“I’m Just Drawn That Way”: Live Worlds and Drawn People in Betty Boop and Roger Rabbit

Introduction for May

I have always been entranced with an animator’s ability to create entire environments with only a computer and sketchbook. I am fairly certain they hold some incredible magic, given their ability to turn a drawing into something feasible and living. Perhaps the term magic dismisses the skill that it takes to be animator, as I genuinely believe that animators are some of the most skilled filmmakers we have. That has become abundantly clear during COVID lockdown, as many live-action projects were delayed and shelved while animators continued to create whole worlds while separated. In teams, independently, their work is truly astonishing.  

Animation is typically the first media we experience. We grow up alongside them, and consequently, there are some who believe that cartoons are like training wheels – something you learn from but eventually discard. While I completely disagree with this sentiment, it is important to recognize that animation comes with certain, often dismissive, connotations. I can remember quite clearly that anytime I went to the movies with my Grandma, she never wanted to see something with “little plastic people”, which meant any kind of animated film. What I find particularly interesting about her comment is its unified form, this idea that all animation, regardless of style, content, or material, is the same. It’s all just “plastic people”. That is not something we do with any other kind of filmmaking. We categorize movies with genres, based on their style and content. But animation gets lumped together, even though it is perhaps the most varied and complex form there is. Where did this dismissal come from? Why is it in bad taste to love animated films? I would argue that animation presents something truly incredible, both in the way it creates characters and how it structures entirely new realities as extensions of character.

I have spent considerable time exploring genre rather than form on this blog. I tend to organize things by genre, like some living IMDb account. I don’t know if that is the healthiest way to organize media, as some of my favourite projects mix genres, and I find it interesting to see which genre people highlight before another. For instance, would you call Princess Bride a comedy or a fantasy movie first? Does it matter how you place these terms?

“But I’m a Toon. Toones are supposed to make people laugh.”

Reflecting on this blog, I have decided to try something a little different for May- I want to focus on animation. I am not choosing similar films, or similar styles, just animated films which I appreciate.

This post serves as an introduction to some of my impressions on animation, and I should note, I cannot animate. I can’t draw anything above a stickman, and I certainly can’t make the stickman dance. I say this because when I talk about animation, I do so just as a viewer, not a potential creator. On that note, I want to begin with some of the earliest animation there is, and then detail how these characters, or rather one character, influenced later animation.

“Boop-Oop-a-Doop”

If you’ve ever wandered through a vintage shop, you might find some dislocated Betty Boop on a clock or as a bobble head. She is not talked about nearly enough, as unlike characters from Looney Tunes or Scooby-Doo, she never adapted beyond her initial era (the 30’s). People assume that she is era-specific, and that her cartoons belong in history book or on some Golden Oldies DVD collection,  rather than at a movie theater. But Betty Boop never really left our cultural consciousness, as instead, her cartoons, form, and innovation bled into later works. For instance, Betty Boop cartoons use style as a character, and thus test the boundaries around what animation is versus live action. I was slightly afraid of these early cartoons when I was kid, as they always felt innately different than modern cartoons. Everything it depicted was alive, and thus everything could be a threat or a friend. I have since realized that the insane cartoon logic in Betty Boop continues today, and modern animators are still playing with these distinctions. I want to preface my discussion by noting that Betty Boop cartoons are sexist, racist, and often contain offensive material, and to suggest otherwise is a mistake. There are multiple critical articles on this background, many of which focus on how Betty Boop was based on a real black singer named Esther Lee Jones (or Baby Esther), who never received proper credit in her lifetime. There was a massive legal battle between Helen Kane, a white singer, who claimed that the Betty Boop cartoons stole her voice, and the producer’s defense was that Kane had stolen it from Jones, who was the real influence. They won the case, but Jones was never fully recognized. It is crucial to understand this background, and the problems with Betty Boop, before talking about these cartoons, as I have seen many theorists discuss her at length without doing so.

While Betty Boop is not innovative given these issues, she still made an undeniable impact in the very way we think about animation. She was introduced at the beginning of 1930 and was meant to be a stereotypical flapper girl, reminiscent of the roaring 20’s. She became a popular sex symbol, as her cartoons were directly targeted at adults. Given the Great Depression, Betty Boop signals a shift in political, moral, and sexual autonomy, as she controls her own body and is very vocal about that control. There is even an episode where Betty Boop accidently travels to Hell and gives the Devil a literal cold shoulder, thus freezing hell over. Most of the episodes feature men trying to marry or rape Betty, but she always finds a way to destroy, escape, or chastise them. Sometimes other people help her, other times she saves herself. What is unique about this still deeply problematic representation is it was the first-time mass viewers were seeing a somewhat empowered woman, let alone a cartoon which talked about sexual violence and chastised it. The show also made it clear that Betty Boop was in control of her sexuality and life, as she was often shown as having different jobs and ambitions. Once the moral laws, or the National Legion of Decency and the Production Code, went into effect in 1934, Betty Boop was given more clothing and censorship, but she also became a career woman. In an era dominated by housewife imagery, Betty Boop was encouraging women to work. Take the episode where Betty Boop becomes a judge and locks up and tortures any man who harasses her.  

