Reviews
August 26, 2013 posted by Jerry Beck

DVD REVIEW: “Betty Boop: The Essential Collection, Volume 1″

Betty_life_guard

I’ll start at the top with the bottom line: The transfers of these twelve classic Max Fleischer Betty Boop cartoons are very good and I recommend you purchase this collection. There – I said it.

boope-essntail200That doesn’t mean I don’t have reservations and a few nits to pick regarding the final product. Is this what I would have done if I had any say so – No. Are these the cartoons I would have selected for an initial “essential” collection – not exactly. But how can I argue against these Fleischer cartoons – finally – being released to DVD (and blu-ray).

The fact that the Fleischer library (non-Popeye, non-Superman) sits unrestored, and largely unavailable to the public, is a cinematic crime-of-the-century. The films aren’t lost – they’re just buried in a vault by their owners who believe there is no financial incentive to make these classics available.

Full disclosure: I was involved as curator on the last large-scale effort to liberate Betty Boop cartoons from the vaults: Betty Boop: The Definitive Collection (Republic Home Entertainment) in 1996. This was conceived originally by the studio to be an exclusive Laser Disc release – thus I designed the collection to fit by theme onto fifteen disc sides. The collection was beset by technical problems, not the least of which was the DVNR process. We’ve been waiting almost 20 years for the studio (Republic’s holdings are now in Paramount’s hands) to do these right on DVD.

Olive Films – a sub-distributor of studio product – announced plans to release a Betty Boop collection about a year ago. I’d been quite vocal in my suspicions about this release. It’s rare when a distributor of classic films (of any kind) doesn’t enlist the services of a knowledgeable historian or consultant. Why wasn’t a Leslie Cabarga, Ray Pointer, Greg Ford, Leonard Maltin or Steve Stanchfield asked for their input?

The result: There are no bonus extras, no audio commentaries, no frills to this simple disc release. That’s okay, however, we just want the cartoons. But its the cartoon selection – that is really my biggest gripe. I won’t deny there are a few great ones here (IMHO). But Betty Boop’s Life Guard? Pudgy in The Foxy Hunter? Essential? I think not.

UMM-OliveThe films are said to be “newly remastered in HD from 4K scans of the original negatives and fine grains”. What they aren’t are “restored” – which is a mixed blessing as far as I’m concerned. I’m delighted they didn’t bother to remove scratches and film grain, so these prints still look like film. Based on what I see, this is a “one-light” scan – not a transfer where each shot is adjusted for the best picture. Most of the image quality is quite good, though you’ll notice some of the replaced titles (on different film stock from the original cartoon) is lighter or washed out compared to the rest of the film. And, of course, the cartoons retain their irrelevant “U.M.& M. TV Corp.” titles from their initial TV distribution in the 1950s. With a little effort, appropriate Paramount titles could have been grafted onto these to approximate the original look. But alas, that’s what restoration is all about and not the concern here. If its any consolation, the UM&M titles have never looked better.

Several of my animation colleagues noted that the shorts from 1933 and earlier were originally released in something like a 1.2:1 aspect ratio (“Fleischer cartoons used the Movietone aspect ratio longer than other studios,” says one), and here have been vertically squeezed to fit a 1.33:1 screen! Call me crazy, but I really didn’t notice this, despite some frame grab comparisons (below, frame from Definitive collection at left, Olive’s transfer at right):

bamboo-comp_Olive

There’s no doubt this new Olive Films release has a sharper picture and even better sound (to my ears) than the previous Republic compilation. It’s the contents that’s a decidedly mixed bag. This set includes Chess Nuts (1932) where Betty, Bimbo and Koko are chess pieces, Betty Boop, M.D. (1932) the one where they sell “Jippo” tonic; Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle (1932) where rotoscope Betty dances topless (but SFW); Betty Boop For President (1932) in a race against “Mr. Nobody”; Betty Boop’s Penthouse (1933) with a visit from a fay Frankenstein monster; Betty Boop’s Birthday Party (1933) with someone else doing Betty’s voice (or its Mae sped up, a tad too much for my liking); Betty Boop’s May Party (1933) one of my personal favorites, if only for the great music on the track and the great “rubber” gags at the end; Betty Boop’s Halloween Party (1933) a Gus Gorilla classic; Betty Boop’s Rise To Fame (1934) the PD cartoon with reuse footage from the aforementioned Bamboo Isle; Betty Boop’s Trial (1934) one of the best musical soundtracks of the series; Betty Boop’s Life Guard (1934) with Fearless Freddy; and The Foxy Hunter (1937) a snoozer with Pudgy and “Junior”.

