Confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech

Juli Kearns Cinema, Everyday Stories Leave a Comment


Betty’s winning job interview. Picture courtesy of H.o.p.

Sat down at the computer at 2:30 and though I’d been working continually with no goofing somehow after three hours I’d not managed to get much done at all when H.o.p. puts on one of his new Betty Boop DVDs and Marty sits down to watch after a minute and says hey come look at this twisted bit of Boop-oop-ee-doo in which Betty is sexually harassed by her employer, calls the police and ends up making out with the boss.

I ask H.o.p. to play it from the beginning as I figure it’s best not to remark upon until I’ve seen the whole seven minutes — and found the tale’s slightly more convoluted.

“Betty’s Big Boss”, 1933, directed by Dave Fleischer, opens with a veritable Big City Babylonian Tower (looks like an old cotton mill smoke stack) upon which is posted the sign, “Girl wanted – top floor – female preferred”. Flapper Betty in hat and one of her more demure dress choices (sleeves and a full bodice with collar) passes by and seeing opportunity she races upstairs along with a multitude of jobless women, it being about three years into the Great Depression.

The Big Boss is indeed a Big Boss, about as wide as he is tall. When he asks what Betty can do, it’s time for a song. IMDB gives the tune as Irving Berlin’s “You’d Be Surprised”.

Here’s the original:

You’d Be Surprised
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin (1919)

He’s not so good in a crowd
But when you get him alone,
You’d be surprised.
He isn’t much at a dance
But then when he takes you home,
You’d be surprised.
He doesn’t look like much of a lover,
But don’t judge a book by it’s cover.
He’s got the face of an angel but,
There’s a devil in his eye.
He’s such a delicate thing
But when he starts to squeeze,
You’d be surprised.
He dosn’t look very strong
But when you sit on his knees,
You’d be surprised.
At a party or at a ball,
I’ve got to admit he’s nothing at all,
But in an easy chair,
You’d be surprised.


But Betty has a job to win and tailors the lyrics to better suit her application.

I don’t know how to type write
but if you take me home
you’d be surprised.


The Boss has visions of how he might be surprised as Betty crawls over his desk, continuing,

I don’t judge a book by it’s cover
I’ve got the face of an angel but…


At which point what Betty says is politely drowned out by the disgruntled brayings of the other job applicants as the Big Boss opens a great trap door and does away with them.

You’d be surprised!
I didn’t go to school
but when I sit on your knee
you’d be surprised!


The rewards of hiring Betty seem obvious. So, when she flips her hat up on a coat rack and settles down at a desk to type, it’s not much of a surprise that the Boss has other ideas for his working girl. Portrayed as almost a jovial clown up to now, his chin sprouts a thorny scraggle of whiskers. “How about a little kiss?” Oooo, “Naughty, naughty, ” Betty demures. When she attempts to flee, the door is locked, trapping her. She calls the police.

All the world loving Betty, the police and the troops respond. Betty’s in danger! Rescuers clamber up a ladder. The Big Boss machine guns them down. Betty, wanting a piece of the action, machine guns the Big Boss’ bottom with lead via a pencil sharpener. The police machine gun the building, whittling it down from the base up to the top floor. As the top floor meets earth, we see through a window-blind Betty and her boss apparently locked in combat. When the blind is raised? But of course, Betty and her Big Boss are smooching. She scolds everyone for peeking and the blind is lowered as Betty and the Boss return to business.

During a second viewing, when the gun battle between the Big Boss and the police began, H.o.p. asked why they were fighting. Confounded, I didn’t know what to say. A misunderstanding?

What happened between 1932 and “Boop-oop-a-doop” in which Betty’s Ringmaster boss tries to kiss her, she slaps him and sings, “You can feed me bread and water, or a great big bale of hay, but don’t take my boop-oop-a-doop away!”

The cartoon that follows on the DVD is also 1933 vintage, “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers”.


Betty invades the nursery. Picture courtesy of H.o.p.