“Be up to date! Be up to date! You and you and you and you, before it’s too late!”

There is something amazing in the way Betty Boop cartoons invent an entirely new set of natural law, where anything can become sentient. A knife, a slice of bread, a flower, a garter. Things that shouldn’t be possible make perfect sense, and the narrative works itself through these strange beings. Much of the animation we see today tries to follow at least some of our real-world laws, or if they depart in any way, they still try to make things feel human. For instance, Zootopia and Cars depict impossible characters in very familiar worlds. The cars and animals might be sentient, but they act just like humans and they live in human-like cities that operate much like ours. Classic Betty Boop cartoons don’t work that way, as buildings themselves are characters that can swallow things and turn evil. The forest is alive and vocal, the environment itself is a character who can suddenly come to life or change its mind. The characters also move in impossible ways, and drift around these sentient environments rather than following a strict narrative. So, that in mind, how is Betty Boop connected to these later animations?

Animation shows us familiar things in ridiculous ways. It features impossible bodies, places, objects, and yet we project onto them, onto drawings. Film subjects change, but their live action bodies stay largely consistent. A person still looks like a person, whether you are filming them in the 1920’s or today. The resolution will be different, the way the person is filmed even, but their body will still be recognizable. I realize that special effects and makeup have developed to a staggering degree, but that is not what I am referring to here. What I mean is that when you take a camera and film a person, the form and angle are familiar. That is not the case for animation, as they operate with entirely different laws and abilities, a new mode of communication and control. Every element is manipulated in animation, every shot and colour carefully coordinated to a level which can never be fully replicated in live action. It’s rather astonishing how much you can do in animation if you have the skill and team behind you. But animation also creates different issues to content with, particularly with the way the audience will engage with something in-human. We look for the human in things, we are really the vainest species there is, always seeking ourselves in the world and in inanimate objects. It’s unsurprising that many of the stories we continue to tell are human-centric and are entirely focused on what it means to be human and to exist. Those stories continue in animation, but their form is radically different.

You have probably come across an article online where someone has visualized what animated characters would look like in the real world. They are horrifying, because animation presents us with something inhuman but still manages to depict it as ‘human-like’ or at least recognizable and sympathetic. And like all cinema, animation has gone through different trends, moving from hand drawn 2D to computer 3D, not to mention stop-motion animation. I don’t want to suggest that animation inherently privileges form over content, because that is not the case. Instead, I would say that animation uses form in an extremely conscious way, and it is perhaps more aware of what enters, and what doesn’t, than certain live action films.

Form is not just visual in animation, it is embedded in the story, meaning that a cartoon’s filmmaking style is synonymous with its characters and story. For instance, one of my favourite animators on YouTube, Worthikids, often incorporates form into his comedy. I can’t really describe it, as it is entirely visual, but there are moments in each project where something will suddenly appear in a strange angle or float away. These shorts can entirely disregard the laws of physics and yet still tell a compelling and understandable story. These strange moments add to the overall aesthetic, but also to the character’s mood and our awareness of how they operate in their unique world.

“You mean you could’ve taken you hand out of that cuff at any time”
“No, not at any time, only when it was funny.”

Seeing as I spent the last month examining crime thrillers, I thought of one film which perfectly bridges my last topic with my new one: Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This film is multiple things simultaneously. It’s a comedy and crime film, but it’s also part live action and part cartoon. These categories become so overlapped that certain humans (spoiler alert!) turn out to be cartoons, while cartoons sober into depressed humans. I would call this film my favourite animated movie, but it does not entirely fit into that term. It is partially animated, but it is also about animation itself, specifically the reception and cultural impact of animation. It features many recognizable cartoon characters, like Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, and Mickey Mouse, and suggests that all these figures are real, and that cartoons are live action, just a different species than our own.

The film opens like a typical Looney Tunes episode, as Roger Rabbit tries to stop a baby from hurting itself in a massive and dangerous kitchen. After a fridge falls on his head, the door swings open to reveal Roger, who has little birds circling him. “Cut”, yells the director, and the camera swings back to reveal a normal film set. What felt like a cartoon is real, with human producers and camera workers. There is no animation in a film about animation, as the characters are just regular beings who humans can interact with. In other words, the film argues that animation is so crucial to our society that it actually exists, it is tangible. While the process behind animation is invisible, as no one animates in the film, the creation itself remains the most important thing. Roger Rabbit proposes a slightly alternative reality, in that it looks like our 1940’s and still has the same cartoons, but the way people can engage with these cartoons is radically different.

