A DIVA WHO DISTRACTED FROM THE GREAT DEPRESSION, BETTY BOOP IS BATTING HER FAMED LASHES ONCE AGAIN AS A SPOKESPERSON FOR LANCÔME
When the stock market crashed in 1929, there was no such thing as a golden parachute; the economy was all but dead, the housing market had collapsed, and the spirits of the people were desperately low. The Great Depression had settled upon America. Eagerly seeking out a distraction from the harsh realities of the real world, audiences clamored for animator Max Fleischer’s carefree, alluring new cartoon character—Betty Boop.
For her first on-air appearance, she was not the star of the show, but merely an extra. In Dizzy Dishes, a cartoon chef busily prepares meals in the kitchen of a cabaret club. He rushes out to deliver a plate to one particularly hungry patron, only to be stopped dead in his tracks by the sight of the scantily clad stunner crooning from the stage. “Boop-oop-a-doop,” squeaks the singer, wearing thigh highs and a little black dress. That was the moment the world was introduced to the one and only Boop.
Grim Natwick, an illustrator at Fleischer Studios, introduced the sizzling cartoon character in a six-minute short in the fall of 1930. The production company, whose only real competition was Walt Disney Studios, had wide appeal in the 1920s. At the time, Betty was an anthropomorphic dog with an eye-popping figurein the Fleischer’s Talkartoon series. Her emergence as a sexy, curvaceous flapper in a cabaret club was fresh and exhilarating for the screen, which previously had been populated mostly by androgynous female characters with the sex appeal of a wet mop.
Whether traveling the world, running away from home, or simply teasing her male admirers, Betty Boop never failed to entertain in her less-than-10-minute features. In 1932, Fleischer began incorporating famous musicians into the films, to increase the magnetism already drawing audiences to the theater in droves. Jazz orchestras, led by Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, gave added value to the deceptively simple black-and-white cartoons.
As Boop gained popularity among moviegoers, her physical appearance was progressively transformed: first her puppy ears were replaced by gold hoops, which fully humanized the character. Her new appearance—short, dark, tightly curled hair, wide eyes, and a voluptuous figure—resembled a popular star of the time, Helen Kane. The singer, disgruntled at having an animated doppelgänger steal her spotlight, would later file a $250,000 lawsuit against Fleischer Studios.
Boop’s second transformation came in 1935 with the enactment of the Hays Code, which established strict censorship rules for film and television. Her hemline extended and ample bosom covered up, Boop took on a more innocent persona. This new incarnation eventually led to her downfall, as her popularity had been deeply rooted in her role as a sexualized, liberated character, titillating for men and inspiring to women.
Throughout all of Boop’s reinventions, one quality remained the same—her voice. Actress Mae Questel, who played the role from 1931 until her death in 1998, was the talent behind the coquettish squeak that was synonymous with Boop’s character. The vocal artist, who in reality looked similar to Boop, famously lent her voice to another Fleischer production, Popeye the Sailor, in which she played Olive Oyl.
Today Betty Boop is still looked upon as a hero and legend of animation history. Bumper stickers, magnets, dolls, and figurines serve as testaments to her revolutionary influence. Whether she is looked at as a sex symbol or simply an exemplar of twenties-style drawing, Boop claims a fan base that transcends time and place.
Bringing her back to the masses this fall is luxury beauty brand Lancôme, who has tapped Boop for an advertising campaign for its new Hypnôse Star mascara. In a commercial for the product, Boop is shown in her classic LBD and garter, prepping übermodel Daria Werbowy for a stage debut. In the words of Lancôme’s worldwide president, Youcef Nabi, “Betty Boop is clearly the greatest feminine cartoon star of all time. Sensual, sexy, and charming, Betty Boop is the incarnation of a certain feminine ideal. She knows how to put on a show, thanks to her mischievous character full of whimsical charm, her playful spirit, and her timeless youth.” We can all learn a thing or two from the character who so famously stole the spotlight and the hearts of the American people, over eighty years ago. Betty Boop perfects her pose through the years. The newest incarnation as the face of Lancôme’s Hypnôse Star mascara.