Why Watch? Betty Boop is mostly remembered these days as America’s first cartoon sex symbol, with her Jazz Baby get-up and high-pitched squeal. That’s the general thrust of her cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, certainly. She’s was the animated incarnation of Pre-Code Hollywood decadence, at least in her early years before Fleischer Studios made her more demure and redirected the cartoons from adults to children.
What gets lost in our memory, however, is just how bonkers these cartoons were. They’re relics of the Jazz Age in style as well as reputation. This is the first of Betty’s three collaborations with Cab Calloway, if you can call them that. “Minnie the Moocher” had been recorded the year before, and was already a smash hit. America may not have quite grasped the extent to which its lyrics were thinly veiled drug references, but no matter. Taking it to the movies was a stroke of inspiration, kicking off the Calloway’s cartoon career and giving us the first known footage of him in the process. The band-leader’s signature dance moves were rotoscoped into the film, by way of a spectral walrus.
Which brings me to the best part of these old Betty Boop shorts. They’re essentially works of Surrealism, bringing the fevered imagery of European artists to the United States just a year or two after the collaborations of Salvador Dalì and Luis Buñuel. Betty’s father’s head turns into a phonograph as he berates her for not eating her Hasenpfeffer, and to shut him up her mother changes the disk. Eventually Betty and her sidekick Bimbo run away and find themselves lost in a cave where they get accosted by all sorts of jazzy ghosts, with Cab Calloway himself taking the lead as, again, a walrus. Why a walrus? Should it matter?
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