“Eh, what’s up Doc? Jumpin’ without a parachute? Kinda dangerous, ain’t it?”

The film was slightly nightmarish to create, not just because they needed the cartoons and humans to interact, and even have cartoon characters play with the environment, but also because of the legal issues surrounding these characters. You might have noticed that I mentioned Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny in the same sentence earlier, something which has not happened in any other film. Bugs is a Warner Bros. creation while Mickey is Disney. These companies are generally seen in opposition, so it was challenging to broker a deal between these big companies to include their characters. Their eventually agreement came with multiple conditions, many of which are obvious in the film. For example, to feature one famous Disney character in a scene, the film had to show that character with a Warner Brothers creation of equal merit. These characters are paired together in the film, so no company or character gets more screen time than the other. Bugs and Mickey are shown skydiving together and have an equal number of lines. This condition likewise led to one of the greatest scenes in the film, the piano battle between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck. Neither character wins, as they destroy their pianos and are taken off stage while laughing. This visualizes the way the film cannot privilege one company over another, as instead must balance these figures.

“You Had plenty money, 1922″

In addition to this unspoken legal arrangement in the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit also discusses how animation changes alongside Hollywood. My favourite scene is when Betty Boop, the aforementioned Queen of the black and white cartoon, suddenly appears in the Ink and Paint Club. She is selling cigarettes, and when Detective Eddie Valiant asks why she is working here, she replies “works been kind of slow since cartoons went to colour”. The film thus argues that the stylistic and moral changes which cartoons went through have dislocated their characters. Characters like Betty Boop belong to a specific era and cannot adapt out of that context. Except they can, as Betty Boop is currently in this movie and therefore contradicting that era-specificity. She is still tied to the 1930’s, and is in perpetual black and white, but she is in a new environment. I think this demonstrates that although characters like Betty Boop are a product of their time, their impact is still found in animation today. It’s not just that Betty Boop is tied to some seedy nightclub, she never entirely disappeared. She just changed, her eyes went into a different character, her voice in another. Perhaps that is a bit Frankenstein-like, but that is the way influence and adaptation work, a method of recycling parts into new shapes.

“But I still got it Eddie! Boop-Oop-a-Doop!

What is interesting about Who Framed Roger Rabbit is that it’s characters can change into different forms and outfits, but they appear as the earliest version of their character. The Bugs we see is not what he looked like in the late 80’s, rather, he appears as the earliest version of his character, the closest to 1947, when the film takes place. But the film also makes it clear that cartoon characters can’t die (naturally), and they can’t age, which is why so many become unemployed after the public loses interest. If they can’t adapt, like a silent star to a talky, then they can’t have a career. However, by showing earlier versions of these characters, the film proposes that cartoons can adapt into different shapes, like Betty Boop’s sexualized form transforming into a figure like Jessica Rabbit. The film pairs these two, as we meet Betty Boop and then she introduces Jessica, noting, “Mr. Acme never misses a night when Jessica performs”. Just before Jessica begins singing, Betty adjusts her garter and looks at Valiant, almost as though she is asserting her sexuality before Jessica emerges. This moment emphasizes that although Jessica is hyper sexualized in the film, Betty was the first to experience this sexualization, and her garter played a huge role in that. It was criticized for being too high, too obscene, and yet now, people have moved on to a different sex symbol. But Betty is also on first name basis with Jessica, so perhaps they know each other. Either way, Betty Boop signals the connection between her and Jessica both to Valiant and the audience, suggesting that what Betty represents has not gone anywhere, it’s just drawn a little differently.

The film presents a changing world, one where less people are going to the cartoons, and entire cityscapes are changing with new highways and technology. These innovations threaten to destroy Toon Town in more than one way, both replacing them at the movies and literally destroying the town and killing everyone. By stopping this plan with the help of a very stereotypical noir detective, the film suggests that these cartoons and noir are still relevant, as the noir detective is also seen as era-specific, tied to the 50’s. At the end of the film, we see all the cartoon characters smiling and singing, while the detective walks towards Toon Town. Here, the film suggests that genres and forms don’t disappear, and they work best when combined. Looney Tunes and Noir might feel and look different, but they go well together, as this film demonstrates. They can still make you laugh and recoil, like the famous dip scene with the shoe. Ultimately, when teamed together, these forms remain as relevant as any other form or genre.

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