Saturday 28 July 2012

Betty Boop On Trial

The irony was inescapable. Betty Boop sang, “Don’t take my boop-oop-a-doop away!” And Helen Kane claimed Betty did just that to her. That prompted a trial with probably some of the silliest testimony ever heard in a courtroom.

Kane filed a lawsuit on May 4, 1932, demanding damages from the Paramount and Max Fleischer Studios and an injunction stopping them from making Betty Boop cartoons. Kane’s basic argument: she came up with Betty’s phrase “boop-oop-a-doop” so she should reap the windfall from it. But it basically boiled down to this: Kane’s career had peaked. Betty’s was climbing; she even had her own music show on WJZ-NBC, debuting November 18, 1932, with Mae Questal providing her voice.

The case finally went to trial in 1934. By then, Helen Kane had bigger problems than a cartoon character.

● December 29, 1932 – Kane wins a Mexican divorce from Joseph Kane, New York Department store buyer.
● February 1, 1933 – Kane marries Max Hoffman, the son of a dancer. Yeah, a month later.
● April 14, 1933 – Kane is ordered to pay $40,000 plus $6,400 to Irving Trust as Trustee for money paid to her in 1929 by Murray Posner, president of a dress company. She has admitted in court she went out “almost every day and night” with Posner and accepted “very substantial gifts” from him—while she was still married.
● Some time, 1933 – Hoffman deserts her.
● January 31, 1934 – Kane is in a sanitarium in California, recovering from a nervous breakdown.
● March 6, 1934 – Kane sets sail from New York for a “rest” before her big court date.

A column by H.I. Phillips in the Brownsville Herald of June 1, 1932 makes fun of the coming trial, with fake Kane testimony about “boop-oop-a-doop” that drove the judge crazy before dismissing the case. The parody was psychic. That’s exactly what happened.

Take a look at just three of the Associated Press stories during the trial. You can probably read the wire service reporter smirking.

Court in Uproar as Helen Kane ‘Boop-Boop-a-Doops’ for Judge
New York, April 28 (AP)—“Boop-boop-a-doop.” Four little words. Uproar, shouting, objections—in supreme court Justice J. McGoldrick’s somber courtroom.
It was Helen Kane, showing how the “Boop-boop-a-doop,” which she values at $250,000, is really sung.
Miss Kane, suing Max Fleischer, cartoonist, the Fleischer studios and the Paramount-Publix corporation on charges of “unfair competition,” pursed her lips, pouted a bit and
burst forth with a “Boop-boop-a-doop for Justice McGoldrick’s benefit.
Defense counsel jumped to their feet shouting objections. For a moment all semblance of order was lost. Justice McGoldrick seemed to have difficulty keeping a straight face as he scratched notes on a pad.
Miss Kane’s counsel smiled. He had asked her to demonstrate her “Boop-boop-a-doop” for the justice, who alone will decide the suit.
“Boop-boop-a-doop,” she burst forth a second time, shouting to the puzzled court stenographer to “put it down; put it down!”
Miss Kane was silenced by Justice McGoldrick and a couple of her “boops” were eliminated from the record.
“How do you interpolate your boops in your songs?” the counsel asked.
"It’s hard to say,” she explained. “It’s a form of rhythm I created. There’s a bar of music and at the end there’s a stop.”
“Were you ever known as the boop girl?”
“Sometimes,” she replied, smiling, “I was introduced as just ‘Boop.’”