Olive has announced a second “Essential Collection” for release next month. That set will include some absolute “essentials” (the first nine) – and a few duds (the last three): Dizzy Dishes (1930), Bimbo’s Initiation (1931), Boop-Boop-a-Doop (1932), Betty Boop Limited (1932), Betty Boop Bizzy Bee (1932), Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs (1932), Betty Boop’s Museum (1932), Betty Boop’s Big Boss (1933), Morning Noon and Night (1933), Betty Boop’s Little Pal (1934), Betty Boop’s Prize Show (1934) and Keep In Style (1934). I’m looking forward to it.

I still wish Olive Films would ask us (“us” being fans, film archivists and Fleischer historians) for some help. Getting classic cartoons out on blu-ray is a necessity for their preservation in this ever-changing, digital world we live in now. This is a nice start… but the best is yet to come.


Here are a few more frame grabs from Vol. 1 (click thumbnails below to enlarge):

bamboo-title-Olive550max_fleischer550foxy_hunter550Betty-Boop_trial

42 Comments

  • So long as the cartoons are good enough for HD, I will be happy about it. At least nothing seems censored, and this was an honest review. And it’s ok to be honest.

  • “Bimbo’s Initiation” on Volume 2? I would like to be a member.

    • I don’t want to join any club that would have ma as a member — Groucho

  • What I found particularly surprising and disappointing was the lack of a menu for individual cartoon selection. There was only “play all” on the opening menu, which meant having to use the “skip” key on the remote to move to whichever cartoon I wanted to see. At least there was a listing of the cartoons inorder on the case to make this easier.

    • Russell: You CAN select individual cartoons. You had me worried, but when my copy arrived today, I found that on the main menu screen, at the bottom it says PLAY ALL SHORTS. The default is to PLAY ALL, but you can click right to select SHORTS and get to a menu with the individual titles. It is a little misleading. I took some time to go back to find where I read your comment just to let you and everyone know this.

  • What about the collaborations with Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway?

    • Not included. Apparently, according to Olive, not essential enough.

    • Is there any chance we’ll see the Calloway/Armstrong shorts on volumes 3 & 4? Haven’t seen the listings for those two yet, and Olive’s claim that there won’t be any PD shorts on these collections seems odd, since 1 & 2 include a few titles I’ve already seen on bargain bin PD DVD sets. You’d think the inclusion of Snow White, Minnie the Moocher or I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You would be a hot selling point, since those are the shorts for which fans most want hi-def copies.

    • This is the list Olive’s press release guy was peddling a few months ago. (* = on Vol. 1, ** = will be on Vol. 2)

