Breening Thursday: 10. Three Pre-Code Betty Boop Cartoons


Today is Thursday, and it’s time for another Breening Thursday article! Last week, Rebekah wrote the ninth article in the series, providing us with our first breening of a cartoon. This week, I will be writing the tenth article. In contrast with last week’s topic, Beauty and the Beast, a full-length animated Disney film from the 1990s, I decided to write about pre-Code cartoons this week. On Tuesday, Rebekah and I watched a few 1930s cartoons on YouTube, and we happened to see some early Betty Boop cartoons. I had heard a lot about these, but I hadn’t seen one in many years. Thus, I decided that this week’s Breening Thursday topic should be Betty Boop cartoons. Since they are only about seven minutes long, I decided to write about three of them. It’s amazing how much risqueity can be packed into twenty-one minutes!

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Betty Boop is a character which remains very popular and recognizable eighty years after the original cartoon series ended. Created by Max Fleischer at Paramount Pictures, she made her earliest appearances as a human version of a poodle in Talkartoons, being a caricature of Helen Kane. By 1932, she was a decidedly human character and the star of her own series. She was a huge star in her own right, often called “The Queen of the Animated Screen.” However, much of her character was based on risqueity, to which the Production Code Administration put an end in 1934.

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People on YouTube frequently make jokes about the sort of content which was put in children’s entertainment in the early 1930s. What they fail to acknowledge is the fact that, at this time, cartoons were not made for children. Animated features were shorts which were made by the studios to be played before their feature length motion pictures. They were made for the entertainment of general audiences, specifically adults. As a general rule, Hollywood made nothing for children in the pre-Code Era.

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Betty Boop’s image itself is in violation of the Code. She famously wears a very tight black dress which reveals a garter on her left leg. The dress is so short that it barely covers her hips, and the strapless top is cut low. Although she has juvenile aspects such as a squeaky voice and an oversized head, her curvaceous form is very womanly. She is the epitome of the flapper combined with the newly-popularized voluptuousness which Jean Harlow displayed. Her walk is very flirtatious and suggestive as she wiggles and puts her hands on her lower hips.

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When the Production Code went into effect in July of 1934, Joseph Breen, the head of the PCA, encouraged some adjustments of the fundamental character. Her revealing black dress was replaced with covering blouses and longer skirts. Eventually, her earrings and bracelets disappeared, and her curls decreased. The new image of Betty Boop existed from 1934 through the series’ end in 1939, but, strangely enough, you never see that depiction of Betty elsewhere. The pre-Code Betty is an iconic symbol which is reproduced in home decorations, novelty items, and vintage gifts, but the Code one is only a memory.

Image result for betty boop and bimboThe new Betty had a much better image. Instead of a wild girl, she was more of a settled young lady. In her pre-Code films, her standard boyfriend was Bimbo. Bimbo was a black and white dog, perhaps reflecting Betty’s origin as a poodle. I thought that this was very strange when I saw these cartoons, so I was not surprised when I learned that the PCA suggested the removal of Bimbo as a human girl’s Image result for betty boop and fearless fredbeau. Instead, her regular suitor became Fearless Fred, a muscular human who appeared in the first Betty Boop cartoon of 1934, She Wronged Him Right. In addition, the opening of each cartoon, which featured a little song and showed Betty winking and shaking, was removed from further installments because of its suggestiveness.

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These are standard changes which would need to be made in any pre-Code Betty Boop feature. However, from what I have seen of them, every individual animated short had numerous problems. I am going to specifically breen three cartoons in the Betty Boop series, one from 1932, one from 1933, and one from 1934 before the enforcement of the Production Code. Choosing which cartoons to breen was not an easy process. You see, I wanted to choose cartoons which really could have been Code cartoons, and some of them have serious core problems which, in a seven-minute cartoon, would necessitate a complete rewrite. However, I have chosen three which had a lot of potential to be clean as well as entertaining! I will include links to where you can see these cartoons on YouTube so that you can form your own opinions about them. Now, with no further ado, let the breening begin!

Betty Boop’s Bizzy Bee (August 19, 1932) –

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Betty Boop cartoons, like most pre-Code films, begin ironically with a shot of the MPPDA logo, which was more clearly and proudly displayed than the PCA certificate of the Code years! I think that the filmmakers were amused by how much they could do under the MPPDA’s feeble self-regulation system, the ineffectual Studio Relations Committee. In this cartoon, Betty Boop is running a very popular diner which specializes in wheat cakes. Everything is fine until the customers become a little too numerous and demanding. Soon, the wheat cakes are flying off the griddle so quickly that they are practically coming to life!

