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Betty Boop is an animated cartoon character appearing in the Talkartoon and Betty Boop series of films produced by Max Fleischer.
Betty Boop made her first appearance on August 9, 1930 in the cartoon "Dizzy Dishes", the sixth installment in Fleischer's Talkartoon series. She was little like her soon-to-be-famous self, however. Grim Natwick, a veteran animator of both Walt Disney's and Ub Iwerks' studios, was largely responsible for creating the character, which he modeled on Helen Kane, a famous singer, who also performed as an actress at Paramount Pictures, the studio that distributed Fleischer's cartoons. In keeping with common practice, Natwick made his new character an animal, in this case, a French poodle. Beginning with this cartoon, the character's voice was performed by several different voice actresses until Mae Questel got the role and kept it for the rest of the series in 1931.
Natwick himself later conceded that Betty's original look was quite ugly. The animator redesigned her in 1932 to be recognizably human in the cartoon "Any Rags". Her floppy poodle ears became hoop earrings, and her poodle fur became a bob haircut. She appeared in ten cartoons as a supporting character, a flapper girl with more heart than brains. In individual cartoons she was called "Nancy Lee" and "Nan McGrew". She usually served as studio star Bimbo's girlfriend. Although the Screen Song Cartoon "Betty Coed" referred to the character as Betty in 1931, she was not officially christened "Betty Boop" until the 1932 short "Stopping the Show" that same year. This was also the first cartoon to be officially part of the Betty Boop series and not a Talkartoon.
Betty's development was still incomplete, however. Max Fleischer's brother, Dave, further altered the character, making her sexier and more feminine. The character's famous personality finally came into play in the 1932 short, "Minnie the Moocher", to which Cab Calloway and his orchestra lent their talents. In the film, Betty runs away from home only to get lost with costar Bimbo in a cave haunted by a walrus (rotoscoped from Calloway). The ghost's scary musical number impels Betty to flee back to the safety of home.
Betty Boop is noteworthy for being the first truly feminine cartoon character. Other female characters of the same period were simply male players in female costumes, such as Minnie Mouse and the like. Betty Boop, however, reveled in her femininity. She wore short dresses and a garter belt. Her breasts were prominent, and she showed her cleavage. In her cartoons, other characters try to sneak peeks at her while she's changing. She does the hula wearing only a lei and a grass skirt. Nevertheless, the animators made sure to keep the character "pure" and girl like (officially, she was only 16 years old). As Betty tells Koko the Clown in the film "Boop-Oop-A-Doop" after being threatened by a salacious ringmaster, "He couldn't take my boop-oop-a-doop away!" Her cartoons also stood out from the competition due to their upbeat jazz soundtracks. In addition to 3 cartoons with soundtracks by Cab Calloway, guest bands for Betty Boop cartoons included the bands of Louis Armstrong and Don Redman.
The adult sensibilities of Betty's cartoons made her a hit, and a wave of merchandising soon swept the world. Meanwhile, Helen Kane, who had inspired the character in 1930, sued the Fleischer studio in 1934 for allegedly stealing her trademark look, dancing and singing style, and catchphrase, "boop-oop-a-doop." Kane lost the suit when the Fleischers proved that the phrase had been used by other performers before Kane.
In the end, Betty's heightened sexuality would spell her doom as the Production Code censorship laws of the middle of the 1930s forced her to wear a longer skirt and less revealing neckline. Betty was no longer a flapper; she was a husbandless housewife. The animators struggled to keep Betty's cartoons interesting by pairing her with popular comic strip characters, but none of these films were very successful (though one such pairing did propel Popeye into stardom of his own). Betty's cartoon career came to an end, at least temporarily, in 1939.
Betty Boop's films would reach audiences once again when they were placed into syndication on television in the 1950s. She also gained exposure in the 1960s counterculture movement. The National Television Associates (NTA) capitalized on this and bought the rights to her shorts to colorize and re-air them on TV as The Betty Boop Show. Ivy Films put together a movie of some of Betty's better shorts called The Betty Boop Scandals of 1974 which saw some limited success. NTA later released another compilation movie, Hurray for Betty Boop in 1980. Marketers rediscovered Betty Boop in the 1980s as well, and merchandise featuring the character (in her earlier, sexier form) is now widely available. Recently, her 1933 film "Snow White" was selected for preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress in the National Film Registry.