Betty Boop may be one of the most instantly recognizable cartoons in history. Yes, with her big baby face, button nose and huge eyes, Betty’s pretty hard to mistake for any other character. But, of course, someone once had to create her – and you may be surprised to know that she was actually once based on a real woman.
One of the best-loved cartoon characters ever, Betty’s appeal has endured since her first appearance in the 1930s. In fact, in the intervening decades, she’s been used to sell just about everything. Even someone who’s never seen her on screen may use a Betty lipstick or wear a T-shirt with her face on it.
Betty has made her mark culturally, too. Echoes of the adorable animation can be seen in the Doonesbury comic – in which “Boopsie” appears – and in other shows where her look and figure are borrowed by characters. Betty has also featured in an ad for a lash product and in a short promotional movie with fashion designer Zac Posen – and that’s not even taking into consideration her obvious influence on 1980s rapper Betty Boo.
But when did Betty first appear? Well, Max Fleischer created the character in collaboration with a number of fellow animators, including Myron “Grim” Natwick. Betty initially hit screens, then, in Fleischer’s Talkartoon series in 1930, although her popularity ensured that she would later have a series all of her own.
Fleischer himself had been born in Krakow in Poland and came to the U.S. with his parents as a toddler. He subsequently settled in New York City and acquired a new first name, as he had been Majer at birth. And, later, the animator became head of his own Fleischer Studios along with his little brother Dave.
Fleischer was actually something of a pioneer in the field of animation, as he created novelties that would later become commonplace in the industry. The studio head invented such things as the Rotoscope, which allowed for the creation of animation from live-action films. He also developed the “bouncing ball” – now a familiar feature when we’re singing along with animated songs or doing karaoke.
And arguably one of the most enduring of Fleischer’s ideas was of course Betty, who made her debut in the seventh of Fleischer’s Talkartoons – entitled Dizzy Dishes – in August 1930. Curiously, though, when the character first appeared, she was not quite the flapper that we are familiar with. Instead, she took the form of a French poodle with a baby voice, and she’d appear in that guise for a couple of years.
So, how did Betty transform into the ditsy sweetheart we know and love today? Well, all was seemingly revealed during an interview in the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive. An unknown person revealed, “One day, Dave Fleischer handed Grim a photograph of singer Helen Kane and asked him to design a caricature. Fleischer had found a sound-alike and planned to use her in the upcoming Talkartoon Dizzy Dishes. Grim exaggerated Kane’s wide eyes and rosebud mouth, creating a slightly coarse but strikingly original design.”
The interviewee continued, “Grim streamlined and refined his caricature of Kane for the part. But Dave Fleischer objected, insisting that since Bimbo was a dog, his girlfriend should also be a dog. Grim quickly sketched Betty’s head on a four-legged canine body. He held up the drawing next to the pretty girl design, and asked, ‘Which would you rather have as your girlfriend? A girl? Or a dog?’ Dave laughed and agreed that the pretty girl was the right choice.”
Fleischer’s Talkartoons had begun as one-offs in 1929, with the first, Noah’s Lark, being a romp based on the Biblical story. As the series progressed, though, dog Bimbo became a recurring character to the point that the cartoons became all about him. And as Natwick and his fellow animators got into their stride, the Talkartoons took flight into surreal and complex territory.
It was into this world, then, that Betty stepped. Based on the Jazz Age flapper, she was mostly aimed at adult viewers and was consequently something of a sex symbol. In 1932’s Minnie the Moocher, the character also emerged as a teenager with somewhat of a rebellious streak.
Betty made waves, in fact, for her sex appeal – something not previously seen in other female cartoon characters. Yes, while the likes of Minnie the Mouse would have elements of their underwear on show, they had little of Betty’s coquettishness. The flapper-esque cartoon also famously wears tiny dresses that show off her cleavage, high heels and a garter.
Betty never gives any encouragement to the male characters who try to court her, however. After all, she is not only virginal but, according to Fleischer, 16 years old. And, shockingly, Betty narrowly escapes sexual assault in more than one cartoon.