      **DIZZY DISHES – 1930 (Talkartoon)
      **BIMBO’S INITIATION – 1931 (Talkartoon)
      **BOOP-OOP-A-DOOP – 1932 (Talkartoon)
      MINNIE THE MOOCHER – 1932 (Talkartoon)
      *CHESS NUTS – 1932 (Talkartoon)
      **BETTY BOOP LIMITED – 1932 (Talkartoon)
      STOPPING THE SHOW – 1932
      **BETTY BOOP’S BIZZY BEE – 1932
      *BETTY BOOP M.D. – 1932
      *BETTY BOOP’S BAMBOO ISLE – 1932
      **BETTY BOOP’S UPS AND DOWNS – 1932
      *BETTY BOOP FOR PRESIDENT – 1932
      I’LL BE GLAD WHEN YOU’RE DEAD, YOU RASCAL YOU – 1932
      **BETTY BOOP’S MUSEUM – 1932
      BETTY BOOP’S PENTHOUSE – 1933
      SNOW WHITE – 1933
      *BETTY BOOP’S BIRTHDAY PARTY – 1933
      *BETTY BOOP’S MAY PARTY – 1933
      **BETTY BOOP’S BIG BOSS – 1933
      MOTHER GOOSE LAND – 1933
      THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN – 1933
      I HEARD – 1933
      **MORNING NOON AND NIGHT – 1933
      *BETTY BOOP’S HALLOWEEN PARTY – 1933
      PARADE OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS – 1933
      SHE WRONGED HIM RIGHT – 1934
      RED HOT MAMA – 1934
      HA HA HA – 1934
      *BETTY BOOP’S RISE TO FAME – 1934 (PD)
      *BETTY BOOP’S TRIAL – 1934
      *BETTY BOOP’S LIFE GUARD – 1934
      POOR CINDERELLA – 1934 (Color Classic) (PD)
      THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT A SOLDIER – 1934
      **BETTY BOOP’S LITTLE PAL – 1934
      **BETTY BOOP’S PRIZE SHOW – 1934
      **KEEP IN STYLE – 1934
      WHEN MY SHIP COMES IN – 1934
      STOP THAT NOISE – 1935 (PD)
      SERVICE WITH A SMILE – 1937
      NEW DEAL SHOW – 1937
      *THE FOXY HUNTER – 1937
      ZULA HULA – 1937
      RIDING THE RAILS – 1938
      BE UP TO DATE – 1938
      OUT OF THE INKWELL – 1938
      SWING SCHOOL – 1938
      PUDGY THE WATCHMAN – 1938
      PUDGY IN THRILLS AND CHILLS – 1938

      So, the Betty/Cab Calloway titles are safe, but equally important cartoons like BARNACLE BILL, MYSTERIOUS MOSE and THE BUM BANDIT aren’t.

    • “Not included. Apparently, according to Olive, not essential enough.”

      That’s just wrong!

  • Olive is strictly a bare-bones outfit. You get the movie and that’s it. Not even the theatrical trailer most companies tend to throw in. So I had absolutely no expectations of getting any bonus features at all. They give you get a clean, new transfer from the best elements Paramount has available, but nothing in the way of extensive restoration. So I certainly can’t say that I’m disappointed on that end. Frankly, the era of extensive bonus features, documentaries, commentary tracks, etc., is pretty much over. Projects are just too tightly budgeted these days to allow for much of that.

    • The era of extensive extras may be over, but it’s a shame the films aren’t fully restored. That’s the feature presentation. We have a good ten years (plus) of fully restored animation on DVD and Blu. That really shouldn’t change, especially if money is saved by not doing extras. If there still isn’t enough money, wait until there is. Because it probably won’t be done twice, especially “in this ever-changing, digital world we live in now.”

    • Marketing 101 tells you that when you sell multiple versions or platforms of the same content, you have to distinguish them. In order to keep selling Blu-ray, which tends to be higher priced than streaming or VOD, it has to have benefits. And IMO, those benefits go beyond 1080p and high-end sound formats like DTS HD Master Audio or Dolby True HD (especially since it’s unlikely you’ll hear any difference as compared to compressed formats on pre-1952 material, before magnetic recording, where the source soundtracks have very limited frequency response and very high levels of distortion anyway).

      So what is that difference? It’s extras: documentaries, trailers, commentary tracks, etc. If they don’t do that (and I know Olive never does it), they’ll kill the BD format. After all, most of these cartoons can be found on YouTube anyway.

      As for the aspect ratio, I really don’t know how they get this wrong. As I’ve posted on another site, seems to me that you take the height and make that 1080. Then the width is whatever it is, in this case about 1296 (with a 1.2:1 Movietone AR). But one reason for them not to have done that is if they legitimately thought that it was supposed to be presented at 1.33 or 1.37:1. Films were frequently shot with background area that wasn’t intended for projection. Sometimes, prints were hard matted, mostly not (especially before 1952). But why they would stretch the image, I have no idea. It looks to me like they took a lot of care with the packaging, so they’re not completely clueless, but stretching the AR makes me think they have a bunch of ignorant slackers running the technology.

