Jazz Age cartoon flapper, Betty Boop, inhabits that rare pantheon of stars whose fame has not dimmed with time.
While she was never alive per se, her ten year span of active film work places her somewhere between James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. The market for Boop-collectibles is so vast, a definitive guide was published in 2003. Most recently, Betty has popped up on prepaid debit cards and emoji, and inspired fashion’s enfant terrible Jean Paul Gaultier to create a fragrance in her honor.
Physically, she bore a close resemblance to popular singer Helen Kane. Their babyish vocal stylings were remarkably similar, too. But when Betty put the bite on a couple of Kane’s hits, below, Kane fought back with a lawsuit against Paramount and Max Fleischer Studios, seeking damages and an injunction which would have prevented them from making more Betty Boop cartoons.
The Associated Press reported that Kane confounded the court stenographer who had no idea how to spell the Boopsian utterances she reproduced before the judge, in an effort to establish ownership. Her case seemed pretty solid until the defense called Lou Bolton, a theatrical manager whose client roster had once included Harlem jazz singer,“Baby Esther” Jones.
Two years before Betty Boop debuted (as an anthropomorphic poodle) in the cartoon short, Dizzy Dishes, above, Kane and her manager took in Baby Esther’s act in New York. A couple of weeks’ later the nonsensical interjections that were part of Baby Esther’s schtick, below, began creeping into Kane’s performances.
According to the Associated Press, Bolton testified that:
Baby Esther made funny expressions and interpolated meaningless sounds at the end of each bar of music in her songs.
“What sounds did she interpolate?” asked Louis Phillips, a defense attorney.
“Boo-Boo-Boo!” recited Bolton.
“What other sounds?”
Baby Esther herself did not attend the trial, and did not much benefit from Kane’s loss. Casual cartoon historians are far more likely to identify Kane as the inspiration for the animated Boop-oop-a-doop girl. You can hear Kane on cds and Spotify, but you won’t find Baby Esther.
With a bit more digging, however, you will find Gertrude Saunders – the given name of “Baby Esther” – belting it out on Spotify. Some of her intonations are a bit reminiscent of Bessie Smith… who hated her (not without reason). Saunders appeared in a few movies and died in 1991.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.