Happy Birthday, Betty Boop!

Don’t let her fool you: she may look pretty good (OK, amazing) for her age, but Betty Boop is actually 81 years old today.

She’s gone through a lot of changes over the years – as in, she’s completely changed species. Photo credit Back in the early days, Ms. Boop was conceived of as a girlfriend for Bimbo, a cartoon dog created by Fleischer Studios, a big player in the era of silent cartoons. Yep – back in 1930, Betty was less person and more poodle (and not nearly as cute).

Her first recognizable appearance as Betty (Bimbo had a female companion in earlier cartoons but in no way did she resemble Betty Boop) was in 1930’s “Dizzy Dishes.” Though she looks pretty familiar, the long dog ears are a dead giveaway that she hadn’t reached her final form yet. If you have a spare six minutes, check it out. If not, fast forward to the 2:40 mark.

It didn’t take long for Betty to become more popular than her boyfriend (gee… wonder why?), and suddenly, Bimbo was out of the picture and Betty was front-and-center.

As Betty became more popular, some people began to notice a striking resemblance between the cartoon and a couple of famous actresses, most notably Helen Kane (pictured) and Clara Bow. And you can be sure that the actresses themselves noticed – Helen Kane sued Max Fleischer and Paramount for $250,000 for blatantly using her likeness without her permission. Not only did they look similar, Helen was famous in the ‘20s as “The Boop-Oop-A-Doop Girl,” which you almost certainly recognize today as Betty’s tagline, not Helen Kane’s. Helen even sang in the same manner.

In the cartoon “The Bum Bandit,” the studio Betty Boop portrayed Dangerous Nan McGrew, a role Helen originated the previous year. Though the evidence was certainly stacked against Fleischer and his company, the court ruled in their favor. It was determined that Helen didn’t have exclusivity to the baby-styled singing voice or the “Boop-Oop-A-Doop” line – Fleischer’s lawyers were able to insinuate that Helen actually took both of these elements from a singer she saw at the Cotton Club who went by the name Baby Esther. Furthermore, they said, many people also believed the design of Betty Boop was inspired by Hollywood It Girl Clara Bow.

Since so many entertainers of the day were adopting the flapper style, it was impossible to prove that Fleischer had stolen Kane’s look specifically. Kane lost the lawsuit.

Betty fell victim to the Hays Code in 1934 and had to clean up her act. The garter, cleavage and short skirts were replaced with a more respectable knee-length black dress, complete with long sleeves and a ruffle on the neckline to avoid exposing too much skin. Bimbo had to be replaced with a human boyfriend because people were worried that a female human with a male dog suggested bestiality (hey, it worked for Jessica Rabbit).

Sadly, the censorship was the beginning of the end for Betty cartoons. Though Fleischer kept making cartoons featuring Betty, the cartoons got tamer and tamer. Betty’s human boyfriend was even replaced with an elderly inventor named Grampy with whom Betty had a strictly platonic relationship (as far as we know). When these didn’t do much to boost her popularity, Betty was teamed with a cavalcade of other cartoon superstars of the era. Nothing doing – interest continued to plummet, and the last official Betty Boop cartoon aired in 1939. She wasn’t even in it. The reason you continue to see so much of the animated Boop-Oop-A-Doop girl these days is that Fleischer Studios, no longer taking money in with work, has largely concentrated their efforts on marketing and merchandising.

A couple of more fun Betty Boop facts: One of the many talented ladies to voice Betty included Mae Questel. Before I knew Mae was Betty Boop, I was most familiar with her as Aunt Bethany from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and maybe you are too. Mae gave Betty vocals from 1931 to 1939, then again late in life: her last “appearance” as Betty was in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988. Mae was also the voice of another Fleischer favorite for about 20 years - Popeye's girlfriend Olive Oyl. During her strange development from poodle to human, Betty went through quite a few changes. She’s been a dog, of course, but she’s also been a cat and a redhead.

In addition, there are a couple of cartoons where Fleischer Studios decided to give her an adult voice instead of a baby voice. A good example of that is “The Bum Bandit.” For an older gal, she's still got it: Betty was declared the official fantasy cheerleader for the United Football League last year. I'm going to go on record and say that it may be a great idea on shirts and merchandise, but that real-life mascot wearing a Betty mask is creeping me out. Photo credit

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This cartoon is also a great example of old-school "rubber hose" animation. Walt Disney pretty much killed that style, but it had its own kind of charm.
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