Body-Sculpting The Betty Boop Way


A while ago this year I was on an amusement park cartoons-and-TV-shows-and-stuff kick. It started with a Betty Boop cartoon. Grampy’s Indoor Outing has Grampy work out a way that Betty Boop and Junior can have a day of amusement park fun despite the rain. I noted that many sources speaking of the cartoon identify the kid in it as Little Jimmy, even though he’s clearly called Junior by the other characters in the cartoon. But I also could see where people were coming from. Let me talk about that.

In February 1904 the cartoonist Jimmy Swinnerton started a comic strip, as was normal in those days. What wasn’t normal was that he kept making the comic strip. The days before World War I were ones in which comic strips popped into and out of existence like, well, web comics do. Little Jimmy would stay in the papers until Swinnerton retired in 1958. To give that perspective, that’s five years longer than Peanuts ran before Charles Schulz died. Hagar the Horrible is (currently) twelve years younger than it is, and Funky Winkerbean eleven. For Better Or For Worse ran only 29 years.

That said, I don’t actually know much about the comic strip. Wikipedia says that in the strip Little Jimmy would routinely go off, forgetting what he was supposed to do, and getting in trouble. It supports this with a 1911 Sunday strip in which Jimmy doesn’t go off and forget what he was supposed to do. Wikipedia’s writers may be drawing their conclusions about the comic strip from this cartoon.

Betty Boop and Little Jimmy premiered the 27th of March, 1936. It was probably an attempt to see whether another comic strip character could be turned into an animation character. Popeye adapted brilliantly, after all, to the point the cartoon largely overshadows the comic strip. The Fleischers would make several attempts at launching new characters through Betty Boop cartoons — Sally Swing wasn’t the first — although they didn’t take. (Yes, Popeye debuted in what was technically a Betty Boop series cartoon, but the deal was already made. This is much more a testing of the character.)

With this cartoon you can see why. It’s pleasant enough but nothing happens. Betty gets in trouble on a mechanical vibrating belt, as everyone who ever uses one on-screen does, and Little Jimmy runs off, gets distracted, and bounces back. That’s it. I suppose his attempts at remembering he’s supposed to get an “electrician” should be funny or endearing but it’s a slender thread of personality. There’s not much to support or contradict the idea he might be Junior, seen in Grampy’s Indoor Outing, considering Junior has a similar build and similar soft, low-impact persona.

There’s interesting touches in the cartoon, though. The most prominent is that objects grow faces and voices in the midst of the singing. That’s unusual for a cartoon as late as this, from the latter half of the 1930s. The everything-can-be-alive motif was popular in silent cartoons and the earlier Fleischer work, but by the time they had those lovely watercolor backgrounds and three-dimensional sets (not on display here, incidentally) those had gone away as, I suppose, indiscretions of a more youthful art style.

This cartoon’s got some special meaning to me, by the way. It’s the first Betty Boop cartoon I distinctly remember seeing, back in the days of Cartoon Network’s Late Night Black and White segment. It isn’t first-rate Betty, admittedly, but it charmed me. I would probably inevitably have grown as a Betty Boop fan; my personality just lends itself to black-and-white and silent cartoons. But this is a milestone from how things happened for me.

The mechanical-vibrator belt thing Betty Boop uses — and that many, many other comedies mostly would use through the mid-20th-century — was designed to lose weight by shaking people. As best I understand, the thinking was that by shaking the body up it forces your muscles to contract a lot, and that’s the same as exercise, without the hard part of doing work, right? Yeah, it’s stupid, but for comic value it’s hard to beat.

And after all we’re not really past that. You can still buy silly vibrating belts that do nothing to help you lose weight. They’re just more portable now. When I was in Singapore there was a really catchy silly commercial for one that showed a model who needed no weight reduction wearing one on various parts of her body, while the disembodied voices chanted, “zap zap tummy, zap zap tummy, zap zap tummy” or the like. It’s a subtler silly than Betty Boop’s contraption, but it’s not different.

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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.

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