The toy factories exhaust themselves, deflate, go kaput, with the production of a mysterious something, a package that is picked up and eventually delivered, via plane, stork-like, down the chimney of a toy shop. The fires part for a box from which springs Betty Boop in one of her racier dresses, the one with no back and no straps, . The contents of the toy shop spring to life with her arrival. Toy bunnies, clowns, rabbits, elephants, and in particular toy soldiers. Wink, wink. A wet dream has invaded the G-rated nursery. Betty Boop, sex toy. The ensuing rumpus–Betty Boop crowned the Queen of Hearts–awakens King Kong who goes on a rampage. After we’re treated to Kong threatening a wind-up, watermelon eating “Darkie” type doll with white lips and deciding it doesn’t fit his purposes, he beheads a Mandarin Chinese doll and pursues Betty’s head as the perfect replacement.

Uh, what’s up with that? This Beast’s love of Beauty is of a different sort than Kong’s love of Fay Wray.

Eegad, King Kong means business, strapping Boop to a table saw. The army rallies to Boop’s defense. The toys beat Kong but as they march victorious, led by Betty Boop, they remind a little too much of Dough Boy WWI survivors put back together in a wrong kind of way because there was no right way anymore–that is, except for Boop. As the cartoon closes we see them relegated to the damaged shelf along with Boop. As Betty Boop looks fine as ever, we are supposed to wonder, “What’s up with that?” The punch line is that when she turns around it’s revealed she has lost the back of her dress and we’re rewarded with a full rear glimpse of her drawers.

The cartoon has me thinking what about the Great Depression and the Veterans of WWI? In a weird way Boop may be expressing solidarity here with the 25,000 World War I veterans who traveled to Washington D.C. in June 1932 to camp out until they got their bonus pay. They didn’t get it. Instead Hoover signed, in July, a Transportation Bill to help them get home–because they were destitute, because he wanted to get rid of them–July 24th being the deadline for them to leave. Those who didn’t leave were cleared out by Federal Troops under General Douglas MacArthur and the encampments burned.

“We were heroes in 1917, but we’re bums now.”

About as compassionate as the Bush Administration has been with its military veterans.

Darn, I start out to scold Betty and end up turning sympathetic. Except, y’know, for the seeming racism and sexism.

But Betty was a big fan of jazz and her 1932 “Minnie the Moocher” features Cab Calloway and his band in what may be the earliest footage of him. Cab Calloway and band also performed in “Betty Boop in Snow White” (1933) and “Old Man of the Mountain” (1933). Louis Armstrong and band are shown in Boop’s “I’ll be Glad when you’re Dead and Gone, You Rascal, You” (1932) but in that one Betty’s fighting off the natives in Africa.

I start looking around and find that Phoenix Morric, in “The First Feminist Cartoon: Betty Boop” states she was loved by Gertrude Stein and that the KKK threatened the studio because of their use of black Jazz artists. Morric gives no sources, however, and I can find nothing further on Stein, but the KKK threatening Fleischer studios is mentioned at Dennisnybackfilms.com in“The Birth of Betty Boop (Or My Life as a Dog)”.

“What are your daughters watching?” at “The Cheers” gives Betty as simply teaching girls to be adorable and dumb.

Betty did not have to be clever or even smart. Betty got along just fine with flashy garters and red lipstick. Miss Betty Boop was the shining example for young girls that said that it was much better to be adorable and dumb than not so adorable and socially co-dependant (as in the case of poor Olive Oyl). Both these women were stuck in the idea of what women’s roles were supposed to be according to cultural feminism.

Boop’s a more complex figure than that. A number of her early cartoons are surreal bewilderments which amaze me and are pretty entertaining. If she’s remembered as only a sex object, it could be because of decades’ divorce from the issues of the time that her cartoons may not explicitly reference but would have been understood by the audience. I’m talking Boop pre-Hays Act, 1935, before Betty underwent a pretty extreme change for the censors. Does she confront racism or peddle it? Does she confront sexism or give it a kiss? When I think of “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” I see Betty flashing her garter and undies and her leading the Parade of the Bonus Veterans. The more I puzzle over “Betty’s Big Boss”, considering the title, the more I am focused on the Big Boss Babylonian tower that gets blasted down to size.

It’s a queer contradictory set of images Boop can leave one with.

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