Sometimes I like to add supporting shorts to my viewing schedule, and this usually means digging into some cartoon DVD box sets. For a while I’ve had a Betty Boop collection on my shelf that I bought in the US last year and never got round to giving much attention, but the other night, I needed something to lighten things up after watching Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jesus
, so I dipped into a bit of Boop. I’d noticed that Betty’s merchandise
has been enjoying a bit of a revival, but I’m not sure how many of her new fans
have actually had chance or inclination to view her actual films. It turns out my boxset doesn’t include much of the earliest stuff, when Betty was actually a dog, or her first appearance in human form in 1932’s Any Rags
. But there are examples of beautiful, innovative animation in each cartoon, in contrast to the slightly less progressive sexual politics: having said that, it’s probably easy to poke disapproving fingers in the direction of Betty Boop: she is a scantily clad cabaret perfomer, barely aware of the effect she’s having on the slavering males who interpret her openness as availability. She is almost always held in the centre of the frame to emphasise that she is an object of clear and transparent spectacle, but on the other hand she is granted a level of independence and romantic (i.e. “sexual”) appetite. She is a character in her own right, rather than a Minnie Mouse or a Daisy Duck, who exists as only a slightly modified version of a much more significant male other. Either way, Tuesy and I had some fun trying to untangle the innuendos and implications of the cartoons – is avuncular sidekick Grampy really just devoted to Betty out of pure friendship, or is he expecting something in return when he tidies her entire home following a particularly rambunctious party in Housecleaning Blues
? And whose is that baby?……
I don’t know enough about Betty to blog about her at any length, but I thought I’d go through one of the shorts that stood out to me in a bit more detail rather than attempting a complete survey. So, these are initial thoughts that may be subject to modification at a later date (surely that’s what blogging is for, though…).
Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame (1934) begins with a reporter interviewing Betty’s creator, Max Fleischer about his star actress, with Fleischer illustrating her talents with clips from three of her earlier outings. In live action inserts, we see Fleischer himself drawing Betty and bringing her into hip-swivelling life before our eyes.
It’s unlikely that Fleischer himself animated Betty, or even that anyone could do that kind of work single-handed, but positing him as a lone artist with singular life-giving powers was a common trope of early cartoons, as Donald Crafton makes plain in his superb book Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928:
“Part of the animation game consisted of developing mythologies that gave the animator some sort of special status. Usually these were very flattering, for he was pictured as (or implied to be) a demigod, a purveyor of life itself.”
You can see this in James Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces
(1906), where the frame incorporates Blackton’s hand drawing a series of chalkboard caricatures, and Winsor McCay was a major presence in his own cartoons, either in live action sections showing the animation process, or in the priceless moment at the end of Gertie the Dinosaur
(1914) where he enters the frame to hitch a ride on the back of his pet brontosaurus. Crafton puts it beautifully when he states that appreciation of early animation was dependent upon “vicarious participation in the ritual of incarnation.” That is to say, audiences were included in the processes of construction and always invited to contemplate the artifice of animated characters, even if they were being presented with an exaggerated or mythologised version of those processes.
Fleischer exerts his control over Betty at every turn, but the diegesis suggests that, once drawn, she is independent of the artist. This is that neat compromise between a depiction of the animator as a powerful being, and the need for his creations to seem to have a life of their own. Fleischer sets out a series of backgrounds for Betty to dance in (each one recalling one of her earlier films), proscribing the spaces in which she can perform. When Betty dances the hula, a cutaway to the reporter’s hand shows his pen gyrating like a curvy butt. Her sexuality spills out from the cel into the real world, an effect to which Fleischer himself, as Betty’s good “Uncle Maxie” seems to be immune: he administers and sets the boundaries for the allure she will inflict on others, but keeps a professional distance. It is his spell that is being cast, and Betty is his intermediary.
The film concludes when Betty, harrassed by the Old Man of the Mountain and his somewhat tentacular beard, flees the frame and escapes by jumping back into the safety of Uncle Maxie’s inkwell.
Again he offers a paternal protection from the dangerous sexual opportunities to which he had introduced her in the first place. Pimp. In other Betty cartoons, the relationship between creator and creation is not as explicitly obvious as in this portmanteau piece of her greatest hits, but its a tidily condensed statement of how things work.