Max and David Fleischer were brothers from New York. After working at different publications in the city, they began experimenting with animation. The brothers’ artistic and mechanical skills were a natural fit for this line of work. Early in their careers they invented the rotoscope, a huge innovation in the industry. The rotoscope projected the image of one frame onto a glass plate. This allowed the animators to trace over the frame and create live-action scenes frame by frame.
Fleischer Studios was Walt Disney Studio’s main competitor in the early years. However, Flesicher Studios was known for having a looser drawing style and animators were not expected to portray characters so realistically. This was known as loose “rubber hose animation.” The studio also stood apart with characters and storylines that were geared more toward adults. The studio created popular characters like Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown, and brought famous characters like Popeye the Sailor and Superman to life.
Betty Boop and her theatrical cartoons (1932-1939)
The character Betty Boop first appeared in 1930 in a theatrical cartoon called Dizzy Dishes, created by Max Fleischer in his Talkartoon series. The tiny, curly-haired icon was actually based on a combination of actresses Helen Kane and Clara Bow, although originally, she debuted as an anthropomorphic French poodle. In 1932, Betty lost the dog ears and nose and became the iconic sex symbol in the red dress that’s still famous today.
In 1930, she was called Nancy Lee or Nan McGrew, homage to Kane’s Dangerous Nan McGrew (1930). The character is also famous for her high-pitched, airy voice which was made famous by Mae Questel in 1931. Questel was Betty’s voice until her death in 1998. As a sex symbol born of the Great Depression, Betty represented a simpler, more nostalgic time as a 1920s post-war flapper. She was celebrated and revered as a modern, carefree woman, the champion of a better age. In Minnie the Moocher (1931), Betty establishes herself as a rebel – a girl going against the grain – and cements her image as more of a risqué bad girl, running away from home with her boyfriend “Bimbo.” In 1932, Betty was given her own cartoon series that replaced the Talkartoons, beginning with a short called Stopping the Show. Her theatrical series ended in 1939, leaving behind a huge legacy.
As a sex symbol, Betty was unique for the 1930s. Most female cartoons were anthropomorphic like Minnie Mouse, and there were very few at all. To have a cartoon that was clearly accentuated in a feminine way was brand new. Betty was famous for wearing high slits, low necklines, and even going topless with a grass skirt and lay, an outfit reprised when the first Popeye cartoon debuted in 1933. Her creators combined a sense of immaturity and girlishness with seduction, idealizing the image of the flapper. Betty’s (cartoon) impropriety was the talk of the 1930s, as a result. Officially, she was only 16 years old, but in many animated episodes, she appeared much older.
1934 changed Betty’s image completely. The National League of Decency and the Production Code of 1934 guidelines affected the entire film industry, drastically changing the character of Betty Boop from an innocently sexualized flapper to a career woman with a long skirt, accessorized with puppies, boyfriends, and a grandfather to remove any provocative associations. Even her winking had to be edited – her trademark move. This new Betty targeted a much younger audience, and between her newly chaste image and the growing popularity of other contemporary cartoon characters, her fame began to decline, ending the show in 1939. Today, Betty is featured in syndicated media and merchandise, and is considered one of the greatest animated characters of all time.
Popeye the Sailor (1933)
Popeye made his first debut in a Betty Boop feature before getting his own cartoon in 1933. Most of the Popeye stories focus on Bluto, Popeye’s bigger arch-rival, kidnapping his sweetheart Olive Oyl. Popeye always saves the day by gulping down some canned spinach and rescuing her. The animation is more simplified than in Betty Boop, yet it suits the character and tone. It works well for Popeye’s exaggerated chin and Olive’s elongated body. Also, it complements the motion throughout the films. This combination clicked with audiences. In several polls conducted in 1939, respondents said they liked Popeye even more than Mickey Mouse. Fans today are still captivated by this seafaring underdog defeating the odds to save his love. In fact, thanks to the cartoon, spinach sales increased by 33 percent in 1934.