Betty Boop and the Production Code of 1934

Betty Boop Yesterday and Today
The Production Code and its Effects
Was the Code to Blame?

Professional film makers do not create "works of art" with the same lack of inhibition that a painter might possess when he sketches in his private notebooks. Rather, the constraints of the genres and the technical limitations of the equipment available bind them. They are also bound by the mores and values of their contemporary society. The graphic language and sex that exist in R-rated films of today would not have been tolerated in films prior to the 1960s. By the same token, the widespread ethnic stereotyping of certain minorities such as African-Americans and Native Americans that existed in pre-1970s Hollywood would not be tolerated in major motion pictures today. Nevertheless, we cannot simply explain away flaws in films as artifacts of their day. Genres and technical standards are rarely so limiting as to actually dictate the entire content of a film.

The best case study in animation to illustrate the powerful influence society has over the types of films that are produced is the story of Betty Boop. She was a major cartoon character before the Production Code of 1934 was put into place, and her dramatic and fatal transformation illustrates how a product created under one set of standards often withers when placed in a new milieu. At the same time, the Code alone cannot explain why this dizzy little flapper degenerated so quickly.

Betty Boop Yesterday and Today

Betty Boop exists today solely as a merchandising item. Betty's face and figure can be found on T-shirts, posters, and all sorts of knickknacks and curios. Much of this merchandise satirizes well-known advertising icons such as Guess Jeans, Coppertone Suntan Lotion, and the famous publicity still of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Betty's current popularity in merchandise is somewhat puzzling, as the Fleischers released all of her short cartoons before 1940, save for a halfhearted TV special in the early 1980s and a brief cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. While colorized versions of her cartoons exist, they were never given the same degree of exposure as the colorized versions of Max Fleischer's Popeye cartoons.

It is unlikely that many of the teenage girls who carry Betty Boop keychains or wear Betty Boop T-shirts have ever seen any of the original Max Fleischer cartoons starring Betty. To most Americans under the age of 35 or so, she is probably just an icon, with no more sense of history than Tony the Tiger, Lucky Leprechaun, Count Chocula, or any of the other cartoons that serve as advertisements for cereal.

In Betty Boop's heyday in the 1930s, however, things were quite different. Leonard Maltin recalls an incident where Max Fleischer sued (and won) an infringer of Betty Boop's copyright because "he was in the business of making cartoons . . . not in the merchandising business." Betty Boop, in the 1930s, existed almost solely as a cartoon character. She was a popular character in the zany black-and-white world that still had not fully broken away from the odd transformations of Felix the Cat, the Little Nemo comic strip, and Fleischer's earlier Koko the Clown. It was a world where apartment buildings and automobiles could suddenly take on anthropomorphic qualities, and furniture could walk or grow. Characters walked with a certain bounciness, and could morph into different shapes quite easily. It was, in other words, a world yet unconquered by the more rational fantasy of Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies.

Seen today, it is easy to see why these cartoons were often revived in the trippy 1960s. They possess an ambiance that is right at home with midnight screenings and offbeat home video. (Rhino Records released some Fleischer cartoons as part of "Weird Cartoon" packages). While not psychedelic by any means, they are Dali-esque. Seeing them for the first time, one can hardly believe one's eyes. These are cartoons that are definitely not from the Disney mode nor are they strictly of the Warners/MGM gag variety. They are odd. And Betty was their princess.

Betty Boop's cartoons were all directed by Max Fleischer's brother Dave, and Dave Fleischer created a world of dark surrealism that at times seemed Kafkaesque. Like Kafka, the Fleischers' imaginations were deeply influenced by Yiddish tradition; in one early cartoon (Minnie the Moocher) Betty's parents are obviously Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Dave Fleischer placed Betty in a world where danger lurked at every corner as fantastic monsters or men unable to control their libidos. In radical reconstructions of fairy tales such as Snow White (never to be confused with Disney's feature film), ghosts and dragons would chase Betty. Her chief companions in these early cartoons were Bimbo (a dog whose character design recalled Felix) and Koko the Clown, both of whom frequently got in more danger than Betty did.

In Bimbo's Initiation, a cartoon that recalls The Trial and predates the Disney short Mickey's Nightmare, Bimbo is hounded and tortured by a clan of hooded cult figures who, as the climax reveals, are identical duplicates of the Boop! Every Betty Boop cartoon featured surrealism, although not always to this degree. The grayness of the Fleischer cartoons of this period was not merely a function of the black-and-white technology; the grayness seemed to suggest the bleak drabness of lower-class New York City and moral ambiguity.

The fluid natures of these cartoons make them difficult to describe in a coherent fashion. Dave Fleischer almost certainly did not use story boards or even a script in some of these films and Boop's adventures were free form as a result. Ad-libbing by the voice actors (including Mae Questel, who provided Betty's voice in many films) was the norm, resulting in a very spontaneous-sounding soundtrack. The animation was at times amazingly precise, and at other times very crude. Betty's unique design was the work of Grim Natwick, one of the few animators at Fleischer who had an art school education yet many other Fleischer cartoons are obviously denizens of the Terrytoons/Felix the Cat/Early Mickey Mouse school. These cartoons have stories that amble about in an almost dreamlike way; Snow White possesses a hallucinogenic series of vignettes each even less connected to the original fairytale. The transformation of Koko the Clown into the Ghost of Cab Calloway seems to predict the animation of the Genie in Aladdin decades later. Today's animation fans would be well served to acquaint themselves with the work of Fleischer's studio.

