolen her vocal style. Kane lost.
By 1935, alas, moral watchdogs had sanitized Betty. Her hemline was lowered, her neckline raised, and her leering beaux replaced by a puppy named Pudgy. Though Betty bowed out as a headliner in 1939, her popularity remains as intact as her boop-oop-a-doop. Maybe the appeal lies in her sassy independence, in the fact that she’s the only female cartoon character who’s not a foil for a male. Call it fatale feminism.
Aug. 9, 1930
Howard Hughes’ big-budget Hell’s Angels made a star of Jean Harlow; dance halls swayed to the No. 1 ”Dancing With Tears in My Eyes”; readers forgot their Depression woes with Jeanette Gibb’s Chances, the top novel.