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 interests us here. Encapsulated in the story of her cartoons, and in the cartoons themselves, is the reality behind the American Hollywood dream, the real relationship between Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants to America and cinema, a relationship that produced both the international success of mainstream Hollywood and also the more narrowly distributed films of Yiddish cinema. Endowed with speech, Betty Boop and her friends were able to speak to these two very different audiences: in English, the Boop cartoons were distributed all over the US. What Jewish, Yiddish-speaking audiences discovered when they attended the movies, however, was that Betty's cartoons also spoke the language of the Yiddish cinema. That language included not only bits of actual Yiddish but also references to the themes of the Yiddish cinema and the lives of working-class Jews jammed together in tenements on the Lower East Side.

This is a story that begins with the very earliest moments of cinema and a group of people who appeared seemingly out of nowhere: the lower- and working-class, overwhelmingly immigrant audiences which came first to the kinetoscope midways at the end of the nineteenth century and then to the nickelodeons in the first decade of the twentieth, supporting the new industry with what few entertainment pennies they had to spend. And in a way they truly did come out of nowhere. First, they appeared out of the nowhere of history, suddenly an historically interesting group that was the main economic force driving the success of very early cinema. Second, the massive waves of immigration to America between 1880 and 1924 coincide so precisely with the origin and early development of cinema that it is almost as if those new American citizens came to America just to become the early cinema audience.(2) National myth has especially emphasized the over two million Jewish immigrants who not only joined the audiences but also transformed the American cinema industry into the fantasy factory of Hollywood. In fact, film historian Miriam Hansen claims that because of the strong ties to both aspects of the narrative of the birth and success of American cinema--production and reception--the Yiddish-speaking audience "offers a paradigmatic, if overdetermined, instance of the dialectic of ethnic image-making and image-consumption."(3) The Fleischers and their star, Betty Boop, firmly located in New York's Yiddish-speaking community while playing to film audiences all over the United States, are the embodiment of that paradigm.

The technological development of early American cinema is often linked to the simultaneous economic development of this lower-class immigrant audience, and the Jewish audience of New York's Lower East Side in particular, as if cinema itself embodied in its form the very rules for progress to economic and social success in America. Betty Boop's creators, the sons of a poor inventor and his wife, are themselves seeming proof for this assertion.(4) Here, however, there is a profound disjunction between the mythical origin story of American cinema and its actual one. The narrative cinema we have come to recognize as our basic cinematic form developed almost in spite of this immigrant group, which had found its own form of entertainment in the bawdy short films of the first decade of cinema. Film historians Noel Burch and Miriam Hansen both support the characterization of the early American film audience as mainly working-class and, in its first and largest market, New York City, largely immigrant. The Fleischer brothers, growing up on the Lower East Side during the first 15 years of cinema, would have had access to the largest concentration of movie houses in the world.(5) By 1908, halfway through the reign of the nickelodeon, "nearly a fourth of Manhattan's 123 movie theaters were located amid Lower East Side tenements, with another 13 squeezed among the Bowery's Yiddish theaters and music halls, and 7 more clustered in the somewhat tonier entertainment zone to the north at Union Square."(6) Jewish, primarily Yiddish-speaking, patrons, joined by the Italians, Irish, and other immigrants squeezed into housing nearby, were the single largest localized community of early moviegoers.

Both Hansen and Burch point out that despite the high concentration of nickelodeons in the immigrant neighborhoods, "the path the cinema took implied the rejection of a whole social stratum despite the fact that most of its audience for more than five years came from that stratum."(7) Around 1905, the beginning of the nickelodeon phase, movie theater owners and producers began to draw material from the highly lucrative and popular vaudeville stage, more genteel entertainments than the prize fights and peep shows that had initially filled early cinema playbills. Burch claims that vaudeville was not, as is commonly perceived, a lower-class entertainment but instead catered to what he terms America's "mass audience," largely upwardly mobile lower-middle-class city dwellers who had aspirations of shedding their ethnic identity in order to join America's middle and upper-middle classes.(8) As vaudeville became more acceptable, the live theater owners and producers began to enjoy the increased status and the increased revenues that this more economically advantaged group of patrons brought to them.

In contrast, the first 10 years of cinema consisted largely of vulgar exhibitionism, and film gained a reputation as the type of entertainment uptown vaudeville audiences could not attend. Once the first producers began to see large returns on their investments in film, however, they hoped to break into the mass audience which supported vaudeville.(9) In order to share in the revenue and social status enjoyed by vaudeville theater owners, cinema purveyors had to eliminate strip teases, violent slapstick, peephole scenes, cross-dressers, and prize fights--all the most popular attractions on their bills. Trying to find new material, cinema moved away from the "cinema of attractions," characterized by a number of short, spectacular films, and towards narrative.(10)

The movie theater owners soon discovered it was not enough to change the subject matter of their films from peep shows to uplifting narratives. Although they began to attract some middle-class patrons, particularly women, few attended openly.(11) The real problem was the nickelodeon theater itself, another result of cinema's birth in the slums of big cities. An affluent, respectable mass audience would not patronize the early cinema less because the films were unappealing than because of the theaters themselves:

Within two or three years nickelodeons were perceived by middle-class reformers as `the core of the cheap amusement problem,' not only because they drew by far the largest crowds, but also for the unprecedented hazards that lurked between the flickering screen and the darkness of the theater space.(12)...

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