Thursday, May 23, 2019

Brave New World of Betty Boop

Classic Betty Boop Sketch
Betty Boop was a music novelty character who was a sex symbol during the Great Depression. She was a caricature of Roaring Twenties flappers--young women who smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, drove cars, and danced the Charleston in speakeasies. Betty Boop became known as the "Boop-Oop-a-Doop girl." Her personality can best be described as moxie.

Max Fleischer with his creation.
Betty was a creation of Max Fleischer Studios targeted for an adult movie audience during the 1930s. She wore short dresses, high heels, garters, and contoured necklines. Betty's "innocent sexuality" was a mixture of girlish naivete and vampish allure which some people would define as infantilizing women.

In 1932, jazz singer Cab Calloway performed in the famous film short "Minnie the Moocher" singing that evocation song while the video blended into a Betty Boop animation which defined her character and made her a star. This musical short was one of the original music videos and the song became Calloway's signature theme song for subsequent stage appearances.

As Betty's popularity progressed, many of her early cartoons found her fighting off predatory men trying to compromise her virtue, making some modern American women view Betty as a feminist icon against sexual harassment. By 1934, the Hayes Production Code forced animators to tame the Boop character by making her a ambitious career girl trying to make it in the big city. She began wearing appropriate business attire and less jewelry. The newer cartoons lost their edge and their popularity--the last of the original cartoons was made in 1939. The Betty Boop series gained a new audience when her cartoons were released for television making Betty an American cartoon superstar.

Helen Kane
Betty's "baby doll" voice was similar to the voice characterization of actress Helen Kane whose musical comedy stage career had faded by 1931. Kane brought a $250,000 infringement lawsuit in 1934 against Paramount Pictures for "deliberate caricature exploiting her personality and image."

Esther Jones
During the trial, it was discovered that African American cabaret performer Baby Esther (Esther Jones) used a similar vocal style in her Harlem Cotton Club act. Even the scat "Boop-Opp-A-Doo" was created by Jones as a vocal jazz improvisation. An early jazz novelty short film was found featuring Baby Esther performing her "baby doll" style. The New York Supreme Court ruled that the "baby doll" technique did not originate with Kane. 

Six different actresses portrayed the voice of Betty Boop. Two of them--Margie Hines and Mae Quistal were also the voice of Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons of the same era. 

Although the series ended in 1939, Betty's character appeared in two television specials in the 1980s, and she made a cameo appearance in the feature movie Who Shot Roger Rabbit? in 1988. Her image is still popular worldwide and has become a merchandising goldmine for King Features Syndicate.

Link to "Minnie the Moocher"

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Purple Gang Tied Up In Chains

Purple Gang perp walk.

A decisive federal arrest of Purple Gang members marked a change in the public attitude towards Detroit's most notorious Prohibition-era gang. Prior to their arrest on May 24, 1929, members of the Purple Gang were often arrested, arraigned, and released before beating whatever rap they were accused of. The public believed that the gang was prosecution proof. There was lots of evidence to support that belief.

But this time was different. The gang wasn't dealing with the Detroit or Wayne Country court system. Conspiring to violate the prohibition law was a federal offense and twelve known Purple gang members were rounded up. Federal Judge Charles C. Simons levied bail of $100,000 each against Eddie Fletcher, Abe Axler, Irving Milberg, and Harry Sutton--the four men caught in the act. The other eight "associates" were held on $50,000 bail apiece.

For the first time in the gang's history, the city's professional bail bondsmen couldn't post bail for that sum of money. The official blanket charge was that on May 10, 1929, the Purple Gang "entered into a conspiracy with Canadian liquor exporters to purchase and import beer and liquor. Known gang members delivered two cases of whiskey to the Lido Club, a cabaret on 3747 Woodward Avenue owned by Abe Burnstein said to be the leader of the Purple Gang."

A young Abe Burnstein.
Burnstein could not be reached for comment. Abe was attending a crime conference in Atlantic City--the first of its kind. Crime bosses from around the country attended and made decisions like a corporation would that affected the direction of organized crime in America. This was where the modern mob was born. But Abe's youngest brother Izzy was among the men arrested.

The boys had to cool their heels in the Wayne County Jail. Their faces fell when they saw the U.S. Marshall approach them with a length of chain with six pairs of handcuffs welded to it. The twelve men were cuffed together in tandem along either side of the chain leaving one hand free to hide their faces on their perp walk. Then, they were led to the Marshall's van for a ride to the Wayne County Jail.

All but four of the men were released on writs of habeas corpus for lack of evidence. Fletcher, Axler, Milberg, and Sutton were held over for trial. Two months later, they reappeared in federal court each ten pounds trimmer. Apparently, county jail food didn't agree with them. All four were convicted and charged the maximum sentence--twenty-four months in federal prison and a $50,000 fine each. They were credited with two months for time served. Finally, the Purple Gang myth of immunity from prosecution was broken.

The Elusive Purple Gang