Betty Boop: The Definitive Collection (1996)

Rating: ***

Review Date: 4/24/05

Republic Pictures has done an incredible job with this package, which represents the most comprehensive collection of Betty Boop cartoons available. Sadly, it's only available on VHS, with no plans for a DVD release.

Volume 1: The Birth Of Betty
The first tape is introduced by Max Fleischer's son, Richard, who gives a brief and fascinating history of his father's work. I had no idea that he was responsible for creating the rotoscope! The cartoons in this volume date back to 1930, and are extremely crude and nonsensical. It's really amazing to see the very beginnings of an art form taking shape. Betty Boop herself went through some radical changes, and is literally hideous to behold in her earliest incarnations. Right from the beginning Betty was shockingly racy, even by today's standards. Certainly no American cartoon character has flashed her knickers or lost her top as often as Betty, but she still maintains a charming sense of innocence and naiveté.

Volume 2: Pre-Code
This volume is one of the most enjoyable in the collection and features Betty's best (and raciest) moments from the pre-Hays Code era. These were Betty's young and wild years, and she boop-oop-a-doops through each adventure with sexually charged flair. This volume also contains the most famous of her musical adventures featuring the legendary Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong's disembodied head. Unfortunately, the end of the tape slows to a halt as the Rudy Vallee and Ethel Merman segments become excruciatingly tedious.

Volume 3: Surrealism
Betty and friends take a turn for the bizarre, making one wonder if recreational drug use was involved. In particular, "Bimbo's Initiation" and "Is My Palm Read" stick out in my mind. These shorts represent Fleischer's earlier work, and they all seem to suffer from bone jarringly abrupt and nonsensical endings. Many of them are pre-code and a bit racy, playing to Betty's wild side and sexual charms. As such, she is often the helpless target of amorous critters who want to possess her.

Volume 4: Musical Madness
The first half of this tape is tedious and hard to watch as it's dominated by bouncing ball sing-alongs that don't contain much animation. The most arduous of the batch is Ethel Merman singing "Let Me Call You Sweet-heart," which seems like it will never end. The other musical selections in the volume are very strange and once again have trouble with their abrupt and just outright bizarre endings. The second half picks up the pace with a collection of fairy tales that are highly enjoyable and extremely imaginative. "Poor Cinderella" is the only short in the series to be in color, which is both fascinating and a little disconcerting (mostly due to Betty's red hair!). "Dizzy Red Riding Hood" seems suggestively sinister and "Betty In Blunderland" is utterly delightful.

Volume 5: Curtain Call
Volume five contains a bunch of shorts that focus on Betty's career as an entertainer, and most of them are quite fun. She impersonates Fannie Bryce and Maurice Chevalier, and even sings a song in Japanese in "A Language Of My Own." Considering when it was made (mid 1930's), that kind of open-minded cross cultural mixing seems bold and astonishing to me, especially since racial stereotypes were still so prevalent in the industry. The second half of the tape collects the "Grampy" episodes, which mark a definite departure for Betty. The Grampy episodes are technically brilliant, equisitely animated, and often utilize 3-D backgrounds to stunning effect. Unfortunately, the Grampy character isn't very interesting, and is mostly just annoying. Even with all of the wacky and imaginative inventions that he comes up with, as soon as Grampy shows up, the episode stalls. Sadly, Betty appears mostly as a side character, all grown up and much more conservative than her early days. Her dresses are longer and she spends most of her time at home doing domestic chores and babysitting Junior. Now wait a minute, just who is this "Junior?" Is this an illegitimate child born out of wedlock? Hmmm... Bimbo and Koko are also missing, as are any other anthropomorphic characters. It definitely spoils some of the fun and charm of the series, but at least the story structures have a well defined beginning, middle, and end.

Volume 6: Betty's Boys
The first half of this collection is very enjoyable, featuring cute and inventive melodramatic stage productions involving Betty and Fearless Fred. Fearless Fred is a strange character who looks as much like a kewpie doll as Betty does. Kinda creepy. The second half, "New Friends," is not nearly enjoyable as the focus of attention shifts to characters like Jimmy, Pudgy, Wiffle Piffle, and Henry, The Funniest Living American. Alright, I have to just stop here for a moment and ponder. What makes Henry, a downright scary looking and misshaped bald-headed kid The Funniest Living American? (he actually reminds me of serial killer Jason Voorhees from "Friday The 13th" (1980) ) He's not funny at all, and he just gives me the creeps. What were they thinking? This set also features one of the most deliriously absurd sights in the series - a sign that says "Girl Wanted - Female Preferred." Just what the hell does that mean, and is there some perverse subtext going on here that I don't understand? Finally, this volume contains "Betty Boop's Rise To Fame," a compilation short that actually features "Uncle Max" Fleischer himself.

Girl Wanted
I'm still trying to get my head around this one...

Volume 7: Betty's Travels
The first half of this fairly enjoyable volume features Betty on the road, followed by a collection of Pudgy cartoons. It's interesting to note how radically Betty's look changed between 1935 and 1938, as she became taller and thinner, more human looking, and started wearing much more conservative outfits. I don't like the later look as much, as the juxtaposition of a very human shape and Betty's outrageous head is rather jarring. The Pudgy cartoons feature Betty's adorable little pooch, Pudgy, who has the tendency to get into trouble. Betty's involvement is minimal, and the shorts use a standard situation comedy formula. The results are amusing, but not overly endearing.

Volume 8: Betty And Pudgy
The final tape in the collection is a bunch of technically slick, but uninteresting Pudgy cartoons. Pudgy continues to get in trouble and get scolded by an overly domestic Betty in these sit-com shorts. The most interesting of the bunch doesn't feature Pudgy at all, and is a combination of live action and animation called "Out Of The Inkwell." It hasn't aged well due to racial stereotyping, but it's fascinating nonetheless. Richard Fleischer closes up the series with his thanks to Republic Pictures for making this incredible collection available. Watching the entire series, it becomes more and more evident that it's not so much Fleischer's wonderful animation that brings Betty to life, but the incredible voice talents of Mae Questel. Her playfully energetic performances remain an endearing constant throughout Fleischer's ever-evolving style, and are always guaranteed to make you smile. It's unfortunate that she was unable to contribute to this collection in some way.