Cartoonist and cartoon historian, Koriander seeks to preserve the magic of animation.
A Language All Her Own?
Margie Hines, Little Ann Little, Bonnie Poe, and Mae Questel all took turns in the 1930s providing Betty Boop with her high pitched baby talk, her sassy wit, and her endearing singing vocals. However, in an April 6, 1931, short titled The Bum Bandit, Betty's charming voice dropped to a womanly level as she scolded an early version of Bimbo for leaving her with their ten children. Aside from this short, Betty Boop has allured and entertained for generations while walking the tightrope between being seen as a creature of innocence and one of temptation. But who really was the inspiration for the Boop-Oop-A-Doop girl?
Helen Kane - A Fighting Femme
Helen Kane was a teenage vaudeville singer turned adult pop star whose career had spanned nine years before Paramount Pictures had inked her to a movie contract. By this time, she had already been topping the charts with such hits as I Wanna Be Loved By You and That's My Weakness Now, where she had started inserting the catchphrase "Boop-Oop-A-Doop" into her lyrics. From 1929 to 1932, Kane would have small roles in six films; she would earn top billing as the star in a seventh film, Dangerous Nan McGrew, as the title character.
But Helen Kane's movie career wasn't the only thing Paramount Pictures was paying to produce.
In October of 1926, Paramount had rescued Fleischer Studios from bankruptcy and signed brothers Max and Dave Fleischer to a lucrative deal after being impressed with their early sound cartoons, which had beaten out Disney's Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie by two years.
One of the many series of cartoons Fleischer Studios would produce at their New York address would be the Talkartoons series. Here, they would debut the character Bimbo, and then on August 9, 1930, he gained a love interest in the form of a tall poodle named Betty Boop in the cartoon Dizzy Dishes. By the end of 1931, Bimbo would be redrawn as a cuter, but still wise cracking and somewhat lewd dog, while Betty would slowly transform into a more slender poodle, and then into a human, thanks to the assistance of Berny Wolf, Otto Feuer, Seymour Kneitel, "Doc" Crandall, Willard Bowsky, James "Shamus" Culhane, and Grim Natwick. It wasn't long before she overshadowed Bimbo as a star, and audiences loved her baby sweet voice and her Boop-Oop-A-Doop catchphrase...
Which audiences first loved with Helen Kane.
Both had a short, curly bob haircut, a tiny, heart-shaped pout, and a little girl's voice. Both alternated between acting sweet and sassy. But it wasn't just Kane's mannerisms Betty Boop had, several of her shorts parodied Kane's movies, right down to The Bum Bandit where Betty's name was also Dangerous Nan McGrew in a direct parody of Kane. An April 1932 issue of Photoplay Magazine directly called out Kane's cartoon doppelganger, and to make matters more infuriating for the actress, Margie Hines, Mae Questel, Bonnie Poe, and Little Ann Little had each gotten the role of Betty Boop from a Helen Kane look and sound-alike contest.
Kane filed a lawsuit against Fleischer Studios one month after the Photoplay Magazine article, but the trial would not take place until April of 1934. By this time, Paramount had dropped Kane, and it was rumored that they had specifically chosen to elevate the eternally young Betty Boop so they wouldn't have to pay Kane, who was already 30 by the time the trial took place and whose career started to decline as the flapper trend was starting to wane.
Curiously, no jury was ever called. It was only down to Kane, her attorney, the judge, and Fleischer Studios.
It was easy for Kane to prove in court that Paramount and the Fleischer Studios had taken almost all of Betty from her image and style. It was seemingly easier when Max Fleischer had alternating stories on Betty's creation, one being he created her alone and one being that Betty was supposed to parody Clara Bow. But just as it seemed as though Kane was going to win, Fleischer Studios was able to produce a now lost film of another star...
Baby Esther - The Lost Child
Fleischer Studios had produced Lou Bolton, who informed the courts that Helen Kane had actually taken her act from his protégé Baby Esther, an African American child star from Chicago who had performed in New York several months before Helen Kane began using the catchphrase Boop-Oop-A-Doop.
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Baby Esther had been scatting and singing on stage since 1924, and in 1926, she had started using similar syllables to Boop-Oop-A-Doop.
From April to June of 1928, Baby Esther had caused an uproar performing at the Everglades Nightclub, eventually leaving after her father and manager both got fined for having a child perform at a club meant only for adults.
But during that time, she had earned a fan in Helen Kane, who had witnessed the scandalous performances. Later that year, Kane had begun to sing and scat in the exact same style.
Other singers had performed scat in a similar style since at least 1915, but while he was there, Lou Bolton had made a confession. Baby Esther had taken her routine from another performer.
Florence Mills - Tragic Blackbird
Like Helen Kane, Florence Mills had gotten her start as a young vaudeville singer. The daughter of freed slaves, she and her older sisters Olivia and Maude were the first generation of their family to be born free.
Her high pitched vocals and scatting earned her a transition from vaudeville to Broadway, and she spent a bulk of her career singing and dancing between nightclub performances and moving musicals on Broadway, such as the 1926 play Lew Leslie's Blackbirds. It was so popular that Edward, Prince of Wales saw it himself 11 times.
But it wasn't just her baby talk singing of syllables like Boop-Oop-A-Doop or her adorable curls and fresh face that audiences adored. Florence Mills was a talented actress, known for both heartstring-tugging roles and for bursts of comedy. She dressed up in a tuxedo like a man. She wore costumes. She could be funny and daring.
And New York audiences loved her.
That included the New York-based Fleischer Brothers, who also took inspiration from Florence Mills's wide range of emotions and costumes. Examples of this exist in the 1932 Betty Boop shorts Stopping the Show, where Betty is seen wearing many of Mills's costumes while impersonating stars, and in Bamboo Isle where Betty is suddenly a dark-skinned hula girl.
Alas, Florence Mills suddenly died on November 1, 1927, from a combination of complications during surgery and tuberculosis. Baby Esther immediately began performing as "Florence Mills's kid sister" while doing a parody of Mills's routine.
While the validity of Baby Esther's video has been disputed and has not surfaced since the trial, this, coupled with the knowledge of Mills, was enough for the judge to dismiss Kane's lawsuit on May 5, 1934.
Years later, Grim Natwick would confess that Max Fleischer actually did instruct him to refine Betty Boop to look more like Helen Kane. But by this point, the damage was already done. Kane's career would not pick up again until the late 1950s while Betty Boop would endure for years to come.
Betty Boop outlasted her creator's studios, but it's important we don't forget the women who paved the way for her, especially when they were unaware that their likeness had been used.
© 2021 Koriander Bullard