More cartoons from Fleischer Studios on Cartoon Friday: The Cobweb Hotel and Popeye the Sailor vs. Sinbad the Sailor

It’s Cartoon Friday, again!

Betty Boop

Betty Boop’s vocal stylings and appearance are based on Helen Kane, Clara Bow, and Harlem jazz acts like Baby Esther.

Earlier this week, I shared a cover of “Minnie the Moocher” by Paper Moon Shiners. This led MyFDL’s cmaukonen to reference the classic Betty Boop cartoon with music by Cab Calloway.

Rather than feature the same song twice in one week, I found this other classic Boop cartoon from 1933 — Fleischer studios version of Snow White. Much like Moocher, a wild ‘toon adventure ends in a strange cave where Cab Calloway performs while accompanied by wonderfully psychedelic animation. The “St. James Infirmary” sequence is clearly the centerpiece of the film, and worth more than one watch just to catch all the weird, spooky stuff the animators put in the background — a good Cartoon Friday warm up to the Halloween holiday season.

Boop made her first formal appearance in a 1930 cartoon, Dizzy Dishes. She enjoyed about four years of popularity in the form seen in this cartoon before stricter censorship standards forced Fleischer Studios to clean up her act. Gone were the garter, short dress and cleavage. Singer Helen Kane, one of the inspirations for Betty Boop, sued and lost a case against Fleischer Studios alleging they’d stolen her act. I found it interesting that, according to Wikipedia, one factor in losing the case is the suggestion that the act, like so much of popular white culture in the 20th Century, was borrowed from black culture:

The most significant evidence against Kane’s case was her claim as to the uniqueness of her singing style. Testimony revealed that Kane had witnessed an African American performer, Baby Esther, using a similar vocal style in an act at the Cotton Club nightclub in Harlem, some years earlier. An early test sound film was also discovered, which featured Baby Esther performing in this style, disproving Kane’s claims.

Actual African-American performers, meanwhile, have to appear as rotoscoped walruses or ghosts. While I lament the racism which led us here, I am still entertained by these trippy, kinetic visions of a classic jazz performance. And for all censors tried to clean up Betty Boop, it’s the original, racy flapper version which retains its power as an image today, especially among the vintage-loving set.

What are your favorite cartoons? I’ll try to use one in a future installment.

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Photo by William Murphy released under a Creative Commons license.