NEEDLE DROP NOTES
March 22, 2022 posted by James Parten

Max and Dave: The Code Breaks Betty

During 1933 and 1934, there was a move to “clean up the movies”. There were those – often affiliated with the laity of the Roman Catholic Church – who felt that Hollywood was irredeemable. A code of conduct had been promulgated in 1930, and was being honored more in the breach than in the observance. There were even threats that the Catholic chuch might declare going to the movies a venial sin. All the executives in Hollywood knew what that kind of a recommendation would mean – especially in the big Northeastern cities. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) set up new meetings to try to hash things out, and eventually decided to add teeth to the code passed in 1930. So, effective July 1, 1934, all films had to display prominently the MPPDA “Egg” seal as well as a certificate number. In some quarters, the “egg” became known as the Purity Seal. And yes, it applied to cartoons as well.

Red Hot Mamma (2/13/34) – On a cold and snowy night, Betty curls up by the fire to try to stay warm. She dreams she has traveled down to the Plutonian abode. This is definitely a pre-code cartoon, as Betty passes before trenches of fire, exposing silhouette of her feminine physique. Betty proves hotter than the devil himself, by staring icicles at him, and giving him the cold shoulder, until hell freezes over. Betty awakens to find that the fire has gone out, and settles for bundling up under a set of a dozen blankets that appear from nowhere. Songs: “Good Morning, Glory” receives a retread. “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?”, another number from Sitting Pretty, is also featured, recorded most memorably by Bing Crosby for Brunswick (below). It was also covered by Meyer Dacis on royal nlue Columbia, Gene Austin for Melotone, Perfect, et al., Eddy Duchin on Victor. Tom Coakley and his Plaza Hotel Orchestra on Victor, Guy Lombardo on Brunswick, and in England by Ray Noble with Al Bowlly on HMV, and Jack Payne on Rex. It was revived in the early 1960’s by Fats Domino. The feature vocal for Betty is “Hell’s Bells”, introduced in 1932 by Art Kassel and his Kassels in the Air on Columbia (he would remake the side for Bluebird in 1940). The film uses a needle drop version from Gene Kardos (as “Gene’s Merrymakers”) on Perfect, Melotone et al. Victor credited a version to “The New Yorkers” (actually Sid Peltyn and his Orchestra). A German version from 1936 was issued on Electrola by Barnabas Von Geczy, under a translation literally meaning “Ghost Bells”.


Ha! Ha! Ha! (3/2/34) – “Uncle” Max draws Betty on a sketchpad, and Koko comes out of the inkwell (for the last time, until the television era?), with a roaring toothache in one of his bicuspids. Betty offers to help Koko, without resorting to the old tying a string between his tooth and a doorknob gag, instead producing a backdrop of a modern dentist’s office. A quantity of laughing gas is spilled into the air, with predictable results. It wafts outside through the window into the real world, affecting various live-action objects and most of the equipment in Mas’s studio. Even the inkwell exhausts itself in jags of hysterical laughter. “Ha Ha Ha” appears to be an original song composed for the film, never recorded.


Betty in Blunderland (4/6/34) – Inspired by a Paramount feature of the Lewis Carroll classic of the previous year, an all star affair that many consider an absolute failure. Other studios would be inspired to produce take-offs from his work in the subsequent future, such as Mickey Mouse’s Thru the Mirror (1936). Betty is trying to complete an Alice in Wonderland jigsaw puzzle (such puzzles were a national fad in 1933). Betty goes to sleep on the advice of her tall case clock, as the White Rabbit springs from her puzzle and heads through a mirror into Wonderland. Betty follows, and adapts herself to appropriate size by a drink of Wonderland’s favorite soft drink – Shrinkola. She meets many of the characters from the famous books, including the Jabberwock (design lifted largely from the dragon in the last scenes of Boop’s “Snow White”). The inevitable chase ensues as Betty is abducted by the beast. After falling off a cliff, Betty awakes from her dream, to find the Rabbit sneaking off again, and places him back in the puzzle where he belongs. As for the Songs: The titles of the film feature the song “Alice in Wonderland” from the earlier feature, which was recorded by Bill Scotti on Bluebird. “Everyone Says I Love You” from the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (with special lyrics) makes a reappearance, as does a theme from the Liszt Second Hungarian Rhapsody.