The harassment of Betty reaches a peak in the short film Boop-Oop-A-Doop. Performing on a high wire, Betty comes under the gaze of the ringmaster, who subsequently makes an unwelcome advance and threatens her position with the circus. But in the end, Koko the Clown comes to her rescue, and Betty sings that the bad guy “couldn’t take [her] boop-oop-a-doop away.”
What’s more, once Betty had shown up in the Talkartoon series, she became a central figure, appearing in the eight cartoons that came after Dizzy Dishes. Then, in 1932, she was granted her own series with Bimbo as her support. Another Fleischer invention, Koko the Clown, would also often appear – but the star was very much Betty.
The early years of the “Jazz Baby” toon passed, though, and the strain of distinctly adult sexuality was toned down. This came after the passing of the 1934 Production Code, which strongly limited the amount of smutty double meanings that a film was allowed to include.
After July 1934, then, Betty would no longer be a flapper living without a care; instead, she’d be a housewife or a career girl. Her look changed to something much more demure, too, and she even ditched her distinctive hoop earrings. The character became older, wiser and calmer, in fact, as Fleischer’s animators sought to please the censors.
But as the new wholesome Betty targeted a younger audience, the cartoons became less popular. As a consequence, then, the characters with whom Betty was portrayed increasingly took center stage in an attempt to keep her relevant. The animators also struggled to find ways to keep Betty up to date once jazz’s day began to decline.
Sadly, the Betty Boop series would finally finish in 1939 with Yip Yip Yippy. Somewhat unusually, though, the cartoon didn’t even feature Betty; instead, it was a one-off created largely to meet the requirements of the studio contract.
Perhaps a key part of Betty’s allure, though, was her voice, which for the most part was provided by Mae Questel. A native of the Bronx, Questel had had a youthful desire to get into the entertainment business – although her parents had attempted to dissuade her. Undeterred, the future voice actress later won a talent contest by copying Helen Kane, and after that she would go on to make a name as a skilled impersonator.
Then Fleischer came across Questel when searching for someone to voice Betty, and the aspiring star’s version of Helen Kane – in which she sang the famous “Boop-boop-a-doop” – captured his attention. At the same time, Questel had a tinge of Clara Bow – a film star with a saucy edge that had made her popular at the time. Fleischer hired her in 1931, then, and soon she became the voice of Betty.
Betty had Questel’s voice for over 150 cartoons – more than any other actress who took on the role. Questel had some success on the side, too, with a version of “On the Good Ship Lollipop” that shifted more than two million records. And on top of Betty, she was also the voice of Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl.
Perhaps down in part to Questel, then, Helen Kane was long thought to have been the basis for Betty Boop. Kane had had a long career in entertainment prior to her big break in 1928, when she landed a spot at New York City’s The Paramount Theater.
Then, during the show, Kane trotted out her version of a song that was already popular. Something about her rendition of “That’s My Weakness Now” caught the imagination of the audience, however – not least when she broke out into a jazz “scat.” “Boop boop a doop,” Kane sang, and that vocal refrain would go on to make her name in the city.
Furthermore, The New York Times suggested at the time that Kane was “the most menacing of the baby-talk ladies” – a term used for a particular type of woman in vaudeville. Nevertheless, Kane found herself a star on the back of the phrase “boop boop a doop,” which the song used as a sort of code for sex.
Kane would follow her success up a few months later with her best-loved song “I Wanna Be Loved By You” – which would also become Betty Boop’s signature tune. But before the character and the composition came together, Kane had become a big name – her career revived by her flapper persona and unique singing style.
The influence that Kane seemingly had on Betty was noted, too, by the real-life actress. Yes, when Betty’s cartoons started to appear, Kane couldn’t help noticing how similar they were to her act. As a result, then, she took Fleischer and his studio Paramount to court, seeking nearly $4.7 million in today’s money for what she claimed was infringement of her copyright. But although of course Fleischer had borrowed some of Kane’s act, he claimed that she wasn’t the only inspiration for Betty; Clara Bow had apparently been thrown into the mix as well.
