A 1932 lawsuit attempted to answer the question “who was the real Betty Boop?”
Betty Boop dropped into the 1930s like a bombshell. Where most cartoons were anthropomorphic animals, Betty was human and she was sexy. She was also deliberately childlike, with a big baby head, a high voice, and an air of innocence. (In her first appearances she was actually a poodle, but by 1931 she was completely human.) And then, at the height of Betty Boop’s fame, actress and singer Helen Kane sued the studio for co-opting her identity. Kane was, she claimed, the real Betty Boop. The truth, as it turns out, was more complicated.
The “sexy innocent” was a popular style in the 1920s: an adult’s beauty and availability combined with the wide-eyed innocence and purity of a child. (Britney Spears’ first album …Baby One More Time would later use the same tactic.) Today it comes across as super creepy, but in 1928 Kane was headlining on Broadway with her faux-childlike hit “I Wanna Be Loved by You.”
Kane interspersed that song with her trademark scat-singing, “boop-oop-a-doop.” Four years later, Betty Boop was starring in such animated shorts as… uh… “Boop-Oop-a-Doop.” Like Kane, she had short curly brunette hair. Like Kane, she wore short flapper dresses. And Kane and Betty’s voices were a dead match.
Kane sued the creators of Betty Boop, Fleischer Studios, claiming that they had co-opted her image without permission, credit, or compensation. The lawsuit looked like a slam dunk. But the studio had a secret weapon: Baby Esther.
Baby Esther, born Esther Lee Jones, was a famous singer and dancer who also performed with a baby voice and scat-singing “boops.” The studio response even cited a 1928 performance by Baby Esther that Kane supposedly attended. Betty Boop couldn’t have stolen Kane’s act, they argued, because Kane had stolen it herself.
This is where the history gets a bit murky. Had Kane really taken her image and style from someone else? Baby Esther was black, and American culture has a long looooong history of white performers co-opting black artists’ work. But this time period had many scat singers and many coquettish singers, and Kane’s approach may well have emerged naturally without any specific reference to Baby Esther.
The judge dismissed the case. He accepted the point that scat-singing in a faux-child voice was not owned by Kane, and the point that the studio never used Helen Kane’s name or claimed a connection with Betty Boop in any way.
Much later, animators from Fleischer Studios admitted that Betty Boop was indeed a copy of Helen Kane from the start.