Wednesday, June 9, 2010
BETTY BOOP MEETS DRACULA!
Now here’s a real curio – a live action appearance by famous 1930s cartoon star Betty Boop! And she’s meeting Bela Lugosi as “Dracula,” no less. He’s not officially called such, but everyone knows it is (especially as this short was made within a year of the legendary vampire flick's release)… so that means Bela actually played the Count three times instead of the usually reported two (those two being the original “Dracula” of course as well as “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” - although you could argue that his Count Tesla from “Return of the Vampire” is also Dracula… and we’ll leave it at that because if I start to talk about “Mark of the Vampire” and “Mother Riley Meets the Vampire” I’ll have to include spoiler warnings).
“Hollywood on Parade” was a short-subject series produced by Paramount Pictures in the early 1930s. It was one of several “behind the scenes” newsreels produced during Hollywood’s heyday. These short subject series ranged from being literal “behind-the-scenes” looks at movies (or cartoons) being made to interviews with stars to exclusive skits and performances. The great “Movie Fanfare” site from online classic film store Movies Unlimited recently ran a wonderful piece on these “behind-the-scenes” reels that also originally appeared on the "Matinee at the Bijou" site. They were kind of the “Entertainment Tonight” and “Extra” of their day with all the same Hollywood fluff, but none of the scandal.
Except… there is a touch of scandal behind the scenes of the short excerpt we’re looking at today. That’s because live-action Betty is portrayed by singer-actress Bonnie Poe in this film, one of several actresses who voiced the star in the animated Boop cartoons. The most famous of Betty’s voices is probably Mae Questal, but the controversy comes via Helen Kane, the “original boop-a-doop girl,” a popular singer who capitalized on her novel coquettish voice to become an on-stage hit in the late 1920s through early 1930s.
In 1930 animator Grim Natwick, working for the Fleischer Brothers cartoon studio featured a female flapper dog character in a cartoon called “Dizzy Dishes” and modeled the character after Kane. For all intents and purposes, this character was Betty Boop but with a dog’s button nose and ears. The ears and nose were soon modified to reflect human features and Betty was born proper. As Betty’s notoriety grew, Kane filed a suit claiming infringement but the judge in turn noted that Kane’s own singing style drew a strong resemblance to that of “Baby Esther,” an African-American singer who was known to boop-oop-e-doop too. You can read more about the trial by clicking here… and you can read a nice little piece (and play a nice little video) about the various Betty voices when you click here. And over here on the Betty Boop message board you can even access a handy list of which voice artists performed Betty in each of the original cartoon shorts.
The Betty Boop cartoons are wonderful on many levels. The Fleischer Brothers Studio was in New York City so all the Betty cartoons (as well as the original black & white Popeye cartoons the Studio produced) reflect the fast-pace of the city and take place in cityscapes where the lampposts, mailboxes, firehoses, etc. all bounce around with a life of their own. They also reflected some of the more avante garde tastes in art and music that were happening in the big city, often with a surreal feel. Jazz played a big role and its practitioners (such as Louis Armstrong, Don Redman and Cab Calloway) often made it into the cartoons cavorting with the characters. The idea of mixing laughs with spookiness ran rampant in Betty cartoons, not just in obvious entries like “Betty’s Hallowe’en Party” but also in such unexpected entries as “Snow White” and the sublime “Bimbo’s Initiation.”
So here’s the clip from this short. The setup (as is usually the case with these Hollywood hype shorts) is simple: wax figures at the “Hollywood Hall of Fame” come to life as the piano player plays, and sing and act out the song he’s playing. You’ll note that some usually reliable sources on the internet are confused about who’s Booping here and invariably (and erroneously) sometimes cite Kane and Questal as the actress here, but here at Scared Silly we’re sticking with the notion that it’s Poe (and how cool is it that an actress named Poe gets to meet Dracula?)…