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Betty is shown making wheat cakes. While they are cooking, Bimbo comes up to the window and hands her a flower, saying, “For you a rose.” The flower looks more like a daisy, but that isn’t the point. As I mentioned before, Bimbo should be replaced by some human beau. I have nothing against the little dog. I think he’s a cute character who could have easily remained if he were just a friend instead of a sweetheart.

While Betty is accepting the flower from her sweetheart, the wheat cakes, which are personified and capable of moving by themselves, begin to smoke. Two of them stand up and look at their backsides, which are black at the bottom. They fan the burning spot until it stops smoking. Then, they pat the injured area, which looks a little too much like their posteriors. They shouldn’t be drawn to so clearly look like that.

After that, a large, animated heart flies out the window from Betty to Bimbo. Bimbo pulls out his butterfly net and chases the heart, which leads him through the front door of the diner. The heart flies right back to Betty, who catches it, pulls the front of her top out, and drops the heart down it. This last action looks quite indecent. Instead, she should catch the heart and put it in her pocket.

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Later, Koko the Clown complains about getting cold soup. As a matter of fact, the soup is so cold that mice are ice-skating on its surface to the accompaniment of “Jingle Bells!” To remedy the situation, Betty removes a handkerchief from her top, lights it on fire at a gas jet on the wall, and uses it to ignite the freezing soup. It is very suggestive for her to remove the handkerchief from her top. Instead, she should pull it out of her pocket.

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After that, all the customers join in a demanding chorus, each asking for something different. One grumpy voice says, “Pass me the nuts. Yous know what I want.” The italicized word is a forbidden expression under the Code when used as an exclamation. Since this is a restaurant, he could be talking about the food item, which is acceptable. However, the manner in which it is used is meant to be a play on the forbidden usage.

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This is a highly efficient diner. Betty is very lucky, since a lot of the inanimate objects and foodstuffs do things by themselves. For instance, the dishes wash themselves in a sort of showering system. Each dish hops into the sink and turns the shower on over itself, using a scrub brush like a back scrubber. Then, it hops out and dries itself with a dish towel. When one of the dishes is drying itself thus, it sticks its posterior out as it rubs it, giggling. This is inappropriate and should be removed.

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Next, trouble arrives in the form of a very rude, domineering, and piggish customer. He is very corpulent, and he looks something like a bear, since all the customers except Koko the Clown are personified animals. This customer starts by throwing a small diner out of the restaurant with one hand so that he can take his seat. He then heaves himself onto a small stool, making a point of lifting his large posterior onto it. This is vulgar and should be eliminated.

The oaf calls for wheat cakes, licking his lips impatiently. As he does this, a little moisture is shown to illustrate that his mouth is watering. The moisture is a single drop, which flies up. He catches it on his tongue. That’s rather disgusting and should be removed.

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Finally, the wheat cakes are literally flying off the griddle and through the air as Betty struggles to satisfy the greedy customers. Eventually, things get rather chaotic, since the wheat cakes are getting a little too lively. Ultimately, the big pig begins to moan and groan because the wheat cakes are having a boxing match in his stomach! What could he expect after eating dozens of wheat cakes without even chewing them? He starts saying “Ow, ow, ow” while holding his stomach and contorting his fat body in some very strange ways. He should just stand still and say “ow” like the rest of the customers!

Betty Boop in Snow-White (March 31, 1933) –

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This cartoon is a parody on the famous Snow White story. Betty Boop is the stepdaughter of a funny-looking queen who must live in a country of very ugly women, since her magic mirror continually tells her that she is the fairest in the land. However, all that changes when Betty comes to pay her a visit. When the magic mirror declares that the younger woman is fairest, the stepmother decides to kill her rival. As you will assume, Betty doesn’t actually die, since she had to appear in the next cartoon in the series!

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The cartoon starts with the stepmother. She is powdering her nose in front of a hand-held mirror. After she finishes powdering, she drops the powder puff down the back of her dress, where is stops at her posterior like a bustle. That’s rather vulgar and should be eliminated.