And Fleischer had a witness up his sleeve who blew away Kane’s case. Lou Walton was the manager of a singer called Esther Jones, who went by the name of Baby Esther, and he had damning evidence to give. Not only did Walton claim that he and Jones had invented the “boop boop a doop” refrain, but he also alleged that he’d seen Kane watching Jones’ act.
Jones often played in Harlem joints such as The Cotton Club, and she had earned her nickname precisely because she sang in the cutie-pie voice that Kane would allegedly lift. The killer element of Jones’ act, meanwhile, was the very same scat that Kane would use to make her name.
Jones had studied the other artists at The Cotton Club in an effort to get her own scatting spot on. And with legends such as Louis Armstrong to learn from, she was able to create a style all of her own. At least, it was just hers until Kane heard it and apparently made it her own, too.
Kane’s case was crushed, then, when Fleischer brought out a screen test from Jones that seemingly acted as proof that she had originated the “boop boop a doop” scat. And with this evidence suggesting that Kane could not claim her style had been infringed – since it wasn’t hers to begin with – the trial came to an end.
Sadly, after two years of fighting, Kane was left with nothing. Making his ruling, the judge said on the matter, “The plaintiff has failed to sustain either cause of action by proof of sufficient probative force.” He pointed out, too, that Betty’s look was common in those times; Clara Bow had elements of the character’s style, for one.
Naturally, Fleischer and the studio were delighted with the court ruling – although Jones herself was not there to celebrate alongside them. In fact, it’s not known whether Jones was even alive at the time of the trial. And the singer’s disappearance may have been a further tonic to Fleischer; that way, she would not be suing as well.
Kane, on the other hand, continued to thrive after the trial. Indeed, the exposure actually helped her rebranding as “the Original Boop-Boop-A-Doop Girl,” and she’d release records and a cartoon using this name. But no one ever gave a cent to Jones or her family. Instead, she was just used to defeat Kane’s suit and was then more or less forgotten.
In the final analysis, then, Betty was never just made from one person. You see, while her lips and her eyes came straight from Clara Bow, her singing was all Jones as interpreted by Kane. Then, with a pinch of pinup, a heap of sass and the imagination of Fleischer and Natwick all added to the mix, Betty was born.
And although Kane and Jones are long gone and largely forgotten, Betty remains a cultural icon. London clothier Lazy Oaf released a collection in 2018 that starred the character, for instance, with Moschino following suit in the same year. Betty even made an appearance on TV show Project Runway, which featured a challenge to create another clothing line featuring the famous flapper.
In 1994 the U.S. Library of Congress also selected the 1933 Betty cartoon Snow-White for preservation in the National Film Registry. And two years after that, Betty featured in Animaniacs in the form of “Goopi Goop” – parodying one of her cartoons. In that instance, Desirée Goyette, who had acted as Betty, provided Goopi’s voice.
Betty subsequently hit the screens again in 2012 in the film American Mary, which features a protagonist who has undergone cosmetic surgery so that she’ll look like the cartoon character. And Betty pops up from time to time in fashion and make-up commercials, too.
Given the amount of money made through these licenses and appearances, then, it’s perhaps no surprise that Betty has been the subject of further legal action. However, in a 2011 decision, a court decided that it couldn’t choose who owned the copyright to the character, as this hadn’t been been sold with the Betty Boop cartoons themselves. Even Fleischer Studios couldn’t win a 2008 case to defend its copyright claim.
Nevertheless, Betty endures today. And in 2017 Ray Pointer, a historian of animation, summed the iconic caricature up for the History channel’s website, saying, “[She] was never intended to be a continuing character. The cartoons helped to promote and expose the public to jazz and swing.” On top of that, she reflected the tradition of vaudeville, which in itself owed a great deal to performers of color – including Esther Jones, the original Betty Boop.