Betty Boop: Yiddish Film Star.

American Jewish HistoryVol. 87 Nbr. 4, December 1999

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Betty Boop: Yiddish Film Star.

The American dream might read something like this: two brothers from a family of five, one an immigrant, one born soon after his mother sailed to New York and came through Ellis Island, rebel against their Old World parents, refuse to finish school, and instead enter the less-than-respectable world of movie-making in a less-than-respectable field: animation. Against all odds and expectations and due to an ingenious invention they do more than make good. They become Hollywood movie moguls with a studio which produces films starring some of the most famous leading actors of the 30s, none of whom requires a salary or dressing room, and none of whom ever breaks a contract. The Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, created and controlled one of the great 30s sex symbols, animated Betty Boop. Betty's cartoons, remembered most vividly for their overt sexuality and often grotesque imagery, are even more provocative when viewed in relation to the lives of her working-class, Eastern European immigrant, Jewish creators.

The Fleischer Brothers, in fact, provided America with some of its most memorable animated characters, including Popeye and his friends and Superman. They were also the creators of a series of technological apparatuses--including the rotoscope and 3-D sets--that provided the basis for all modern drawn animation until the advent of computer animation in recent years. As well known as Disney (their main competitor) in the 30s, by 1998 Max and Dave Fleischer only rated a short description (which omitted their names) in the documentary Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream as the "two Jewish brothers" who created the first film version of Superman. A revival of interest in animation among film scholars has insured that the Fleischers' cartoons are more memorable than their names, however. Betty Boop's return to the movie screen in the 90s has garnered the excitement usually reserved for restorations of great "lost classics" of the cinema, like Wells' Magnificent Ambersons or von Stroheim's Queen Kelly. Betty's initial disappearance can be traced to the Hays Production Code office, which determined Betty Boop too racy for general audiences in 1934. The Hays Code led directly to her retirement in 1938, and Betty was relegated to the status of has-been for decades. Her cartoons were rereleased for television in the fifties, and then again mothballed in favor of new cartoon stars. A large number of the Betty Boop cartoons were remastered to tour the art house circuit in 1996, and an eight-video compilation of Boop cartoons has proved so popular that additional volumes are scheduled for release in the next year. The Fleischers' other stars have had varied fates. For example, Popeye has run continuously on television since the 50s,(1) but the Fleischer Superman cartoons, long superseded by live-action television and cinema versions and many, many other cartoon versions, have not enjoyed the same longevity.

It is Betty Boop, the Fleischers' first sound film star, who ...

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