Betty Boop possessed long shapely legs and large round eyes, qualities that may indicate her to be the spiritual grandmother of vixens such as Lum, who populate the anime films of the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps a more important similarity is the targeting of adults as Betty's audience. The Betty Boop cartoons may have entertained children, but the bulk of the humor was geared to adults (and probably aimed squarely at adult males). As revealed in the documentary Boop-Oop-A-Doop, Betty's animators not only found excuses to back light her or disrobe her but also added subliminal "details." (Outright nudity never occurred in the Fleischer world, but implied nudity did).

Yet simultaneously, the cartoon characters who lustily pursued Betty were invariably depicted as freakish malformed, goggle-eyed dirty old men. Thus, Fleischer's world not only satisfied the audience's desire for voyeurism, but it also chastised those who engaged in it as perverts. Raising charges of sexism against the Fleischer studio is thus difficult. For the most part Boop was a tease, although Hollywood's habit of erratic self-censorship should not suggest that all innuendos were purely teases. As Smooden pointed out in Animating Culture, the finale of Betty Boop and the Little King leaves the audience with the distinct impression that Boop has become the Little King's mistress. Betty's hula dance in Popeye the Sailor suggests an exotic dancer of a different stripe, as the Boop is clearly topless.

We should stress, however, that sex was not the selling point of every Boop cartoon. There were plenty of silly entries in which sewing machines sewed up rivers, or the moon put the earth up for auction, or other similarly goofy events occurred. Despite the instances recorded in the previous paragraph, one should not leave with the impression that the Boop cartoons were animated peepshows. Rather, one should realize that in Boop's world, neutered mice and ducks did not exist.

The Production Code and its Effects

While cartoons were clearly not yet exclusively children's entertainment, there was little doubt that a large proportion of their audience was under the age of twelve. Paul Terry's cartoons were geared almost exclusively towards children, and Disney was building his empire by appealing to the "inner child," stressing wholesomeness and scrubbed-up fairy tales. Leon Schlesinger, the producer of the Warner Brothers cartoons, was quoted as believing that since many cartoon viewers are children, cartoon producers are morally obligated to serve the children's interests. (This quote turns up frequently in Animating Culture although it is conspicuously absent from Of Mice and Magic). It should be obvious to the reader that cartoons were not to be exempt from the Production Code of 1934.

The purpose of the Code was to officially enforce several Hollywood rules ignored by various studios since at least 1930. (The major studios barely gave a previous code lip service). The Code was created to avoid official government censorship and to appease the growing criticism of motion pictures as immoral entertainment. With patronage of theatres declining in the early years of the Great Depression and widespread politically active criticism by the American Catholic Church, there was a real danger that the government would intervene and seize control of the film industry. These were the years of scantily clad chorus girls in Busby Berkeley musicals, of violent crime dramas, of lurid horror films such as Frankenstein and Dracula. Nudity was occasionally glimpsed in films of this era, too, and sexual content was present in some films, especially in those of the frankly liberated Mae West. The decadence of Hollywood was well-known through a series of scandals; perhaps the most notorious involved Fatty Arbuckle.

To silence its critics, the Code conceded to many of their demands. Homosexuality, interracial romance, drug and alcohol abuse, abortion, and nudity were all prohibited. Couples could not be shown as sharing the same bed. Not only were the "Seven Dirty Words" that George Carlin would later joke about prohibited, but so were many others. Violence was toned down. More importantly, no story could appear in which evil and good were confused. Any evil character had to be concocted so there could be no audience sympathy for him, and the evil character must be punished by the end of the film. While not part of the Code, Hollywood publicity would ensure that a more positive public image would be projected of its stars. The Code would remain in place until the 1960s, and ironically, its limitations would help create the framework within which the Golden Era of Hollywood film making would flourish.

The Code had some fine results, albeit indirectly. In place of brash musicals that seemed to exist only to show leggy chorus girls, Fred Astaire starred in a series of beautifully stylized musicals that showcased choreographed dancing and well-crafted songs. Classic novels such as Wuthering Heights and The Wizard of Oz were filmed along with Shakespearean plays in an attempt to show how cultured Hollywood could be. On the one hand, the Code's limitations on sexuality resulted in achingly beautiful romances and on the other, hilarious screwball comedies that threatened to unhinge the Code at any minute. Film noir and more stylish horror films like The Black Cat became adept at suggesting violence that the Code would not openly allow. The gangster films became morality plays in which the mob boss was transformed into a parable of the American Dream gone awry. The downside is that there were whole areas of human experience that were off limits to Hollywood. Hollywood could not create stories in which a lead character agreed to an extramarital affair, or in which drug addiction was realistically portrayed.