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Next, Betty arrives to visit her stepmother, wearing her usual sparse dress. Naturally, as I stated before, her dress would have to be changed, and it’s a good thing, too. The poor girl would freeze to death in the snowy weather wearing only her black strapless! She walks down the corridor to the throne room, followed by Koko and Bimbo, who are knights in armor. She does a little dance as she walks down the hall, suggestively shaking under the guise of trying to remove the snow from herself. She should just walk and not wiggle.

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Eventually, Betty arrives in the throne room. The queen is so surprised to see her that she sticks her head right through the mirror, which becomes an empty circle. As she does this, her wig gets caught on the edge, leaving only her bald head to stick through the mirror. This is vulgar and should be eliminated. (Funnily, this reminds me of a note Rebekah made regarding a similar situation in the opening number of Beauty and the Beast. I guess that shows that vulgar humor didn’t originate in the post-Code years. It was always there, but it was controlled by the Code.)

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The queen prepares to demonstrate her mirror’s powers to Betty. She pulls a syringe out of her top and injects some black liquid into the mirror, squirting a drop on Betty. Female characters in this cartoon need to find a different place to store things! I don’t know what the meaning of the syringe is, and neither did some watchers on YouTube. I am inclined to think that there must be some dirty meaning here, but I’m not sure. She should definitely store the syringe elsewhere, but perhaps the whole bit should be removed.

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After the mirror declares that Betty is the fairest in the land, he leans forward and kisses her right on the lips! This is rather strange and should be eliminated. Also, as in all instances, Betty shouldn’t shake her hips so much as she is accepting the praise of the mirror and all the guards.

The queen is very jealous. She declares, “Off with her head!” To accompany this sentence, she forms scissors with two fingers of one hand and uses them to cut off the end of a third finger! This is rather disgusting and very strange, since, in usual cartoon form, the finger is back in the next shot.

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In the background of the queen’s throne room, two naked female statues are plainly visible. You might not notice them the first time because of the action in the foreground. These cartoons are multi-faceted. You have to pay attention to catch everything!

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Next, Betty is taken to the woods to be executed by the crying Koko and Bimbo. To save her, they push the grinding stone and the execution stump down a hole in the ground. While struggling with the stump, they fall down the hole themselves. Betty is saved from freezing to death by the tree to which she is tied, which friendlily releases her. As she walks away, she drops a garter, which the tree places on the now-covered hole, which looks like her grave. The garter business should be removed. She could drop something like a hairbow instead.

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It is at this point that the cartoon becomes quite dark. A surprisingly large amount of Betty Boop cartoons is very dark. Our 1932 selection is one of the most cheerful Betty Boop features I have seen. At this point, Betty falls into a river and becomes entombed in an ice-block. The block slides into a cave which is inhabited by the seven dwarves. They carry her through the caves. By this point, the queen has realized that Betty is not dead. She turns herself into a witch, accidentally releases Bimbo and Koko from the wooden snare in which they were caught, and journeys through the caves. Bimbo and Koko are now in their normal forms. Koko has the singing voice of Cab Calloway!

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As Betty is carried through the dark caves by the dwarves, Koko dances along, singing the dreary “St. James Infirmary Blues.” In the background, there is a strange and spooky series of phantasmagoria on the cave’s wall. I appreciate the amazing artistry and detail which went into the drawing of these background images. I think it is very clever that they depict the different events which are happening in the song’s lyrics. However, some of them are a little too macabre and gruesome for my taste. For instance, many of the skeletons are very frightening and disturbing.

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As Koko is singing the song, the queen turns him into a white ghost with very long legs. When he sings the lyric, “Put on a box-back coat and a stetson hat,” his pants fall down. This is rather vulgar and should be eliminated.

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One of the lyrics is, “Say, boy, hand me another shot of that booze,” which is accompanied by the visual of Koko removing his head and using it as a bottle out of which to pour himself a drink. Since Prohibition was still in place in 1932, this is a questionable lyric. The line which proceeds it is, “Folks, now that you have heard my story.” It is followed by the last two lines, “If anyone should ask you, Tell ’em I’ve got those St. James Infirmary blues.” Thus, the objectionable lyric could be replaced with the following line, “And you know all I’ve had to lose.” This line even rhymes with blues.

