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Betty Boop Confidential

By Devin D. O'Leary

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  According to some, we are living in a new age of animation. The success of such prime-time cartoons as "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," combined with the juggernaut popularity of Disney's recent animated efforts, point to a resurgence of animation as a popular form of entertainment. Despite such indications, however, animation is not what it used to be. Animation today lacks the style and spark of yesteryear. "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill"--although two of the best shows on television--are not exactly noted for their animation techniques. Disney's recent contributions like The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are assembly line products that can't hold a candle to the spectacular work seen in Snow White or Bambi. In their heyday (from the 1930s to the 1950s), animators like Ub Iwerks, Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones were household names--each with their own distinct style, humor and attitude. Most animation today is cranked out in factories overseas, and few true "animators" still exist. The few names that do register in the public mind, like Mike Judge (creator of "Beavis and Butt-head" and "King of the Hill") may be remembered for creating some funny shows, but are hardly noted for their contributions to the "art" of animation.

Way back in the 1920s and '30s, Dave and Max Fleischer were the biggest names in animation. Their popularity would only be overshadowed, in years to come, by a young upstart named Walt Disney. In their day, though, the Fleischers ruled the movie theaters, creating wildly popular shorts featuring the seminal Popeye and an eye-poppingly art deco Superman (inspiration for the current "Batman" and "Superman" series from Warner Brothers). Their most enduring creation, though, was the prototypical "flapper" girl, Betty Boop. Betty Boop Confidential brings together a smorgasbord of 11 Betty Boop and other Fleischer Studio "Talkartoons" from the early '30s. And if anything is a testament to the pure genius of the Fleischer brothers, it is these clever, quirky toons.

Betty Boop (voiced by the squeeky-toned Mae Questal) began her career as the canine girlfriend of popular "Talkartoon" star Bimbo. Eventually, Betty lost her dog-like features and even eclipsed her sometimes boyfriend in popularity. Betty's cartoon career only lasted from 1930 to 1939, but her image has endured as a symbol of sexuality and wild abandon. In 1934, the Hays Office enacted the infamous Hollywood Production Code, which banned brutality, sexual promiscuity and any "pleasant" representations of illegal or immoral activity. Betty, whose body was modeled after Mae West, was among the first motion picture stars to be targeted. Betty's daring hemline was modified and her sexual behavior seriously curbed after 1934. Betty Boop Confidential does its best to concentrate on the "boop-oop-a-doop" girl's pre-code appearances. Even by today's standards, some of Betty's early activities seem pretty salacious. The randy hula dance in "Betty's Bamboo Isle" is performed topless (with a strategically place lei). A circus boss exhibits some textbook sexual harassment in "Boop-oop-a-doop." Betty even flashes her skivvies in "Any Rags."

Still, the primary attraction here is the animation. The Fleischer brothers had a taste for some very weird, often surreal cartooning. Few cartoons in the 1930s bothered with actual stories. Sound was still a new invention, and most animated shorts concentrated on splashy musical numbers. Betty, being a product of the Jazz Age, sported some pretty snazzy numbers and some hot guest stars like Louis Armstrong and Ethel Merman. Her "Snow White" short (featured in Betty Boop Confidential) features a show-stopper by Cab Calloway.

So, if you're a serious fan of animation history, or just want to see some trippy old cartoons, then you owe it to yourself to check out Betty Boop Confidential.

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