      I also have no idea why they didn’t choose the jazz cartoons, except that they probably didn’t want to spend the money to even research the rights, never mind pay for any rights. There are a lot of “ifs”, but a 1930 cartoon may be in copyright until 2025 and that assumes that Congress doesn’t extend the copyright term again, which I suspect they will to placate Disney, who contended that if “Steamboat Willie” fell into the public domain, people would make porno cartoons featuring Mickey Mouse (and Congress believed them).

    • “Bare bones”??? Give us a break!. I am operating on bare bones and can still do better. They have everything handed to them and don’t seem to realize what they have to make the best of the situation. At least the transfers do the films justice.

  • Well, I’m with you 100%. What can we do but say,”Thank you,” buy the sets and hope for the best. There is a little thing called salesmanship. Once upon a time the industry knew how to do that as John McElwee demonstrates in his wonderful, “SHOWMEN, SELL IT HOT!”

    In those days over 65% of us went to the movies regularly. Today that figure,as pointed out in THE CINEMA YEAR BY YEAR (1894–2002), is less than 15%.

    • You think the reason we don’t go to the movies as much is because of showmanship and not because back then there was only one way to see a movie (in a movie theater) and today there are numerous ways and that in addition, there is far more competition for leisure time?

      If TV was a mass medium in the 1930s or 1940s, theater attendance would have dropped off substantially then as well. Having said that, it wasn’t just TV that killed movie attendance because theatrical attendance dropped off substantially before TV became a mass medium.

      For the record, the peak year of movie theater attendance was 1946 when there were 82-90 million weekly admissions and the U.S. population was 141 million. 1946 boxoffice was $1.692b which would not be duplicated until 1974 (not considering inflation). That $1.692b was the equivalent of $19.2b in 2011 dollars.

      But by 1950, there were only 50 million weekly admissions with a U.S. population of about 152 million. Most people would say it was TV, which was introduced to the masses in 1948 that caused the decline. But according to Nielsen, there were only 3.88 million TV homes in 1950. So what explains the decline? It was returning G.I.s getting married, having kids and moving to the suburbs which had both a shortage of baby sitters and a dearth of movie theaters.

      In 2012, we were down to just over 26 million weekly admissions on a population of just under 313 million people. Boxoffice was $10.8 billion, but the U.S. boxoffice number isn’t all that relevant anymore as overseas revenues now exceed domestic revenue on most films.

  • So I’m assuming these were transfers from 35mm elements?

    • Yes. Absolutely.

    • At least we have that. I’m glad we were short shifted in the end and these were half-decent 16mm dupes!

  • Very desappointed the Paramount logo as the Popeye ones isn’t here….anyways I’ll get both….

  • Sigh, I want to complain but at least we have these on DVD now. And with the vagaries of the home video market, we might not see anything more than these two volumes for quite a while. They are ridiculously curated and ridiculously overpriced. You should at least get 20 cartoons. I’ll either wait for used copies on Amazon, or request them as birthday or Christmas gifts. Ideally the Republic set should be on DVD. The only reason I still possess a VHS player is that Republic set. It has a great little documentary with Richard Fleischer. It even has subtitles.

  • Why scan the entire frame and then change the aspect ratio? That’s just weird.

  • The Golden Collections spoiled us, you know. A generous number of cartoons, carefully selected and programmed, and supplemented by documentaries and commentary tracks that were intelligent, interesting and entertaining. *Sigh* Well, as someone alluded to above, we’re not likely to see those kinds of sets again.

    So turning from fantasies of what this Betty Boop collection could have been to the reality of what it is, it ain’t bad. A dozen Boops, ten of them very good to excellent, along with a couple of lesser titles. (Pudgy was probably inevitable, but Fearless Freddy? If we have to have post-Code Boops, at least throw us a Grampy.) The cartoons all look very nice. Probably nicer than they ever have before. One thing Olive has over other companies that depend on licensed product, like Shout Factory, is that Olive does new transfers from Paramount’s vault materials while outfits like Shout tend to use whatever off-the-shelf transfer the licensing company has available.)

