Betty Boop: Musical Justice


Previously entered as the first Betty Boop cartoons:


It’s usually stupid to turn a cartoon character into a live-action one. Most cartoon characters, at least the beloved ones, are things that don’t make sense in live action: wisecracking rabbits and talking mice and brilliantly stupid moose and the occasional giant robot or so. As a moving illustration that works fine. Somehow the unreality of a drawing that changes by itself makes the unreality of a teapot with a personality make sense.

And yet there’s Betty Boop. After a couple of cartoons she settled down to being a stylized but still recognizably human figure. She would get into quite some surreal and bizarre situations. But she could also host quite mundane situations, things as easily photographable as singing until she melts the heart of a skeptical audience. Of the cartoon stars of the early 1930s she’s one of the few who could plausibly be played by a real-live person. And so she was.

So this week’s First Betty Boop entry is her first appearance in live action, in a short released the 26th of December, 1931. Mae Questel, who would voice her most of her animated run, also plays her in real life. Rudy Vallée, whose voice would grace several of her cartoons, appears as the host of the short as well.

The short is a bit of a strange one, and I apologize the best copy I can find of the whole thing is split into two parts. Betty Boop only appears in the second. I also apologize for the ethnic humor of the first musical/comedy act featured. I don’t know who “Henry Whitewash” is supposed to be, and I can’t find much in my meager vaudeville or early-movie references. I don’t know if his was an actual vaudeville or early-movies act or something made up so later generations watching the short could feel uncomfortable. His bit takes to about 5:20 into the video to wrap up, though, and give way to Rudy Vallée singing to a troubled couple.

The short falls into that strange genre of the Abstract Concept Court, in this case the Court of Musical Justice. (Compare it to the Court of Responsible Car Operations in beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000-featured short X Marks The Spot.) I’ve actually seen several shorts along these lines. The strangest was 1943’s Heavenly Music, actually a heavenly court in which a then-modern crooner (Frederick Brady as “Ted Barry”) was tried for his earthly crimes against music. He won an acquittal by insisting that all the major lines of his music could really be traced back to respectable dead white composers who were on his jury, such as Bach and Beethoven and the like. In this case, the judge is Rudy Vallée and the jury his Connecticut Yankees, but the general line is the same. Modern music is accused of wrongness, but that’s all right, because it turns out to be swell stuff.

The short, and its genre partners, seem almost designed to train undergraduates majoring in cultural studies on how to read the motives behind a text. Modern music is openly charged with corrupting the morals of the nation, just as charged by the older folks in the audience. One imagines they came into the theater just to take a break from yelling at clouds. But the young get the satisfaction of their music actually being played and being defended and acquitted. The defense isn’t all that great — it amounts to “aw, c’mon, it’s not that bad, and besides it can be fun” — but it’s enough to get grampa off your back. It’s hard not to notice Paramount Pictures trying very hard to cuddle up close to the music those kids like without seeming to approve so much that their parents and grandparents complain. Only the movie ticket revenue may bridge the generation gap!

This is one of only two live-action appearances Betty Boop made. I don’t know why there aren’t more. The character doesn’t require anything more than a dress and a wig to perform, and is obviously able to carry off “show off a musical number” shorts. Possibly they worried about over-exposing the character, although it’s hard for me to see how a couple of live-action shorts added onto a dozen animated shorts a year would do that. As it stands, it’s the start of a stunted branch in a character’s media presence.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

5 thoughts on “Betty Boop: Musical Justice”

  1. Hey, Tom Kennedy’s swearing her in.

    Rudy Vallee’s appeal is as mysterious to me as it ever was. Mae Questel, however, is a lot of fun. She should have been in more live action films. And, yeah, a little risque animation at the end, in case anyone was hoping this might be a stag film.

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    1. I’m surprised you don’t get Rudy Vallee, although I admit I might just have grown used to him from watching the Betty Boop VHS series so many, many times. (Though that series didn’t have the live-action shorts in it.)

      Agreed, though, Mae Questel steals the show, though admittedly not from strong competitors. Vallee’s a competent centerpiece but he’s mostly just letting a pleasant voice carry stuff from one bit to another.

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