On the origins of Betty Boop
Here's a story about Minnie the Moocher
She was a red hot hoochie-coocher
She was the roughest, toughest frail
But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale
She sighs and sulks before me, a slouched and sullen darling. A white flower weeps beside her. Betty Boop, somehow now in her ninety-third year, remains a pint-sized sexpot totty, flapper, follie and cultural icon. Prissy and prim, with a heart shaped head of Baker kiss curls, Betty pines and pouts for Daddy.
Who is Betty Boop, and where did she come from?
Betty Boop in Minnie the Moocher, from the Talkartoons series (1929 - 1932), released March 1932.
Conceived by Austrian-American cartoonist Max Fleischer, famed for the silent-era animated series Out of the Inkwell (1918 - 1929), Boop debuted as a floppy-eared, flirtatious poodle in 1930’s Dizzy Dishes. Aided by animators Grim Natwick and Ted Sears amongst others, Fleischer began by pioneering early animation technology - which predated and in turn influenced the Disney brothers - and produced the first full sound cartoon in the early twenties.
Within Dizzy Dishes, from Fleischer’s full sound Talkartoons series, poodles, kittens and hippos galore are frenetic in their movements, as Boop comes alive for the first time - the bow on her behind bouncing to and fro with glee. A baby Betty croons before the dinner theatre, nasally wailing for love to a soft, strummed melody. Clasping her hands desperately, gazing to the rafters, Boop retires her tune with a now signature, sugar-coated line:
Boop, thereafter, became the first ever cartoon girl to grace the screen: curls abundant, bangles abound, garter pinched and frilled for all to see. For as long as I can recall, dear reader, I have possessed a long held love for Betty. Her black-and-white Brooklyn sensibilities, her wit and whimsy, all wrapped up in one big Clara-Bow. Amidst her silver screen mischief, Boop sits at the apex of girldom and womanhood: steeped in innocence, beaming below those big Harlow lashes, Boop embodies an underlying sexuality.
Cute-but-sexy, embedded into the cultural zeitgeist.
Betty Boop in Dizzy Dishes, from the Talkartoons series (1929 - 1932), released August 1930.
My research into Betty Boop had been reignited in seeing stars of the silent era - I love you, Buster Keaton - wherein I revisited 1932’s Minnie the Moocher, released two years following the success of Boop’s debut. An undying icon of the Jazz Age, Black American bandleader Cab Calloway introduces the animated feature, snaking his way through the frame as the brass band behind charms his elegant, improvised jive.
Minnie the Moocher is, indeed, a strange picture. A fraught and fretful Betty, taunted by her parents, runs away from home with her beloved dog Bimbo. Scuttling through dimly lit, devilish caverns, Boop and Bimbo encounter ghosts, ghouls and skeletons writhing to the tune of Calloway’s croon, in a visual cue to Fleischer’s admiration for German expressionist cinema.
In the midst of the Moocher, trouble began to brew. Amongst the follies and flappers now fading before the financial hardship of the early thirties, was Bronx-born songstress Helen Kane. Beneath heart-shaped lips and slicked kiss curls, Kane was most famed for her rendition of I Wanna Be Loved by You - later adopted by Marilyn Monroe - from the stage musical Good Boy, in which she halted her tune with a distinctly familiar boop-oop-a-doop!
Betty Boop and Bobo in Minnie the Moocher, from the Talkartoons series (1929 - 1932), released March 1932.
Following a short lived career, Kane’s star - along with others’ of the silent era - began to dim. In 1932, Kane sued Fleischer for infringement of her image, branding Boop a mere ‘caricature’ of her likeness. Kane, the court found, had in fact co-opted her image and affectation from that of ‘Baby Esther’, a Black American child performer native to Chicago, Illinois, who ascended to global stardom in the late twenties.
Born Esther Lee Jones, Baby Esther cultivated an image of childlike innocence and mischief through an original vaudeville act, aided by her family and beginning at the Cotton Club, Harlem, before quickly travelling across the U.S. and Europe. Esther amalgamated early Jazz and Charleston steps with fluttered lashes, a full pout and, most crucially, improvised scat singing: doo-doo-doo, bo-de-o-do and boo-boo-boo.
Helen Kane attended a performance by Baby Esther at the Everglades Restaurant in Manhattan, New York, three years prior to filing the suit. Following the insufficient evidence of Kane’s claims, her lawsuit was dismissed. Kane maintained a well-documented life and experienced a career resurgence in the 1950s, appearing on television shows This Is Your Life and The Ed Sullivan show, and was known for the remainder of her career as the ‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop Girl’.
Baby Esther receeded from the stage and disappeared in 1934. What little survived of her performances - bubbly, bright and original - was lost shortly following the trial. There remains no evidence of her life beyond childhood and, conversely, no evidence of her death.
I think of Esther often. What became of her in the years following her decision, if at all, to leave the spotlight. Whether any footage of her performances may find its way to an attic, an archive, a studio, online. Whether she lived a full life. Whether she’ll ever receive her flowers. Whether Betty Boop, now or ever at all, will be fully understood.