    That UM&M logo: I always appreciate it when a company goes to the trouble to restore the main titles of a film to their original appearances. Short subjects in general, and cartoons in particular, have an unfortunate history of being extensively mutilated that way, for theatrical reissues, for non-theatrical distribution, and by television syndicators. No one has more respect for fully restored main titles than I do. That said, it’s never a deal breaker for me. I really don’t understand people for whom it is. On another forum, two people have stated that they won’t buy either of these Betty Boop Blu-Rays because the Paramount logo wasn’t restored to them. Seriously? Do you watch a cartoon just to see the studio logo and then sit, bored and restless, for the next seven minutes until you get to see that logo again? One of these guys believes that by not purchasing these Betty Boop discs that he’s sending a message to Olive Films that in the future they need to restore the logos. Well, no. The message not buying these discs sends to Olive is, “Classic cartoons don’t sell.” A politely worded e-mail or letter urging them to take the time to restore the original studio logos would be effective for that purpose.

    Aspect ratio: The Movietone ratio is very nearly square. If any of these cartoons really were shot in that format, I imagine they’re simply being masked to 1.33:1. That’s what usually happens to other Movietones, such as Sunrise and M.

    Is this set everything it could have been? No. Far from it. Is it the best we’re likely to get if we want to see transfers from original elements? Probably. It could have been much worse. We could have gotten a Blu-Ray of the transfers used on the old Definitive Collection laserdisc set. Nice as the transfers on these two Olive Blu-rays are, I’m still going to keep the homemade DVD transfers I made from those laserdiscs, problematic as they were. (Aside from DVNR, there was at least one redrawn in that collection, transferred in black and white, masquerading as an original.)

    • me, I like to know where the print came from, so if it was a TV print ( which is to say inferior) I want to know it. Faking things by putting the original logo back isn’t honest.

  • I got the DVD version of this set last Tuesday. I’m disappointed that none of the cartoons had their Paramount logos, BUT the prints look awesome! The remastered print of “Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame” blew me away. The live action scenes looked awesome! I’m definitely getting the second DVD next month. I hope that there will be at least one cartoon with its original Paramount logos.

  • This might be a stupid question, but… Jerry, have you or any of the other knowledgeable historians that you mentioned tried contacting Olive Films and offer them your input/consultation on the Betty Boop releases? I’m just curious because I’ve heard you mention numerous times that you wish Olive Films would ask you or other historians for assistance. But for whatever reasons, they aren’t doing that. So I’m curious if you’ve tried it the other way around, going to them with the assistance.

    • Yes, Mesterius. I and several other historians tried to make contact with Olive. Alas, to no avail.

    • Shame this couldn’t be someone else who didn’t mind open feedback from guys like you Jerry.

    • Olive is using the guy from inthebalcony.com , known as Laughing Gravy, as their historian. I’ve known him for years. Animation and music are not his strongest suits.

  • I have one friend who has NO intention of buying the Olive Films packages unless they show up at $7.95 on a discount rack.

    Two reasons: One is that there is not value for money here. Twelve cartoons on a disc, with no extras–not even a menu that allows one to go to a chosen cartoon–do not make for good value. It does not matter how good the transfers are–the customer wants value for money, and it does not happen here!

    The other reason is the selection. Olive’s idea of what is “essential” is at odds with every major and minor fan of Max Fleischer cartoons. The fact that there are NONE of the musical cartoons with Satchmo, Cab or Don Redman (and only a mild Rubinoff chosen for the second volume!) suggests that the compilers are still quite wet behind the ears when it comes to the music of the time. Choosing a Fearless Freddy item (and they could have possibly picked a better one than “Life Guard”!) over, say, a Grampy is an odd choice. (Will they consider Wiffle Piffle more “essential” than Grampy, who was close to Max’s heart?)

    (Of course, if it’s musical clearances they/re worried about, then why are they using Rubinoff? Surely they’d have to pay for that little snatch of “Give Me A Moment, Please” that opens both of his cartoons!)