Betty Boop‘s Rise to Fame (6/18/34) was slipped in just before the code enforcement began, and is a total cheater, using old clips from Stopping the Show, Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle, and The Old Man of the Mountain. No new songs appear, as the scoring is largely spliced out of the earlier films.


Betty Boop’s Trial (6/15/34) – Betty is pulled over by a persistent traffic cop (Fearless Fred) on suspicion of pulchritude, with attempt to be a female. When Betty tries to escape, the charges rise to resisting an officer, and she is taken downtown. A bewhiskered judge is more interested in recording her measurements than her testimony. But a few kisses blown in the direction of the jury lead to an acquittal – and the striking up of an arm in arm friendship with Fred after all. The score includes: revisits for the “Jolly Robbers’ Overture”, “The Prisoner’s Song”, and “The Man On the Jury”, an original by Sammy Timberg, here receiving a special lyric in which Betty asks “Don’t make me take the stand…” Also prominently re-featured is “The Scat Song”, providing the indecipherable testimony Betty ultimately provides to the jury – even getting the old judge dancing in abandon.


Betty Boop’s Life Guard (7/13/34) – Betty goes to the beach, where Fearless Fred serves as life guard. Betty’s idol turns out to have feet of clay. He warns her not to go out too far swimming, but Betty is confident she will be safe with the help of her rubber horsey floatation device. Unfortunately, the horse springs a leak, and Betty winds up under the waves, wondering in her raptures of the deep “Where’s Freddy?” Fred meanwhile hesitates, the letters on his shirt briefly shrinking to miniature size at the thought of entering the water. But eventually, after an extended undersea fantasy in Betty’s imagination, Freddy comes up with her, answering the musical question, “Here’s Freddy, you son of a gun.” “By the Beautiful Sea” makes its usual reappearance. “Where’s Freddy?” appears to be an original number, never commercially recorded.


There’s Something About a Soldier (8/14/34) – The city is being threatened by giant mosquitos (expatriots from a magazine ad for Flit bug spray). The humans wind up resorting to chemical warfare, via a giant insecticide truck driven by Betty, while Fearless Fred leads the male forces into battle, WWI trench style. Betty doubles as recruiting officer, giving out kisses (with one character repeatedly cutting in line to get another kiss – predicting Dopey’s actions in Disney’s Snow White). Songs: a return for “Yankee Doodle”, and the newcomer title number, a song introduced in England in the Gainsborough Picture Soldiers of the King starring Cicely Courtenidge and Edward Everett Horton. English recordings included Ray Noble on HMV, issued here on Victor, with vocal by oratorio baritone Stuart Robertson; Jack Hylton on Decca; Syd Roy (Harry Roy’s brother) and his RKOleans on Eclipse (an 8″ record sold exclusively in Woolworth stores for sixpence); and an HMV vocal record by Cicely Courtenidge herself. One American recording appeared on “gold box” Vocalion, by Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra, with vocal by Ozzie and Harriet Hilliard – already Mr. And Mrs. by the time. The song may also have received likely use in a 1940’s Columbia/Screen Gems cartoon issued under the same title – however, the film is currently missing in action from Columbia’s vaults, so confirmation is not currently possible.


Betty Boop’s Little Pal (9/21/34) – Betty goes on a picnic with her dog Pudgy (in his screen debut). Pudgy makes a mess of the picnic food, and Betty orders him to go home – leaving both pooch and owner rather dejected. Pudgy is picked up by the local dog catcher, and thrown into his wagon. Pudgy and the other dogs within hatch an escape plan, and eventually Betty and Pudgy are reunited. The only notable song is an original, “Little Pal”, not to be confused with anything from Al Jolson’s Say It With Songs. This number had lyric by Jack Scholl and music by Sammy Timberg. No commercial recordings known.