Origin of Sounds Traced by Theater Man at $250,000 Damage Suit Over Cartoons
NEW YORK. May 1.—(AP)—A medley of strange, unintelligible sounds came today from the courtroom where Helen Kane’s big boop-a-doop trial is being heard.
There was a “boop” or two, then a “doo-doo-doo,” finally “wha-da-da-da!”
Everybody—especially the court stenographer—was confused. The stenographer’s knowledge of spelling did not transcend the dictionary.
The assortment of noises came during the attempts of the defense to show that the art of “booping” was not original with Helen Kane—that the responsibility rested with others who had preceded her on the stage.
Miss Kane is seeking $250,000 damages from Max Fleischer, cartoonist, the Fleischer Studios and the Paramount-Publix Corporation on the ground that the Betty Boop screen cartoons constitute larceny on her mannerisms and song technique.
Testifying for the defense, Lou Bolton, theatrical manager, said that one of his stage proteges, Esther Jones, a negro woman, had interpolated songs with syllables similar to Miss Kane’s as long ago as 1925.
In April 1928, Bolton continued, Miss Kane and her manager attended a performance of Miss Jones—whose stage name was Baby Esther—in a New York night club.
Just a few weeks later, he testified. Miss Kane began to “boop” at a theater here.
Then followed an exhaustive retracing of the history of “Boop-Boop-a-Doopery.”
“Baby Esther made funny expressions and interpolated meaningless sounds at the end of each bar of music in her songs,” said Bolton.
“What sounds did she interpolate?” asked Louis Phillips, a defense attorney.
“Boo-Boo-Boo!” recited Bolton.
“What other sounds?”
“Any others?”
“Yes, Wha-Da-Da-Da!” said Bolton, tiring a little.
The court stenographer broke down at this point. He threw up his hands in a gesture of despair and announced he would need aid in spelling the “meaningless” sounds.
Bolton could not give him any aid. Phillips did, however.
Other defense witnesses were Bonnie Poe and Margy Hines, whose voices are used in the sound tracks of the Betty Boop films.
Miss Hines was asked if she knew the meaning of the disputed “Boop-Boop-a-Doop” sounds.
“Well—I call them ‘licks’,” she replied.

Court Upholds Betty Boop In $25,000 Suit
Justice Decides Heroine of Movie Cartoons No Imitator
NEW YORK, May 5.— (AP)— Helen Kane, the “boop-a-doop” singer, today lost her suit for $250,000 against Max Fleischer, cartoonist, the Fleischer Studios, Inc., and the
Paramount-Publix Corporation. Supreme Court Justice Edward J. McGoldrick held that she had failed to prove her contention that the defendant wrongfully appropriated her singing technique in the Betty Boop film cartoons.
Miss Kane said she was deeply shocked at the verdict.
“I consider it very unfair as all my friends believe the cartoons a deliberate caricature of me,” she said.
Samuel R. Weltz, her attorney, said an immediate appeal would be filed.
The “boop-boop-a-doop” trial began April 17, Miss Kane seeking, damages on two grounds, that the defendants had used her picture in violation of the civil rights law and that the cartoons constituted “unfair competition.”
No Proof Shown
Justice McGoldrick decided: “The plaintiff has failed to sustain either cause of action by proof of sufficient probative force.”
In the opinion of the town’s faithful court ringsiders, there has never been a more melodious trial in the city.
At times, during attempts to determine the origin, and even the reasons, for the “boop" style of singing, it resembled a musical comedy. One of the witnesses even tried to tap dance. Justice McGoldrick discouraged this quickly.
Justice McGoldrick’s decision constituted this contribution to musical knowledge: the “baby” technique of singing did not originate with Miss Kane, in his opinion.
The testimony given during the trial was, for the most part, in two-fourths time and very syncopated.
Miss Kane “boop-boop-a-dooped.” Defense witnesses “whad-da-dahed” and “vo-do-deo-doed.” The court stenographer was bewildered. He tried to get help in spelling these noises from one of the defense attorneys.
Viewed Boop Pictures
Several times, Justice McGoldrick left the courtroom to view Betty Boop cartoons in a motion picture projection room.
The defense presented a galaxy of talented performers to show that long before Miss Kane made her debut as a singer of “baby” songs, the practice of interpolating songs with meaningless sounds was common.
Justice McGoldrick and the audience got a thorough education in the vernacular of the theatre. The trial played to a packed house throughout.

Kane lost her appeal on May 1, 1936. By that time:

● May 17, 1935 – Kane finally wins a divorce from her second husband (he died suddenly ten years later).
● August 10, 1935 – Kane is sued for $250 in back rent money after moving from Hollywood to New York without telling her landlord.