  • Yeah—collectors are ridiculously spoiled. 12 cartoons for roughly $24, or 2 bucks apiece. Gripe all you want—beats the $30-$50 apiece 16 MM prints cost me 35 years ago. I’m in.

  • I’ve done my own comparison of “Bamboo Isle” between the Olive Blu-Ray and the first of the two single-volume Landmark Laservision laserdisc collections (in this case the “60th Anniversary Special Collector’s Edition”) and I have to say that the horizontal squeezing is pretty obvious to me, both in isolation and in direct A/B comparisons. I started by sampling the Olive by itself, and right away I could tell that there was something screwy with the early cartoons. I’m thoroughly familiar with these, having watched these innumerable times over several decades in various video incarnations, both commercial as well as my own tapings from TV. The character proportions just looked plain wrong. The A/B test just made it all the more obvious. This is really disappointing since, as has been pointed out, the basic image quality of the Blu in terms of sharpness, detail and gray scale is spectacular.

    • Thad Komorowski will be addressing this issue in a post that will be published tomorrow (Wednesday 8/28) on CARTOON RESEARCH.

  • “If its any consolation, the UM&M titles have never looked better.”

    Yeah these don’t have the usual problems associated with seeing these titles over the years like spices, lines, punched cue holes or pieces of tape placed along the side so the station engineers know when to cue in the ads.

  • How is the sound on these prints? Any hiss?

  • By the way, for those who believe that the age of DVD with commentary track and extras is completely over, the Warner Archive ad – just announced – gives a couple of titles that even include a classic cartoon or two. Now, of course, my question is whether or not these specific titles (including “DAVID COPPERFIELD”) might have been released before and this disk coming might just be a minor upgrade; I hope not, because the continuation of titles as complete NIGHT AT THE MOVIES program is an idea that I’d hate to see Warner Brothers banish. Forgive me, because this comment doesn’t really relate to the BETTY BOOP collections specifically, although I’ll say that I will buy these at some future point just to compare to the laserdisks, and I hope that the series continues an that, if there was one bit of advice that I wish that Olive Films would take to heart, it would be that we should get more titles per disk!

  • One of the flaws in the 1996 release was the poor-quality audio on BETTY BOOP’S UPS AND DOWNS. I hope this new release has better audio.

  • A couple of people mentioned that there was no individual cartoon menu on this first disc. There actually is one on the Main Menu page (at least on the standard DVD I bought, assuming it’s the same on the Blu-ray). At the bottom it says PLAY ALL SHORTS. If you highlight the PLAY ALL portion you get all the cartoons from the beginning. If you highlight just the SHORTS you are taken to 3 pages of cartoon selection menus, 4 cartoons per page with thumbnail images.

  • I totally agree with your remark, Jerry about why these companies do not involve “we” who know the material. Why didn’t they contact you, who has the high profile, and most of all with all modesty aside WHY NOT ME?

    • Because in the end they care more about making $ this insteed of being historically actuate.

  • In my opinion, when Olive Films releases another collection of Betty Boop gems, Poor Cinderella may be the only cartoon with Paramount titles.

  • As soon as I saw the opening to Bamboo Isle (the Samoan woman dancing) I could see there was something wrong with the aspect ratio – the image has been stretched in the horizontal direction. The exact amount of stretch can be worked out from the fade-circle at the end. The strange thing is, the stretching is not a constant value. The numbers below are the factors needed to correct for horizontal distortion:

    0.90 – Bamboo Isle
    0.95 – Rise To Fame
    0.91 – Betty Boop M.D.
    0.87 – Halloween
    0.96 – Penthouse
    0.99 – Chess Nuts

    What could explain the varying factors? I can think of two reasons:

    1. Mistake during editing
    The film from which the scan was made has the CORRECT aspect ratio, but a mistake was made during digital editing.

    2. Film had been previously stretched for TV viewing
    The film from which the scan was made has an INCORRECT aspect ratio because it had been optically stretched in the past i.e. copied from an original and horizontally stretched with a special lens to fit 4:3 aspect ratio of TV.

    The second reason is more likely. Any other possibilities?

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