Betty Boop’s Prize Show (10/19/34) – The Slumbertown Theatre is playing the mellerdrammer, “Virtue Triumphs”, starring Betty, Fearless Fred, and a “plaster cast”. The audience wastes no time in booing and hissing villain Phillip the Fiend. Fearless Fred plays the local Sheriff, and Betty’s love interest. He also shows off some plain and fancy shootin’, using his bullets to hammer up wanted posters on the wall of the school where Betty is the schoolmarm. Phillip (who is portrayed at times as a wolf and a snake).makes the usual threats to Betty, then rides off with her, chased by Fred. All wind up in Phillip’s lair, where Betty is put into a death trap that would be more befitting a strapping youth like Fred – having to hold up a log chained to a 1,000 pound spiked weight. Betty is rescued in the proverbial nick of time, and Phillip is soundless thrashed. Betty, Fred, and Phillip take bows on stage, followed by their horses. Songs: a return for “Pizzicato Mysterioso” the “Light Cavalry Overture”, and “Yankee Doodle”. “You’re In My Power (Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha)”, a song published in late 1933, is newly featured, and was mostly recorded in late 1934, including for Columbua by George Olsen and his Music with vocal by Ethel Shutta (Mrs. George Olsen) and Bob Rice; Todd Rollins on Melotone, Perfect et al., with vocal by Chick Bullock; Ozzie Nelson on Vocalion; and Dick Robertson on Bluebird.

Next: Popeye, 1934.

9 Comments

  • To me, “Red Hot Mamma” represents the zenith of the Betty Boop series. Every element that makes these cartoons great is at its pinnacle of quality here: animation, design, humour, surrealism, sex appeal, and of course music. There’s a marvelous subtlety to the orchestration in the way it highlights every onscreen gesture and even conveys palpable feelings like hot and cold. It may not be everybody’s favourite Betty Boop cartoon, but I think a case can be made for it being objectively the best. It’s no coincidence that the series went downhill when they started enforcing the Production Code.

    I long assumed that the music that plays over the opening title to this, and no other, Betty Boop cartoon had to be a song called — what else? — “Red Hot Mamma”. So I was surprised to discover that it’s actually “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love”,
    originally sung by Claudette Colbert in the 1933 Paramount musical “Torch Singer”. I really love Annette Hanshaw’s recording of it. She wasn’t a strong singer, and it’s no surprise that she seldom appeared on stage, but her voice had a captivating intimacy that was well suited to the media of radio and recording in her day.

    The music that plays in “Ha! Ha! Ha!” as Koko emerges from the inkwell and eats the candy bar is a variant in 6/8 time of the song “I’m Daffy over You”, by Chico Marx and Sol Violinsky. Chico plays it on the piano in “Animal Crackers”, and, just like in the scene from “Horse Feathers” here, Groucho gives him a hard time about it. “Say, if you get near a song, play it!”

    Chico’s collaborator Sol Violinsky (ne Ginsberg) was a capable violinist and pianist, but he was known for his vaudeville shtick where he played both instruments at the same time. He did this by sitting at the piano with his violin bow strapped to his right knee; another strap on the violin’s waist kept the bow on the string. Thus by bouncing his knee up and down, he could make short, rapid bow strokes — long, sustained ones were quite impossible — and he could only play on the violin’s high E string. While doing this, he played on the piano keyboard with his right hand. His performances call to mind Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictum about the dog walking on its hind legs: he doesn’t do it well, but one marvels that he can do it at all.

    The song “Ha! Ha! Ha!” seems to have been derived from the old children’s song “This Old Man”.

  • The Catholic Church was probably just jealous that Hollywood cut into their child sex trafficking monopoly

  • Hey, THAT wasn’t necessary now, was it???