News stories appeared in 1936, 1937 and 1938 that Kane was a little less pudgy and was hoping to make a film comeback. No one was interested. Her little-girl flapper routine belonged to another decade, another era even. She spent her time emptying her bank account, travelling to Europe and Mexico, making and breaking an engagement to a Los Angeles car dealer, and then finally settling down in 1939 and marrying the man to whom she sang “I Want to Be Loved by You” on Broadway in “Good Boy” ten years earlier. Simultaneously and coincidentally, Betty settled down, too, due to the 1934 change in the motion picture Production Code.

Helen Kane died on September 26, 1966. Obituaries in the two main wire services omitted references to Betty Boop and the lawsuit many years earlier. Here’s one version.

Helen (Boop-Boop-a-Doop) Kane Dies After Long Cancer Battle
NEW YORK (AP) – Helen Kane, the-boop-boop-a-doop girl of the roaring 20s, died Monday after a 10-year bout with cancer.
By one of those tricks of fate and show business, the 1950 movie “Three Little Words” in which she was heard singing her most famous song — “I Wanna Be Loved By You” — was televised in New York just a few hours before Miss Kane died.
She inserted “boop-boop-adoop” in most of the songs she sang during her stage and movie career, which was at its height in the 20s and early 30s. But she never knew why.
“It was 1928,” she once told an interviewer. “I had just opened at the (New York) Paramount doing “That’s My Weakness Now.’
“Boop-boop-a-doop? I just put it in at one of the rehearsals. A sort of interlude.”
“This thing,” said her husband, Dany Healy, singer, dancer, writer and night club impressario, “goes back to Shakespeare with hey-nonny-nonny.”
Wherever it came from, boop-boop-a-doop took Helen Kane to Hollywood where she starred in nine movies and moved into the $8,000 a week class.
“Money was falling off trees,” she said some years after retiring in 1935. “I once got $5,000 at one of those big society parties just to sing four or five choruses of ‘Button Up Your Overcoat.’”
After leaving the theatre, she said she “bought houses, swimming pools, invested in businesses.”
“The only trouble,” said Healy, “was that there weren’t any businessmen in those businesses.”
When cancer struck 10 years ago, Miss Kane was trying for a comeback. Even after four operations she insisted she wanted to keep going “until they wheel me off.”
A requiem mass will be sung at St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church in Jackson Heights, N.Y., at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, with burial at Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn, N.Y.

While the trial focused on the similarity between Helen’s and Betty’s singing, and somewhat on their appearance, it didn’t deal with the huge difference between the two, the reason that Betty maintains her popularity even to this day. Helen was a novelty singer. Betty had more than that. The Fleischer Studio had its own peculiar sense of humour that was injected into the Betty cartoons. They’re fun to watch, at least the pre-1934 Code cartoons are.

One could say Helen Kane was from a time of reckless and self-indulgent spending, extra-marital sex and wide-eyed media attention. But the entertainment world really hasn’t really changed a bit, has it?


  1. Poop-Boop-a-Doopin Reply:

    Well thats some great news although the character Betty Boop was actually a caricature of Kane as seen in Dizzy Dishes. Helen was originally flattered with the character but when Betty started to become more populer from 1932, Helen had enough and launched the suit.

    There is proof that Betty was based on Kane.

    1. The voice's provided by the voices of Betty Boop were impressions of Kane. It has always been hinted that Mae Questel was Helen Kane's double, she did win a contest after all.

    2. Grim Natwick used a photograph of Helen Kane when creating Betty Boop, Paramount decided to base the character upon Kane.

    Just think, if HELEN KANE had appeared in a film entitled DANGEROUS NAN MCGREW 1930 why on earth would the Betty Boop character do the same thing one year after in 1931. (OBVIOUS CARICATURE)

    3.Baby Esther? Well thats great news to finally find out that her name was Esther Jones, but her actual scat lyrics were not "Boo Boo Boo" and "Doo Doo Doo"

    The truth is she interpolated "do-do-de-do-ho-de-wa-da-de-da" between the bars of music in popular songs, not Boo Boo Boo and Doo Doo Doo. Besides the early sound film broke inbetween the so-called Boop sequence.

