Combustible Celluloid
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With: Mae Questel, Bonnie Poe, Ann Little, Cab Calloway, Jack Mercer, William Pennell, The Royal Samoans
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Dave Fleischer
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 84
Date: 08/19/2013

Betty Boop: The Essential Collection Volume 1 (1932)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It can't be emphasized enough that the Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, were once serious forces in the field of animation, and arguably the equal -- and perhaps even the superiors -- of Disney. In the early 1930s, Disney's high points were The Three Little Pigs and The Band Concert. But over at Fleischer Studios, they were working on Betty Boop.

I'm not sure if anyone ever decided whether or not Betty Boop is for kids, but she's not. She's sexy and outgoing, but also lives in a truly bizarre, surreal world where things just aren't expected, and where plots -- and conclusions -- are not as important as an experience.

In some of her shorts, she's clearly romantically linked with Bimbo, a dog, even though Betty is human. They are seen kissing and very much coupled. In other shorts, various men lust after her after getting a glimpse at her curvy figure. In one short, I wasn't sure if I really saw this, but I backed up, and there it was: an adultery joke involving a mouse.

Some of the Betty Boop shorts are in the public domain, but here comes Olive Films, which is perhaps the most interesting DVD/Blu-ray distributor outside of the Criterion Collection right now, releasing what looks to be a pretty amazing collection of Betty Boop cartoons. Volume 1 only has twelve shorts, and none of them are among the essentials, but Volume 2 is on its way in October, and we can only hope that they'll keep this up for a while.

The cartoons in this first edition include Chess Nuts (1932), Betty Boop, M.D. (1932), Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle (1932), Betty Boop for President (1932), Betty Boop's Penthouse (1933), Betty Boop's Birthday Party (1933), Betty Boop's May Party (1933), Betty Boop's Halloween Party (1933), Betty Boop's Rise to Fame (1934), Betty Boop's Trial (1934), Betty Boop's Life Guard (1934), and The Foxy Hunter (1937). Olive claims on their website that the shorts are "newly re-mastered in HD from 4K scans of the original negatives and finegrains," and indeed they look amazing.

Koko the Clown, who was created by the Fleischers back in the silent days, continues to be a character here, though he's a third banana to Betty and Bimbo. The Fleischers also use their patented rotoscope here, especially in a scene where Betty hula dances, tracing over an actual dancer to make her movements look more real. In general, the Fleischers concentrated on smooth, realistic movements in backgrounds of dimensional depth, and their work here is superb, although it would continue to improve in their later Popeye and Superman cartoons.

But what's most striking is the way these cartoons move. There's usually a setup, such as Betty getting ready for a birthday party, and then there's some general chaos, but things are allowed to proceed to their most primal conclusion. It's almost dreamlike, following something until it simply changes into something else or ends. In one, Betty Boop's Rise to Fame, a reporter -- played by Dave -- interviews Max -- as himself -- about Betty. She jumps off a piece of paper to demonstrate her talents. The short ends, when she jumps back in the inkwell and splashes ink on Dave.

It's funny that, for nearly a century, our view of cartoons is that they're supposed to be funny and supposed to be for kids, and this view has rarely budged. With Betty Boop, the Fleischers embraced the idea that cartoons can be totally unrealistic, and reflecting the most animalistic and bizarre behaviors of the id. How wonderful to have her back.

See also Betty Boop: The Essential Collection Volume 2 and Betty Boop: The Essential Collection Volume 3.

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