If we do not count King Vidor's first talking film, "Hallelujah" (M-G-M, 1929), made for the African-American market with an all-black cast, which featured an appearance by Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra, the first use of jazz music and jazz musicians in film dates from the "Betty Boop" cartoons of the early 1930s. Betty was the creation of the Fleischer brothers, Jewish immigrants from Austria, who set out, with financing from Paramount, to challenge Walt Disney. In almost every respect their cartoons differed from Disney's. This was true of their style of animation, which utilized film of human motion. It was true of theme and story line. Betty is, along with Popeye and Superman, the best known of their creations. She is also, as befitted a "flapper," the one who introduced jazz music to the movies.
Several of the "Betty Boop" cartoons used jazz songs, not simply as background music, but for style of movement. One of the most interesting of these for our purposes is "Minnie, the Moocher." The film begins with live action footage of Cab Calloway, who made the song his trademark, and his Cotton Club Orchestra (he had replaced Ellington as the club's headliner). Cab sings and dances the title song. When the animation begins, Betty and her father, a Jew from Austria, perhaps based upon the Fleischers' own father, are arguing. He insists that she must follow the family tradition and eat a traditional dish. Betty tearfully refuses. The scene is a thinly disguised parody of "The Jazz Singer." Like Jakie Rabinowitz, Betty decides to run away. Like Jakie, she too runs toward jazz music. But, unlike Jakie, Betty runs toward the real thing. No "Toot, Toot, Tootsie" for her. With her boyfriend, the dog Bimbo, she runs off to the strains of "Minnie, the Moocher."
Minnie, Calloway sings, had learned "to kick the gong around," to use opium, from her boy friend "Smoky" whose drug of choice was cocaine. Although the cartoon does not show Betty taking any drug, she does, to the accompaniment of Cab's version of the song, find herself in a dream world. Her experiences, however, do not parallel Minnie's. Minnie dreamed that the King of Sweden "was giving her things that she was needin'." Instead Betty meets a ghostly walrus with enlarged lips who sings the song. Betty and Bimbo are terrified, as well they should be, for the Walrus transforms itself into a spectral cat whose kittens suck it dry and into a prison guard who escorts skeletons to the electric chair, among other transmigrations. In all of these, the walrus/cat/guard moves like Cab Calloway. At one point, in a reversal of a Stepin Fetchit gag, Betty and Bimbo turn black with fear. Finally, Betty and Bimbo run for their lives, pursued by various goblins and skeletons. Bimbo seeks refuge in the dog house. Betty climbs into her own bed. The farewell letter she left for her parents obligingly shreds itself, leaving the message "Home, Sweet, Home."
"I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal, You" also begins with live action footage, this time of Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra performing the title song. When the animation begins, Koko the clown and Bimbo are carrying Betty in a sedan chair across the African veldt. Betty has brown skin, the same tone as that used to depict the Africans who kidnap her. Koko and Bimbo set out to rescue her but instead find themselves fleeing for their lives as a tribal chief pursues them. He then turns into Armstrong's head and then into a tribal god, all the while singing "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead." Here again the Fleischers made use of enlarged lips in depicting the god's head. Koko and Bimbo manage to rescue Betty with the help of a porcupine which wanders across their path. The trio again run for their lives, pursued this time by the entire village. They are saved when a volcano erupts, killing all of their pursuers. The storyline, as with "Minnie," owed nothing to the song lyrics.
In "Old Man of the Mountain" the Fleischers used the storyline of the song for their own plot. Again, live action footage begins the film. Again it is Cab Calloway and the Cotton Club Orchestra performing "Minnie the Moocher." Again, the Fleischers use Calloway's dance routine as the basis for the animated motions of both the Old Man and of Betty, who sing and dance a duet. Once "Minnie the Moocher" is done, Calloway announces "The Old Man of the Mountain," and the animation begins. It starts with a lion in a guardhouse who straps on a pair of rabbits as though they were roller skates and sets off down the mountain to warn everyone that the "Old Man" is on the prowl. This sets off a virtual stampede as everyone scrambles to get out of his way. All except Betty, that is. She comes out of her "tourist house lodgings" and asks what's going on. An owl, in Calloway's voice, sings:
With a long, white beard and a crooked stare,
He tramps along with the folks all scared;
With a twinkle in his eye, he passes them by,
The Old Man of the Mountain!
Oh, he wears long hair and his feet are bare,
They say he's mad as a grizzly bear,
His cares are none and he fears no one,
The Old Man of the Mountain!
He talks with the bears when he's lonely,
He sleeps with the sky for a tent,
And he'll eat you up when he's hungry,
And it wouldn't cost him a red cent!
