Saturday, January 28, 2006

BETTY BOOP AND GRAMPY (1935)

Betty Boop's skirt reaches to just about an inch above her knees, and that's not the only thing wrong with Betty Boop and Grampy, a post-Code-cleansing cartoon from the Fleischer Studios in 1935. Ol' Will Hays and his henchmen took scissors to the girl's supposedly too short skirt and somehow managed to add fabric to her clothing. Also missing in action are her ubiquitous garter (it is still there, just not the focal point of many innuendo-laden gags), her double entendre-charged songs, and the occasional near-flash of Betty's... er... boops. The cleavage got covered up, and with it, the nearly endless parade of slavering, slobbering men and beasts that seemed to literally jump out of the woodwork in nearly every scene through which she strutted seemed to slither off to the cinematic past. The Hays Code took away the dangerous, wicked party girl Betty and replaced her with a Stepford Betty. A Betty that was servile; a Betty who was broken and saddled with domesticity who washes dishes squeaky clean while squeaking shrill odes to manners; a Betty who sings not to drunks, lechers and her dog boyfriend Bimbo, but a Betty who sings instead to infants and a fat little pet puppy and friendly neighbors who would never think of looking at the sweet girl in that manner. Will Hays, Bishop Breen and their preposterous ilk put the whip of subtlety down on the studio, taming bad girl Betty and making her bland and "safe" for the masses: the idealized and morally unthreatening mid-1930's girl in every possible aspect.

Or did they? How tamed was Betty in actuality? It seems to me that there is something of a MILF factor at play with the redrawn Betty Boop: once more gets covered up; once she becomes a suburbanite; once she becomes a mother figure (except for actually being a mother), does she get sexier? The earlier Betty was sexy but obtainable (I'm not saying she was a ho'; just that the right combination of diamonds and furs seemed to get her Boop going the hottest); this totally hands-off Betty still seemed to pull in the ardent admirers, just without their tongues hanging down to their knees as in cartoons past.

Case in point: In this cartoon, the "plot", such as it is, revolves around a party "at Grampy's place," which Betty sings about in a simplistic tune as she struts, classily, through the streets of her town. Of course, anyone hearing of the swell party is going to drop whatever they are doing immediately and join the parade to the old coot's abode. And drop whatever they do: two piano movers, with the weighty, dangerous instrument hanging above their heads with block and tackle, hear the Boop sing, "Always something on the ice," and they ask, "Where?", to which she responds with the refrain, "Over at Grampy's house!" They let go of the rope, joining Betty's wake as the piano smashes into splinters on the sidewalk. Betty and gang walk past an apartment building on fire, where a firefighter on a ladder is pulling a frantically screaming woman out of a second story window. Upon hearing of the party, he stuffs the woman between the rungs of the ladder, about two feet from the licking flames of the burning building, climbs down the ladder and joins the parade, with the woman left screaming as frantically as before. A traffic cop sees the line of revelers and leaves his post, causing several cars to smash into one another once he is off the screen. Are all of these people, all men, causing this destruction and possible manslaughter just to go to a party at some old guy's home, or is it actually the appeal of being in the company of the beauteous Boop, however tamed? And just how subversive is this attitude to society, a society supposedly being kept safe by a Movie Production Code, when the party that is the cause of this mayhem goes off without a hitch, and is actually celebrated within the film?

Grampy himself is an inventor of not so much the Gyro Gearloose variety, supplied with modern technology and a limitless budget, but more of an organic genius who can take parts of just about any household object and make something wonderful and practical out of it. When the gang arrives at his door, the house is unattached to its frame, resting a hundred feet off in the distance. When Betty pushes the doorbell, the house runs along a pulley system until it meets with the door, the guests enter and close the door, and the house runs back along the pulley to its former position. Grampy shakes the hand of each guest, but it is actually a fake hand coming out of the wall gripping each hand. The guests are served punch when Grampy lets the chandelier down from the ceiling as a punch bowl. (Though the gang treats the punch as if it were a precious commodity, I sincerely doubt there is any alcohol in it.) Grampy cuts the cake with the skeleton frame of an umbrella, and then Betty asks, "Say, Grampy! How about some music?"

This is where Grampy kicks it into gear. Briefly putting on a thinking cap (complete with light bulb), he builds a working, jazz-playing, improvising flute player from stove parts, a kettle, a fan and gloves, and also builds a percussion system in much the same way. The "band" kicks in with "Hold That Tiger!" and an extended dance sequence takes over the remainder of the picture. If there was alcohol in the punch, then they are all lightweight drinkers, because one song is all that it takes to knock the wind out of these supposedly earnest partygoers. Boop and her followers all collapse sleepily into chairs, with Grampy taking the picture out with a furious tapdance, kicking a handle on a clock at the last second to reveal a hand holding a fan, which proceeds to cool him down.

It seems to me that a five-minute party is no excuse for the series of crimes perpetrated by her "gang" on the way to the soiree; indeed, two of the incidents are committed, however unthinkingly, by supposedly upstanding employees of the city government itself. (I am slightly reminded of Blue Velvet in this sequence, possibly because of Lynch's waving fireman shot, and, of course, because of the suburban hell link). So, was it the party that actually caused all of this? Is so, they need more to do in that town, because the party is as short as it is swell. It hardly seems worth such a possibility of death.

Or is it just Betty? However cleaned up, however covered over, Betty is still a firecracker. It is no longer Bimbo and Koko and the anthropomorphized animal citizenry that follow Betty's every shimmy, but instead her own kind and race that follow her cultishly about the town. And while the reason within the film to follow the girl is cloaked in ambiguity and outside reasoning, the cause of their devotion to her is very clear indeed. Brand new clothes... same old girl.

Betty Boop and Grampy (Max Fleischer, 1935) Dir: Dave Fleischer
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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