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Finally, the mirror restores the three protagonists to their original forms but also turns the queen into a dragon. She chases them through the caves. The pursuit is ended when Bimbo grabs her long tongue and uses it to pull her inside out, turning her into a skeletal creature that resembles a dog! This is a very bizarre way for the villain to meet her end. I suggest that something else should happen to her. Perhaps she could fall into a frozen river and be turned to ice.

Betty in Blunderland (April 6, 1934) –

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Six Betty Boop cartoons were released in 1934 before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code. Betty in Blunderland is one of these last pre-Code Betty Boop features. It is a parody on the famous stories Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Like most adaptions of these tales, the two stories are heavily mixed and confused in this whimsical journey. The short begins as Betty is making a puzzle of Alice and the White Rabbit in her living room. As she starts to fall asleep, the White Rabbit jumps out of the puzzle and goes through a full-length mirror. Betty follows him, transforming into an Alice-like character. In Wonderland, or rather Blunderland, she encounters many famous characters from the stories, including the dreaded Jabberwocky.

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When Alice approaches the looking glass through which the White Rabbit disappeared, she sees herself as Alice. She has long black curls and a little white apron over her black dress. However, this outfit is just as indecent as her usual attire, featuring, of course, the signature garter. This dress should be a more wholesome Alice costume, such as that which is shown on the box of the puzzle she is making.

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Instead of going down a rabbit hole, the White Rabbit goes into a subway entrance. After he disappears, Betty inspects the hole and wonders, “Where am I?” As she kneels to look through the hole, the awning of the entrance bends down and pushes her through the hole by pushing her posterior. That seems rather inappropriate. I think that she could figure out going through the hole herself.

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Next, she steps down the rabbit hole and falls through open air for a long while. As she is falling, her skirt blows up, revealing her panties. She pushes it down, but that doesn’t remedy the situation. Firstly, if her skirt were longer, that wouldn’t be as likely to happen. Secondly, she could just hold the skirt down the whole time.

As Betty is falling through open air, she passes many clotheslines. Hanging on these lines are several intimate articles of female clothing. These should be eliminated.

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As Betty continues through Wonderland, she meets all the characters of the timeless story. As she is singing “How Do You Do,” various characters are shown. The Mock Turtle and the Gryphon are seen rolling dice. Although the Mock Turtle is obviously winning, he is crying inconsolably. After his last throw, the final stake, a clam, makes a raspberry noise at him. Making raspberry sounds was forbidden under the Code and should be eliminated.

Later, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are shown fighting. Each time one of them takes a swing at the other, the intended victim’s head retreats into his top like a turtle’s head into its shell. Finally, they both surrender by putting up white flags in place of their heads. However, the flags of truce are not white cloths but white underwear. This should be replaced with white flags.

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Next, the Duchess is shown dancing to the melody of “The Irish Washerwoman.” While she dances, she turns her back to the audience and drums a rhythm on her large posterior. I’m sure that you also have noticed a frequency of jokes involving the posterior in these cartoons. Well, perhaps that was acceptable in pre-Code films, but the Code forbade such cheap humor.

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That is the end of my breening for these three cartoons! I encourage you to watch them yourself and make your own evaluations. These are very entertaining shorts which were created through the talent of very few gentlemen. It is impressive to realize how few people were involved with the making of each of these cartoons. For instance, Snow-White was animated by only one man, Roland Crandall, in six months. That’s very impressive! However, I encourage you to ask yourself whether these cartoons would not have been better if they hadn’t included vulgar and offensive humor. They are clever, so they don’t need that!

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To see an example of how cute Betty Boop was as a Code cartoon, watch my favorite Betty Boop feature, Service with a Smile from 1937: It includes a hilarious character, Grampy, her wild inventor grandfather. I love seeing all the antics at her hotel!

Thank you for reading. Come back next week for another Breening Thursday article!


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One thought on “Breening Thursday: 10. Three Pre-Code Betty Boop Cartoons

  1. Tiffany, well done! What a fascinating thing it is to look at a seemingly harmless cartoon through the lens of the code. It was particularly effective of you to compare the 1937 Betty Boop with the pre-Code ones you so eloquently breened. This makes me realize that, when given no restraints, film makers trend downward, and bring the viewers right along with them! This is why it is imperative that the word be spread about bringing back the production code. Keep up the good work, Tiffany! Keep breening! James Brannan, President of PEPS


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