Sunday, April 3, 2022

Barbara Hamby on Betty Boop—National Poetry Month 2022

Poet Barbara Hamby.

Born in New Orleans and raised in Hawaii, Barbara Hamby earned an MA at Florida State University. She is the author of several poetry collections, including Delirium which won the Vassar Miller Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award in 1995; Babel which won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ Donald Hall Prize in 2004; and All-Night Lingo Tango in 2009. Her short story collection, Lester Higata’s 20th Century in 2010 won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize/John Simmons Award. With her husband, poet and musician David Kirby, she coedited the anthology Seriously Funny in 2010. Hamby’s poetry has been featured in numerous anthologies, including The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry in 2011); three editions of Best American Poetry 2010, 2009, and 2000; and Good Poems for Hard Times in 2006.

Hamby and Kirby have been called “the cultural power couple” of Tallahassee, Florida where they reside.

                            Betty Boop's Be Bop was included in Hamby's 2009 collection All-Night Lingo Tango.

Hamby has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts as well as several grants from the Florida Arts Council. In 2010, she was named a Distinguished University Scholar at Florida State University.

According to the Poetry Foundation:

Hamby weaves together a mix of high and pop cultural references into formally strict, lyrically extravagant poems. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly described Hamby’s fourth collection, All-Night Lingo Tango, as “[c]hatty and whimsical, literary and (at its best) laugh-out-loud funny,” and observed, “Long-lined Odes, most in monorhyme or in loose couplets, give her extroverted, digressive imagination free play.” In an interview with BOMBLOG, Hamby spoke to her interest in formal constraints: “When I was writing my first book, I found myself being pleased when I was working under certain formal constraints. Whether it was an anaphora that I had to repeat, the abecedarian corset, or a sound I was repeating—I found that the constraint forced me to dig deep into language and, more interestingly, into myself.”

A title card from a Fleischer Betty Boop cartoon.

Last month I considered making a Women’s History Month blog post about Betty Boop who first appeared in Max Fleischer cartoons released by Paramount in March of 1930.  The black and white cutie pie made her bow in Dizzy Dishes in his Talkartoons series and was soon starring in her own shorts.

With her over-size head, pouty bee stung lips, big round eyes, spit curl bobbed hair, overtly sexual small body in a skimp dress threatening to slip off her breasts and ending mid-thigh to expose glam dancer legs, Betty Boop was an instant star.  

Prototype Betty as the anthropomorphic poodle love interest of Bimbo the dog.  As a human here long dog ears were replaced with hoop earrings.

Fleischer’s often surrealistic cartoons were in stark contrast to their main competitionWalt Disney’s early sound Silly Symphonies.  The music was loud, modern, and brassy.   Fleischer originally conceived her as an anthropomorphic French Poodle and was early studio star Bimbo’s—a dog—girlfriend.  They co-starred together in Minnie the Moocher with music by Cab Calloway.  It was not the last time she was associated with Black musicians which shocked Southern audiences.  After the first handful of films, she was fully human—supposedly a wild but innocent 16 year-old and was paired with Koko the Clown from the Out of the Inkwell series.

Betty’s appearance, little girl voice, and signature Boop Oop a Doop line were all inspired by popular stage, recording, and early sound musical star Helen Kane.  In fact, the connection was so obvious that Kane sued Fleischer.  But Kane herself ripped off the look and signature sound from Black Harlem jazz singer Esther Jones who often performed as Baby Esther.  Kane lost her suit against Fleischer when that came to light.  Jones is sometimes credited as being the real and original Betty Boop.

Betty Boop with Boop Oop a Doop inspirations Esther Jones, left, and Helen Kane, right.

When Betty first appeared in the early ‘30’s her persona as a Jazz Age flapper was already outdated.  Although she cheered Depression Era audiences, fashions were quickly changing to longer mid-calf skirts and music was moving into the Big Band Swing era.  Betty also drew the ire of Will Hayes, enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934.  He found everything about Betty “suggestive of immorality.”  To comply with the demands her skirts were lowered to knee and she was often shown with short sleeves and a shop-girl peter pan collar.  She was also changed to an adult woman, sometimes given a human boyfriend/husband, and even portrayed as the mother of a brood of children in at least one film.

Fleischer studio's specifications for a late post-code version of Betty. Gone were her earrings and bangle bracelets as well as her flapper dress.  He thigh garter remained but would be obscured in most shots.

By 1939 her films were discontinued, although a daily newspaper comic strip continued for a few years.  During World War II her image was painted on bombers.  Various attempts to revive her came and went over the years.  Her original cartoons were eventually released for television but there was not much market for black and whites shorts.

There was a revival of interest in her as a result of the underground comix and hippie counterculture of the late 1960s and ‘70s.  Soon her image was adorning posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs, figurines, and an astonishing variety of merchandise.  She remains a popular collectable to this day.  In fact, my oldest daughter Carolynne had a large collection which decorated her apartment.

T-shirts were among the first merchandise offered during the '60s and '70s rediscovery.

Here is Barbara Hamby’s take on Betty from her collection All-Night Lingo Tango

Betty Boop’s Bebop

Because I’m a cartoon airhead, people think it’s a picnic

down on these mean streets. Sure, my skirt’s short, but it’s a crime,

fellows, how you give a frail the slip, leave her simmering,

hot and bothered. I have feelings, cardboard, but bordering on ennui,

just this side of tristesse. I may not be human, but I can kick

like one and bite and pinch, too. Don’t forget, mister, I’m

not just a bimbo with a helium voice. I’m no rococo

parvenu pillhead. I’ve read your Rilke, your Montesquieu.

Really, I’m not as dumb as I look. Or maybe I am. Less

tries to be more, but ends up being nothing. My last beau

vetoed the philosophy of religion class in favor of pre-law,

exactly why I don’t know, but I’m getting a glimmer. Stay

zany, the cartoonists tell me, and next year you’ll play Cinderella.


Barbara Hamby

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