Betty Boop Confidential
She may be recognized today as a macrocephalic tart gracing tons of tacky merchandise, but Betty Boop's original animated shorts still seem as subversive, off-the-wall, and unpredictable as they must have appeared to Depression-era movie audiences. For a brief period in the early 1930s, before the Production Code forced creators Max and Dave Fleischer to lengthen her hemline, Betty Boop cartoons were wildly surreal and racy, and much more freewheeling than Disney shorts of the period; they anticipated, both in style and sensibility, the anarchic, albeit more self-aware, Warner Brothers and Tex Avery cartoons of the '40s. Although incomplete and chronologically jumbled, Betty Boop Confidential is composed of 13 shorts mostly drawn from Betty's golden age: The eye-popping mini-extravaganzas are by turns bizarre, brash, off-color, hilarious, occasionally annoying, and even disturbing, but always crammed with gags and raucous jazz music. Everything comes to life, or swiftly assumes a different form: Flowers and houses talk. A dog's nose is severed, sprouts legs, and runs off. In one scene, the head of Betty's loudmouthed German father morphs into a phonograph. The black-and-white animation may at first appear crude, following the old squash-and-stretch method, but at their best, the Fleischers' cartoons were well ahead of the primitive live-action musicals of the time, imaginatively incorporating music with visuals. This is most evident in the cartoons starring Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway: The frenzied, impeccably timed jazz fantasias feature Armstrong as a disembodied head who pursues Betty's co-stars Bimbo and KoKo The Clown, as well as a rotoscoped Calloway as a sort of walrus-ghost. As per the cartoons' era, the racial, ethnic, and sexual stereotypes fly fast and loose; Betty has to be shown at some point in her underwear, or being rescued from some fancifully drawn pervert. But these scenes aren't offensive; they're a natural part of the anything-goes, free-for-all ethic. The one major exception is Poor Cinderella, a gaudy two-color short from 1934. Stuck in the middle of the video and admittedly interesting as Betty's only color cartoon, it nonetheless moves at a slow pace, with a straight, treacly storyline that seems to try to outdo Disney for sheer convention. But overall, Betty Boop Confidential is a reminder that animation may gain more respect and prestige when it's an illusion of life, but that it's a lot more fun when all hell is permitted to break loose.