    In my conclusion the judge was hoodwinked! or he took bribes.

    Yes the baby singing was common, but Helen was the one populer around that time using the scat lyrics she made POPULER!

    Btw her original scat lyrics were POOP, not Boop, all the PUBLIC mistook her POOPS for BOOPS so she became the Boop Boop a Doop Girl.

    Like the truth states:

    ■One day, Dave Fleischer handed Grim a photograph of singer, Helen Kane and asked him to design a caricature. Fleischer had found a sound-alike, and planned to use her in the upcoming Talkartoon, "Dizzy Dishes". Grim exaggerated Kane’s wide eyes and rosebud mouth, creating a slightly coarse, but strikingly original design. A few weeks later, Dave asked Grim to design a girlfriend for Bimbo to star as the "fair young maiden" in a cartoon adaptation of the popular song, "Barnacle Bill the Sailor". Grim streamlined and refined his caricature of Kane for the part. But Dave Fleischer objected, insisting that since Bimbo was a dog, his girlfriend should also be a dog.

    Btw this was an amazing article i give this 5 stars, i loved reading it.

  2. The film of "Baby" Esther Jones was a double system sound technique like Vitaphone. Lou Fleischer told me the whole story. The film did not "break" at the point of the Boop-Ooop-a-Doop" part. They did not show this in court. What happened was that the print had been spliced in several places due to breakage and went out of sync at the crucial point due to the lost frames. Lou and Kitty Pfister, head Film Cutter stayed up all night locating spots to insert black film slugs to replace the lost frames to put the crucial spot back in sync. A new married print with optical sound was produced, the Paramount News Lab being kept open all night waiting for this to present as evidence the next morning. The remark about Justice McGoldrick being "bribed" is a conclusion not based on fact. There was enough remaining evidence to prove Miss Kane's case, however since there is a Film Daily Trade Ad that places a picture of Helen Kane next to an early version of Betty Boop. Further evidence of can be found in the tampering with the original negative to STOPPING THE SHOW, which was built around Mae Questel's stage act of impressions, which prompted Max Fleischer in hiring her. This, the first official Betty Boop series cartoon consists of a series of imitations of contemporary celebrities. Each is introduced by a photograph of that celebrity with animated lips and the voice of that celebrity coming from the picture. Only the voice of Maurice Chevalier is authentic. The voice of Fanny Brice is an imitation by Mae Questel. Oddly, the sequence begins with Betty going right into "That's My Weakness Now," a song made popular by Helen Kane. This song is not set up by the celebrity picture on the easel as the others are. You hear an audio splice from the audience applause going to the song. At two points there is a Long Shot, one of which Pans from the stage to the audience. In the background is an image on the easel that looks like the image of Helen Kane. Why else would it be there? This direct reference to Helen Kane was deliberately removed from the negative so that a new print could be shown in court that would not indicate an edit. But it clearly was removed from the negative. Paramount took advantage of the ignorance of film technology on the part of the court, which accepted what they saw not knowing what had been done to alter the evidence.

    1. I found this information striking to learn as we have been fans of Betty Boop for many years and we are learning about the feud now. I am not sure what others may post, but I feel considering all the evidence that if you claim a manner that is not yours, then this is similar to plagiarism and that is not tolerable in the world of literature or art. Plagiarism is very much looked down on and Helen Kane was a plagiarist. Now, she should have gotten permission and recognized Baby Esther.

    2. You could say the same about Lady Gaga? Who is alive to this day and doesn't get permission, there are plenty women today who "TAKE" from other performers but do they ask for permission? No they don't, you should start on them because they are alive and Helen Kane isn't so she is not relevant, why should she be? Baby Esther was doing her Boop routine in the Cotton Club for quite a while and she got nowhere, she wasn't even a headliner.