And he'll live as long as an old oak tree,
He'll eat up fools like you and me,
Oh, I often sigh and jump and cry
At the Old Man of the Mountain!
Betty announces her intent to "see this Old Man of the Mountain" and heads up the path. When she gets to the top, she and the Old Man do their duet:
Old Man: You got to ho-de-ho
Betty: You got to ho-de-ho
Old Man: You got to hi-de-hi
Betty: You got to hi-de-hi
Old Man: You got to he-de-he
To get along with me!
Betty: Yeah, man! How do?
Old Man: You've gotta learn my song
Betty: I gotta learn your song
Old Man: If you do me wrong
Betty: I'm gonna do you wrong.
Old Man: You gotta kick the gong
To get along with me!
The duet ends abruptly when the Old Man grabs for Betty. She dashes off. He follows and manages to get a hand on her dress which she wiggles out of. The dress then slaps the Old Man for Betty and runs over to where she is hiding behind a tree. Betty, reunited with her clothes, clambers up the tree. The Old Man tries to get her down but animals of all sorts come to her rescue and tie his arms and legs in knots.
These cartoons were the first opportunity many viewers had of seeing Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway perform. For some in the audience it was the first time they heard real jazz rather than the "jazzy" songs of Jolson. The music was as irreverent and as sensual as they had heard. It dealt with sex, drugs, violence. Further, the cartoons themselves were equally transgressive. In Betty's first cartoon appearancee, "Dizzy Dishes," she is a dog or, more precisely, a cross between a woman and a dog. Bimbo, the star of the cartoon, falls for her at once. In "Minnie the Moocher," her seventeenth cartoon appearance, she is the daughter of Jewish immigrant parents. Bimbo is her friend but there is no hint of romance. In "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead," Betty's thirty-second cartoon, she is African. There is, again, no romance.
"I'll Be Glad When You're Dead" is not the only cartoon in which Betty is not white. In "Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle," her thirty-third cartoon, she is Samoan. Bimbo arrives at Bamboo Isle in a motor boat which transforms itself into a dog house. He finds himself in Betty's canoe. After he sings her a song, they disembark in a clearing. When other Samoans arrive, Bimbo turns himself into a native by hitting himself over the head with a bone. This raises a lump through which he sticks the bone. The Fleischers illustrated the force of the blow with circles swimming around Bimbo's head. He grabs a couple of these and uses them as earrings. Then he rubs his cheeks with dirt. The disguise fools the Samoans. There are several more musical numbers, including one in which Betty does a hula wearing only a grass skirt and a lei. A rain storm breaks up the entertainment. It also washes the dirt from Bimbo's cheeks revealing him to be white. This angers the Samoans who chase after him and Betty. Fortunately, the doghouse turns back into a motorboat, and they escape. In the last scene Betty and Bimbo share a romantic kiss.
The Fleischer brothers did more than introduce jazz to the movies. They also added a discordant voice to the ongoing discussion in the mass media about race, ethnicity, and nationality. They made cartoons in which nothing was fixed. Betty was white, except in those cartoons in which she was not. She was the daughter of Jewish immigrants in one cartoon, but not in any others. Bimbo, who usually remained a dog, was her romantic interest in some of the cartoons but not in others. Louis Armstrong provided the voice for the African chasing Bimbo and Koko which the Fleischers illustrated using crude stereotypes. Cab Calloway provided the voice for the Old Man of the Mountain, who was white. Bimbo attempted to "pass" as Samoan but was discovered. On "Bamboo Isle" people of color ruled and enforced their own racial hierarchy.
The cartoons played equally fast and loose with notions of female virtue. In "Boop-Oop-A-Doop" Betty is a circus performer. Her act is so hot that the ringmaster follows her into her tent and attempts to force himself upon her. She sings:
You can feed me bread and water,
Or a great big bale of hay,
But don't take my boop-oop-a-doop away!
You can say my voice is awful,
Or my songs are too risqu,
Oh, but don't take my boop-oop-a-doop away!
Just as he succeeds in getting on top of her, Koko the clown comes to the rescue. He and the ringmaster fight. Koko wins. He goes over to Betty and whispers something in her ear. "No! He couldn't take my boop-oop-a-doop away!" she replies. Then she and Koko kiss. Betty's "boop-oop-a-doop," her trademark, is not her virginity, what a conventional heroine would seek to preserve. Instead it is her sensuous approach to life. That is perhaps why she and Koko, who usually plays relatively minor roles in Betty's cartoons, when he appears at all, wind up in a romantic clinch at the end.