Paramount announced on 23 March 2012 that they’re finally going to release all the original Betty Boop cartoon films made in the 1930s. (That’s all of them; she made her debut in 1930, and her final film in 1939.) It’s about time.
Betty Boop’s interesting because she was just about the only animated cartoon woman to be sexy, 58 years before Jessica Rabbit. And though she was never promoted by a company with the power and reach of Disney, who squeezed every buck (and all the character) out of the Mouse and the Duck, she’s probably more popular right now. And a hell of a lot cooler.
Part of the reason that the owners of her image seem to have tried to bury her is that she was always a bit sexier than the studios were comfortable with. So the studios sulked while Betty and her fans went out to play together.
The Betty Boop revival wasn’t driven by the people who own her image. Lions Gate Entertainment isn’t producing any new Betty Boop product. In fact Betty Boop hasn’t been seen in a movie since she turned up for a few seconds in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Her last film before that was in 1939. (There were a couple of crap TV specials, which we’re going to ignore.)
But studios can’t hide her, or clean her up. In her later cartoons she wore more, and played with pets rather than men; they dumbed her down and they domesticated her. Somehow it never took. She remained Max Fleischer’s original and independent creation, Betty Boop the little sexpot with a taste for surrealism. People who’ve never seen a Betty Boop movie still know that she’s a bad girl. A bad girl with a heart of golden mush, and defiantly sexy.
You do get Japanese knock-offs that only exploit her cuteness, giving us a Hello Kitty version of the Boop. But generally she’s still about sex, often with a slightly fetishy flavour.
There’s her knowing echoing of Marlon Brando’s famous bike and leathers pose from The Wild One, the tee-shirts of her saying “If you’re going to ride my ass, you could at least pull my hair”, and the tee-shirts and posters showing her in bondage, or posing as a dominatrix.Though the original, official Betty products occasionally had her tied up, too.
Somehow she’s refused to go away, or let her owners change her. Sure, she’s a male creation, and you could go all deconstructive on her excellent ass; but her feistiness (weird word that, or what?) was real. For example, the first Hollywood film to raise the issue of workplace sexual harassment was a Betty Boop short. More importantly, she was one of the sexiest women ever to have been made entirely of ink and pixels.