The Production Code of 1934 forcibly changed the Betty Boop character, and her new form was saccharine sweet. While the Boop never reached the sauciness that Tex Avery's Red and Who Framed Roger Rabbit's Jessica Rabbit would do later, she was clearly an offender under the new rules. Her sexy teases contained too much promise. Betty's hemlines were lowered to reveal only her calves, and instead of playing dance hall characters, she was typecast as a schoolmarmy maiden aunt. She was paired with a series of cute animal and children, all of whom seemed to be based on a simplification of the Disney formula. This new Betty was doomed to failure. She was an essentially insincere creation meant to appease the code and the Boop became a supporting character in her own cartoons. Grampy, a benevolent elderly gentleman inventor, rightly became the focus in the Betty Boop series. The Fleischer cartoons made under the Betty Boop header were attempts to please the Production Code by aping the Disney style. Note that while the actions prohibited are clearly stated in the Code, the revisions made in the character were strictly the inventions of the Fleischer studios.

Betty's last cartoons for Fleischer were completed in 1939 and from that point on, the Boop vanished from newly produced cartoons. Max and Dave Fleischer had long since refocused their energies into series that the Production Code would find less troublesome. Popeye may have been violent. Nevertheless, the Sailor Man didn't drink or talk suggestively and his girlfriend was unlikely to inspire erotic feelings in moviegoers. The Superman series was an opportunity for Max Fleischer to further experiment with rotoscoping and for Dave to create cartoons in a new narrative format. A series of one-shot cartoons allowed the Fleischer brothers to tinker with color and their 3-D camera work. Betty continued to exist in comic strips for many years (at one point she shared a strip with Felix) but she never returned full-time to film.

Was the Code to Blame?

The main flaw of the Boop, according to conventional animation history, was that her character was too closely hewn to the pre-1934 values that the Code sought to correct. This is partially true. Betty's short ringlets and straight cut dress clearly marked her as a flapper. She was patterned after 20s singer Helen Kane, who epitomized the Roaring 20s. Since Betty was so closely aligned to the decadence of the flappers, it made sense that she would be hit hard by the new broom of the Production Code.

It is equally possible that Max and Dave over reacted in their redesign of the character. Adding a wholesome boyfriend to Betty's life (an idea toyed with in She Wronged Him Right, a melodrama that strongly evokes the Perils of Pauline) could have reduced the potential lechery to the level of Terrytoons' Oil Can Harry. As a potential parallel, consider the comic strips: Al Capp was able to get away with the similarly scantily-clad Daisy Mae because she was Li'L Abner's loyal girlfriend.

Enterprising animators found ways to include curvy female forms in the post-Code era, although none of these characters were ever built up to be stars the way that Betty Boop was. Paul Terry included a series of shapely "mice" as damsels in Mighty Mouse cartoons (they actually looked like women wearing mouse ears atop their heads), and Tex Avery excelled at including the infamous Red in a series of cartoons at MGM. At Warners, such inclusions were rarer, save for an occasional character like the Mata Hari-style pigeon that tried to seduce Daffy Duck to the Third Reich. These cartoons, according to Animating Culture may have been permitted because they vaguely helped the "war effort" by boosting the morale of male soldiers. In retrospect, one wonders how Warners got away with Bugs Bunny's penchant for cross dressing.

Other studios benefited greatly from the Production Code of 1934. Walt Disney's studio had appropriated semi-faithful adaptations of fairy tales as their chief raw material. In fact, just a year before the Production Code, Disney released The Three Little Pigs and helped to further redefine what many people considered to be the apex of animation. Disney, who was gearing his efforts towards what pop psychologsts would later term "the inner child," benefited from Hollywood's move to make cartoons safe for a primarily juvenille audience. Disney himself was a naturally hardworking, patriotic American, and he went beyond the code's requirements to satisfy his high standards.

Could Betty have been revived in the 1940s? The Fleischer studio morphed into Paramount's Famous Studios and became a straightforward kiddie unit, turning out formulaic comedies such as Little Audrey and Casper. Had Betty been revived by them, she would not only have been an old maid character, but would also have been saddled into a formula the way that Popeye was. It's possible that the animators were burned out with the Betty character from all the films they had made with her, and could no longer imagine new directions for her. In the TV era, she would have been saddled with limited animation, the same way that Koko the Clown and Popeye were. Her cartoons did show up as parts of syndicated packages in the days when black-and-white cartoons were still shown on television, and her shorts were released on a variety of video cassettes in the home video era.

Ironically, Betty's best chance at being revived would be today. The quality of TV animation is at an all-time high, with Warners efforts such as Pinky and the Brain proving that TV can be a viable format for well-animated entertainment. The Simpsons have shown that there is an adult audience for silly animation. Given that much of her potential audience is ignorant of her past, the animators would be free to construct a new history for Betty in the same way that Felix the Cat was given a Day-Glo update for his recent TV series. This remake could depart radically from Betty's previous incarnation: judging from the merchandise currently available, the bulk of her audience is now women!

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