That curly black hair, those big green eyes, that little red dress. Betty Boop is still recognizable 85 years after her debut in the Dizzy Dishes cartoon that premiered on Aug. 9, 1930 as part of Fleischer Studios' Talkartoons series.
That's probably thanks in part to the sheer licensing power of the character, appearing on everything today, from clothing to car mats to cell phone cases to my personal favorite, a book titled "How to be a Betty: The Ultimate Guide to Unleashing Your Inner Boop!" The character has also occasionally popped up onscreen in recent years, making a cameo in 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit and having a new animated feature in development with Simon Cowell's Syco Entertainment and Animal Logic.
There's no doubt that Betty Boop has become an icon in her own right over the years, but she wasn't necessarily the originator of the qualities that made her famous. Fleischer Studios drew upon real-life inspiration when it created the character of Betty Boop in 1930. In fact, Betty Boop's identity has been connected to a few different women in show business in the 1920s. In a sense, figuring out who exactly is the real Betty Boop is a more complicated task than these early lighthearted animated shorts would suggest.
Betty Boop was originally meant to be a love interest for the popular Fleischer Studios animated dog Bimbo. As such, she was made to sort of look like a canine with floppy ears and jowls. However, Betty Boop still resembled a woman, which was unique at a time when the majority of animated characters were based on animals.
That could be because Betty Boop was really a product of the Roaring '20s. Her short hair, short skirts and bubbly attitude helped keep the carefree decadence of the previous decade alive as the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression.
As such, it has long been said that Clara Bow, one of the first Hollywood "It" Girls who embodied the spirit of the 1920s and the flapper lifestyle on the silver screen, inspired the character of Betty Boop. In fact, in No. A-8 of the Hollywood on Parade series of short films that debuted in 1933, Bow's real-life husband, Rex Bell, tells Eddie Borden to stop hitting on a wax figure of his wife and say hello to a real-life version of Betty Boop played by Bonnie Poe, who also provided the voice for the character in film and on the radio between 1933 and 1938.
Though it was easy to draw comparisons between Betty Boop and Bow, the character was more directly inspired by another Roaring '20s performer.
"One morning, Dave [Fleischer, Max Fleischer's brother and co-founder of Fleischer Studios] came over to my desk, handed me the music to the song 'Boop-Boop-A-Doop' by Helen Kane and asked me to design a girl character to go with it," Fleischer studios animator Grim Natwick told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. Kane was a popular singer in the 1920s whose signature song was "I Wanna Be Loved By You," in which she scat-sings non-words like "boop-boop-da-doo" and eventually earned the moniker "The Boop-Boop-A-Doop Girl."
Kane, who also had short, curly black hair and huge eyes, had a gentle, feminine, high-pitched singing voice, which Margie Hines emulated when she lent her voice to Betty Boop in Dizzy Dishes. Betty Boop doesn't speak in her debut cartoon. She only sings a song that resembles "I Wanna Be Loved By You" with plenty of "boop-boop-a-doops" thrown in. Hines even got her start in show business after winning a Helen Kane "Boop-a-doop" contest, according to a 1932 newspaper article posted on the Fleischer Studios official website. It's unclear exactly what that competition entailed, but it's likely that it was some sort of contest to see which contestant sounded the most like Kane.
What's more, Kane played the titular sharp-shooter in a 1930 film called Dangerous Nan McGrew. A year later, Betty Boop appeared in a cartoon called The Bum Bandit as a character named Dangerous Nan McGrew, who saves a train traveling through the Wild West from being terrorized by a robber. In this short, Betty Boop's voice was noticeably lower and steadier than what had been previously portrayed on screen, but visual resemblance to Kane's character in Dangerous Nan McGrew is pretty apparent.
It seemed like Betty Boop was meant to be some sort of caricature of Kane, something the performer also believed. After Betty Boop's debut, Kane even started her own comic called The Original Boop-Boop-A-Doop Girl, the title of which and the way the performer was drawn seemed to reference the voluptuous cartoon character she thought had stolen her act. Kane eventually sued Paramount and Max Fleischer for $250,000 for deliberate caricature and exploitation of her image, which was brought to trial in 1934.
However, the problem was that Kane may not have originated her style of singing either. During the case, Lou Walton testified that an African-American singer under his management named Esther Jones, who was better known by her stage name Baby Esther Jones, had used words like "boo-boo-boo" and "doo-doo-doo" in songs during her act at a New York cabaret in 1928. He said that Kane and her manager had been present during that performance before the singer used it in her own act.
Since it seemed that Kane herself had incorporated elements of other performers' personas in her act, the court dismissed the case. Kane was "shocked and disappointed" about the outcome, according to a 1934 New York Times article reporting the court's decision.
Soon after, Max Fleischer filmed his own response to the verdict called the "Fleischer Victory Newsreel," which featured several of the women that had voiced Betty Boop over the years, including Hines, Poe, Kate Wright and Little Ann Little. Mae Questel, the most famous of all of the Betty Boop voice actresses, stood in the center and sang, "You can say our voices are awful, or my songs are too risqué, but don't take our boop-oop-a-doop away!"
Now, when you look at Betty Boop, you don't see Bow, Kane or Baby Esther. Throughout her 85-year-life, Betty Boop has grown into her own woman.