Philippe Moins takes a look at one of the oldest and most respected animation schools in continental European.
Republic Pictures has just released a boxed set of almost all the extant Fleischer Betty Boop shorts as Betty Boop: The Definitive Collection. One of her early films, Accordion Joe, seems to have been inadvertently left out, while Republic did not have the rights to Popeye the Sailor, an official Boop film in which she only appears briefly, and to four other late films which are mostly lost: Pudgy and the Lost Kitten, Buzzy Boop (which does exist in some poor 16mm prints), Buzzy Boop at the Concert and Honest Love and True. (Buzzy is Betty's 12-year-old niece.). Also, one film, Romantic Melodies is presented in a black & white print of a colorized version of the film, though better material certainly exists. Also, the films are arranged thematically, rather than chronologically, which is somewhat offputting, given the lack of proper liner notes.
Despite its flaws, the collection is an invaluable resource for both animation buffs and historians, as it provides the first large scale collection of films from the Fleischer Studios available in video; however, it is a shame that it was not issued in laserdisc format (which seems to have been the original intent) and that it lacks any program notes worthy of the name. (Thus, the only listing of the films is on the box for each tape and there is no information on release dates.) For this, the blame must fall on Republic's shoulders, rather than on Jerry Beck, who nominally curated the set, and who certainly would have preferred to do otherwise.
Betty, who celebrated her 65th birthday last year, is rightly celebrated as the first major female cartoon star. Based on the persona of singer Helen Kane, she was initially designed by the legendary Grim Natwick (possibly assisted by Ted Sears), who also animated Betty in her screen debut, Dizzy Dishes (1930).
Who exactly had the original idea for creating Boop is not exactly clear. Natwick stated that Dave Fleischer brought him a piece of sheet music with a picture of Kane on it and instructed him to make her into a cartoon character. However, the idea may just as well have come from Paramount Pictures, Fleischer's distributor and who also had Helen Kane under contract. (Kane later protested, suing both Fleischer and Paramount for damages, but failed to convince the judge and lost.)
What is known is that Paramount was eager for Fleischer Studios to come up with a viable cartoon star to compete with the likes of Mickey Mouse. During the silent period, the studio had relied on Koko the Clown, who dated back to Max and Dave Fleischer's first films and whose popularity, as Mark Langer has pointed out to me, paled besides that of someone like Felix the Cat. The Fleischers initially came up with Bimbo, the dog, but without much success. Betty, though, was another story and was an instant hit.
Seymour Kneitel's Poor Cinderella (Fleischer, 1934), was the first color film for both Betty and Fleischer. A large scale spectacle, it showcased Max Fleischer's new three-dimensional process, in which animation was photographed against minature sets.
(For the rest of its existence, the Fleischers were unable to come up with any other original cartoon characters that gained any substantial degree of popularity. Its other major stars were Popeye and Superman, both of whom had gained their initial fame in comic strips and comic books!)
It's also interesting that Betty's early films were basically designed more for adults than for kids. (When Max Fleischer's son, Richard was trying to peddle the idea of Betty Boop feature a few years ago, he found it difficult to convince Hollywood executives that her films were originally not made for kids.) And when the Production Code Administration clamped down on her risque ways, many felt that the changeover took much of her spunk away. (Lillian Friedman, the first women animator, who worked on many of Betty's films, agreed with this assessment.) A number of her later films (especially the ones featuring Grampy), however, are not without their charms. But for most, films such as Bimbo's Initiation, Snow-White and the spectacular Poor Cinderella are what Betty is all about. And for now, the best place to find them on video is in this collection, which is priced at US$69.95 for eight tape boxed set.
Harvey Deneroff has written extensively on the Fleischer Studios, where his father, Joe Deneroff, worked as an inbetweener in both New York and Miami., including a number of Betty Boop films.
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