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February 25, 2005

Zenga Longmore on Betty Boop's Jazz Legacy

Posted by Zenga Longmore

One of the most bizarre characters to emerge from the world of jazz is the cartoonist Max Fleischer. In between creating Popeye and Betty Boop, Fleischer provided work and recognition for many of the leading jazz artists of the 1930s, including Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Don Redman.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Vienna, Fleischer arrived in New York as a young boy during the 1880s. A fascination for both cartoon drawing and technology led him into a career in animation. With the help of his brothers Dave and Joe, Max invented the rotoscope, a device which enabled performers to be filmed live and those films to be traced into animated sketches. The movements of the subjects were subsequently exaggerated in the final cartoon. During the 1920s Max and his brothers formed the Fleischer Studios to produce cartoons for Paramount Pictures. Under Paramount's protective wing, Max allowed his surrealistic imagination to stretch beyond worldly limits. In 1930 he created Betty Boop, cartoon's first sex goddess.

Betty's character was a blend of na´ve innocence and saucy exuberance. She often found her dress being pulled off by amorous bosses, and her 'boop-oop-a-doop' catch phrase was loaded with double entendre:

You can feed me bread and water,
Or a great big bale of hay.
But don't take my boop-oop-a-doop away!

Betty was a quintessential flapper. She began her animated life as a French poodle, but her human features increased along with her popularity. By 1932 her dog ears turned into earrings and she finally metamorphosed into a human girl. She proved to be an ideal star for the outlandish animated 'shorts' that Fleischer produced during the silent era. Thank goodness 'soundies' had been developed by the early thirties, because the Betty Boop cartoons were frequently employed by Fleischer as a means of promoting the music of the greatest jazz musicians of his age.

The weirdness of Fleischer's cartoons were complimented by haunting, beautiful music with lyrics that often contained references to drugs, such as Chant of the Weed by Don Redman and Cab Calloway's Kicking the Gong Around which refers to opium smoking.

Today, the Betty Boop cartoons would be regarded as akin to pop music videos. Their purpose was to promote the music of the featured artists. At the start of three of the cartoons, Louis Armstrong's and Cab Calloway's bands can be seen performing and, in Calloway's case, dancing to their band's dazzling rhythms.

The classic Betty Boop cartoons which feature swing jazz are the most eerily surreal cartoons ever made. Salvador Dali would have been impressed by Fleischer's fantastical grotesquery. In Talkartoon, (1932) Calloway's rotoscoped figure assumes the appearance of a walrus, gyrating slowly and sensuously as he ceaselessly terrorizes Betty Boop. The action takes place in haunted cave. Ghostly, malevolent shapes shift around Betty and Bimbo as skeletal ghouls jive in the background. The Walrus Calloway sings a sonorous rendition of Minnie the Moocher:

Folks now here's the story of Minnie the Moocher.
She was a red hot hoochie-cootcher.
She was the roughest toughest frail,
But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale.
Hi de hi de hi-i-i-
At one point a phantom mother cat appears, suckling ghost kittens. As the kittens drink they start to swell into enormous balloon-like creatures, rapidly reducing their mother into a deflated husk. Next moment, a wailing witch gapes so widely that she exposes a hideous, screeching face on her uvula.

Calloway's rendition of Minnie the Moocher is so creepy as to cause the listener's blood to flow in the opposite direction. Minnie the Moocher was first recorded by Calloway in 1931 and continued to be his trademark theme for the rest of his life. Whilst Calloway was recording for Fleischer he was at the peak of his career. He had recently taken over from Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, and was the leader of the most famous black band in America. Known as 'the man in the zoot suit with the real pleats', he was admired not only for his strange and outrageous vocal style, but also for the slang vocabulary he had derived - 'jive talk'. His band became hugely popular throughout the United States, and images of his frenzied dancing and film star good looks were aped by many cartoonists besides Fleischer.

Louis Armstrong also starred with Betty in a cartoon in which he sings: I'll be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You. As Betty and her dog boyfriend Bimbo run for their lives from spear-wielding jungle natives, Louis's face appears in the sky, following them as they run. Suddenly, Armstrong's image inexplicably changes into an animated 'Sambo' mask, with exaggerated white lips and white blotches around the eyes. During the insensitive 1930's such racialist images were commonplace in films and animation. One can only guess what Louis made of this unpleasant representation of his expressive appearance.

However, jazz lovers will consider Fleischer's tactless faux pas a small price to pay for the most inspired cartoon jazz shorts ever produced.

By the mid-thirties the uninhibited atmosphere of the roaring twenties had evaporated. The Hays Office began to enforce crippling censorship on films and cartoons in an attempt to 'clean up the media'. Betty was no longer allowed to continue her dubious relationship with Bimbo the dog. Her hemlines lengthened and she was forced to take on a series of prim professions. At one stage she even worked as a school teacher. Her surreal spice was diluted into a bland mush. The celestial jazz theme music was abandoned in favour of slushy pop tunes. Fleischer's creative genius was throttled by the ever tightening hands of respectability. Tragically, by 1935, the marriage between jazz music and cartoons was annulled.

Zenga Longmore writes for The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Daily Telegraph. She is an actress and blues singer and the author of Tap-taps To Trinidad. To read her previous pieces on jazz for the Social Affairs Unit, see Jazz.

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