  • This article is just reflecting the “common knowledge”, but I think the role of the Production Code in the decline of the Betty Boop series has often been rather exaggerated. Yes, there are entries here and there that rely more on “pre-Code” material that (you would think…) wouldn’t pass muster, but overall, these cartoons seem to me to be driven more by the surrealistic and anthropomorphic gags, musicality, general dark urban-anxiety-laden vibe and weirdness, etc., things that were not actually forbidden by the Code. The transplanted New Yorkers over in Hollywood at the Charles Mintz/Screen Gems studio, for instance, didn’t rush to drop such attributes from their creations. Fleischer could have dropped the occasional wardrobe malfunction gags, dressed Betty more modestly, etc., and still made cartoons not all that dissimilar to much of what they had been doing. It was more a matter of choice. It’s possible that this approach to cartoon-making was becoming more “old-hat” in terms of audience appeal and the studio was concerned about trying to keep up with such trends (however adept or not they were in doing so). Also, Popeye was taking over as the studio’s “bread-and-butter” series and they were also launching the Color Classics, and the artists’ creative energies were probably being invested more in those series. The Screen Songs took a dive shortly before Code enforcement came into effect when the more creative one-shot framing segments/stories were supplanted with a formulaic reliance on theater and newsreel gags. They also started assigning the Betty Boops primarily to Myron Waldman’s unit, which may not have been for the better either.

    • The Hays Office never communicated directly with the Fleischer studio, but always with the top Paramount brass, which passed their directives along down the chain of command. These were taken very seriously and scrupulously followed. There was never any debate or compromise. By all accounts a chill factor very quickly set in at the studio as the cartoonists sought to avoid anything the Hays Office might conceivably find objectionable. Therefore I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate the effect the Production Code had on the decline of the Betty Boop series. Myron Waldman said that the trend toward cuter, more realistic animation would have happened eventually anyway, but even so, that in itself wouldn’t have prevented Betty from appearing in a nightclub, or at the beach, or in Hell. The fact that she never thereafter did can be attributed to the Hays Office, 100 percent.

      • And maybe it is the case that the Fleischers or the Paramount suits were paranoid about raising the M.P.P.D.A. censors’ ire, and put their foot down on the cartoons’ content more than was actually necessary. In which case, it’s on them for their paranoia and Code enforcement contributes only indirectly. On the other hand, it’s also possible there’s truth to a claim I’ve read that Joseph Breen (the head censor placed in charge of the Production Code Administration, thus making “Breen Office” a more accurate moniker) once told an underling regarding the Code, “Don’t pay any attention to that thing. Just you listen to me. I am the code”, and I suppose he could have simply singled out some producers such as the Fleischers or Paramount for extra scrutiny or punishment while letting others get by easier. (Although all that would only make jokes at his expense all the better over things that did violate the Code but got approved anyway—and your brain might very well break over just what exists in animated form that slid by.) The point I was trying to make is that much of what actually makes these cartoons (and other early sound series, for that matter) enjoyable and is missing from later entries didn’t really violate the Code and (all things being equal) could have continued to be employed if desired, yet there seems to be some “common knowledge” implying the contrary in that regard.

  • It’s actually a little surprising that Betty Boop lasted as long as she did; as a spit-curled boop-boop-a-doop flapper well into the 1930s, she was dated in her heyday. A less engaging character never would have survived. Perhaps if they’d redesigned her to riff off Jean Harlow instead of Helen Kane… oh,well. In fact, “Sally Swing” (1937) always makes me think Betty (by then almost matronly) was naming her successor, except that badly-designed, charmless Sally had little going for her other than some fair–if perfunctory–jitterbug moves.

  • ‘Ha Ha Ha’ is reuses a lot of gags from the 1924 Out of the Inkwell short ‘The Cure’, where in a role reversal, KoKo offers to help Max Fleischer’s dentistry issue, and ends up gassing the whole town.

    I just went to look for a link, and who should have posted the short on Youtube..? Naturally, the one and only Jerry Beck : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYJF1fv_Ce0

  • Betty Boop, a spit-curled boop-boop-a-doop flapper well into the 1930s, was dated in her prime. A less likable character would have died https://krunkerio.io. Maybe if they remade her as Jean Harlow instead of Helen Kane… “Sally Swing”(1937) makes me assume Betty was designating her successor, except that poorly conceived, uncharming Sally had nothing going for her other than some fair–if perfunctory–jitterbug dances.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.