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.
That 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.
The 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):
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):