DVD Review: Betty Boop: Essential Collection, Vol. 4

STUDIO: Olive | DIRECTOR: Dave Fleischer
RELEASE DATE:
9/30/14 | PRICE: DVD $24.95, Blu-ray $29.95
BONUSES:
none
SPECS:
NR | 81 min. | Animation | 1:37 fullscreen | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

 

There are a few dozen Betty Boop DVD compilations available, but Olive’s four-volume set that concludes with Betty Boop: The Essential Collection, Vol. 4 is the first restored and legal release of these Fleischer Brothers classic cartoons since the VHS set The Definitive Betty Boop in 1998. Aficionados and newcomers alike will be delighted by the pristine copies included here (which are worlds apart from the murky Betty cartoons found on YouTube), but more importantly, the Olive releases contain the early titles that are by far the best in the series.

The first four years of the series (1930-’34) offered a wildly imaginative blend of the cute, the (intentionally) kitschy, the sexy and the surreal. While Disney prized wholesome entertainment above all else, and Warner Bros. produced cartoons that played to both children and adults, the Fleischer studio crafted shorts that were both adorable and radically weird, making them a clear inspiration for the more experimental (and psychedelic) animation that started appearing in the late Sixties.

Betty Boop was, of course, a flapper, a holdover from the Roaring Twenties, whose comic universe has been described by more than one animation historian as “transformative” — people, animals and objects are constantly changing shape and turning into something else. Betty is in the center of this controlled chaos, which often functions like a Rube Goldberg machine, with one action setting in motion an infinite number of subsequent ones.

The previous, un-licensed compilations have drawn entirely on the public domain Betty cartoons that nearly all come from the second, and much lesser, half of the series (1935-’39), where the Fleischers’ bold experiments were tamped down by the Hays Code. Betty’s sexy side was eliminated in 1934, but more importantly, the Fleischers (producer Max and director Dave) opted at that point for more conventional storylines, abandoning the crazy and surreal in favor of the cute and cuddly.

Thus the Olive discs represent the first opportunity since the ’98 VHS set to see quality copies of the best cartoons in the series (now remastered in high definition). The four volumes are each arranged chronologically, so each has its share of great early works and a few of the later, nearly sickeningly wholesome, entries.

Betty Boop: The Essential Collection, Vol. 4Half of this last volume is devoted to the latter, so we can see how Betty was eventually made into a mother/teacher character and became a supporting character in her own series (the final inclusion here is “Sally Swing,” showing the Fleischers’ intended replacement character, who never caught on).

The earliest items in this volume are wonderful, though, with two (“Snow White,” “Poor Cinderella”) offering the chance to compare the Fleischer and Disney modes of storytelling. “Snow White” (1933) features a tour de force sequence in which Betty’s pal Koko the Clown stands in for Cab Calloway, who sings a killer “Saint James Infirmary Blues” on the soundtrack. “Poor Cinderella” (1934) is the only color Betty cartoon (she was a redhead, for the record).

Other early gems found in this volume include “Stopping the Show” (1932), the first official BB cartoon, in which Betty does a stage act, including impressions of Fanny Brice and Maurice Chevalier, and “Red Hot Mamma” (1934), in which Betty dreams that she’s trapped in Hell (the Fleischers toyed with some very odd ideas indeed).

Each volume in the series has its gems. Volume 1 consists almost entirely of titles from the ’30-’34 period and contains two titles (“Chess Nuts,” “Bamboo Isle”) that show off the Fleischers’ flair for weaving live-action performers into a cartoon. Volume 2 not only contains the very first appearance by Betty (the 1930 “Dizzy Dishes,” in which she is a sexy female dog), but also the fan favorite “Bimbo’s Initiation” (1931), which is surely one of the strangest cartoons of the Thirties (Betty’s dog friend Bimbo is invited to join a very bizarre secret society).

If a viewer is completely new to the series, Volume 3 is probably the best bet, as it contains four of the most memorable, music-centric Betty-toons. “Minnie the Moocher” (1932) and “Old Man of the Mountain” (1933) revolve around songs by performed by Cab Calloway, whose band is seen in live preludes to both cartoons. (He also was rotoscoped for the characters who sang his songs in all three of his appearances in Boop-land.)

The Don Redman orchestra supplies the music for “I Heard” (1933) and Louis Armstrong is seen and heard in “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” (1932). As with Cab, Satchmo is seen in a live-action prelude and then one of the characters sings his song. Louis himself invades the cartoon visuals, though — his head is seen flying through the air at one point, haunting one of the characters.

Diehard fans might easily lament that these collections don’t contain all of the Betty cartoons, but the ones that aren’t included here are all public domain and thus are easily seen online (although one wishes that the four missing p.d. titles from ’33-’34 were restored for this collection, especially “Betty in Blunderland”).

That is a very small quibble, though, as the cartoons contained in this quartet of releases are among the most inventive and imaginative ever made. Plus, even if one is unsure what to make of bobble-headed Betty, her quirky voice — supplied by the great Mae Questel and three other actresses — makes even the most unusual Fleischer creation seem goddamned adorable.

 

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”