    3. What Mr Pointer fails to mention is that the film of Esther was actually filmed in December 1928, ie. seven months AFTER Helen Kane had started using the phrase "Boop boop a doop".
      What's more, on the film Esther performs three songs that had earlier been popularized by Kane.
      Or, to put it in simpler terms, it was a film of Esther impersonating Helen Kane.

  3. She was just another White person who stole the routine from a black woman and this is why she lost her 250,000 law suit because it was proven that she was not the original. For years Whites took credit for black inventions because that was how those days were. No surprise to me that she would see "Baby" Esther and know she could steal her routine and cash in on it because she was white. She did cash in, she bought homes, businesses, traveled and basically didn't have to struggle. While Esther who could never be anything but a talented black woman and be ripped off without compensation.

    1. On the surface, this seems so. However, it is not a simple as that. Since the test film on longer exists, we do not know what the "nature" of the songs were that Esther Jones sang, using the "Boop-Oop-A-Doop scat, nor are we sure if she sang in a babyish manner, even though she went by the name "Baby" Esther. Based on that, it seems largely possible. What Helen Kane "stole" from Esther Jones was applied to novelty songs with sexual innuendoes, which were hugely popular. Aside from stealing the syllable, we are not sure to which degree the "theft" went since we do not know if Esther Jones sang similar songs of a "risque" mode.

      The fact that many others had a similar delivery, it was difficult to determine who was first, especially since Miss Jones' Agent testified in court that he had suggested this form of singing to his client. But because Miss Kane made the claim as the originator in her suit over BETTY BOOP, this turned the case in the direction to disprove her claim as originator. The surfacing of the film of Esther Jones proved that Miss Kane did not originate the use of the scat syllables, "Boop-Oop-A-Doop." So in this, her performance on film was considered "first to invent" in the eyes of the court, and Helen Kane lost the suit.

    2. Not at all.
      There was no actual evidence that "Baby Esther" ever actually did a Helen Kane like act. There is now a book "Helen Kane and Betty Boop: On Stage and On Trial" by James D. Taylor Jr. which includes lengthy transcripts from the trial.

      Other historians of the era, such as Leslie Cabarga and Robert O'Meally, were convinced that the "early test film of Baby Esther" was a fraud, only made in 1934. (And isn't it very odd that this film was then almost immediately 'lost'?)

      The other key issue is this: If Baby Esther did indeed originate the Betty Boop style, why did she then disappear without trace? Surely as the true originator of the style, there was money to be made, if this 'fact' had come to light? Instead we see the exact opposite is true. It was Helen Kane's legal team who were very keen to find Esther, and put her on the stand, and the Fleischer/Bolton people who said that "she was probably in Paris". (It was shown that they knew full well that she was really in Kentucky at that point.)

      One must also take note of the facts that the entire personas of both Helen Kane and Betty Boop relied heavily on both sexuality, and a somewhat stereotypical New Yorkism.

      Baby Esther was born and raised in Illinois. Could you imagine either Betty Boop or Helen Kane without that Noo Yawk voice?

      Baby Esther was under 10 years old at the time Kane allegedly 'stole' her persona. So, could you imagine a girl, under ten, sexualized ala Betty Boop?

      Nobody claims that Helen Kane originated "baby singing". What it was was that Helen Kane was a unique combination of various facets. Esther Jones very obviously was not that same combination, not by any stretch of the imagination. She sang in a little girl voice(and even that is debatable, as she was best known as a Florence Mills impersonator), and she "made sounds" during songs. Well, Louis Armstrong had been doing that since before Esther was even born.(the interpolations, not the baby voice...)

      Again, it's the totality. You can pick apart that Helen Kane wasn't the first to use interpolations.(But neither was Esther). You can pick apart that Helen Kane wasn't the first to sing in a little girl voice.(But neither was Esther). But Helen Kane WAS the first to combine various different things into a new, unique whole, that was quintessentially Helen Kane. And Betty Boop was very clearly modeled on that, as Grim Natwick openly admitted in later years.