Friday, January 15, 2010

The Real Betty Boop

Helen Kane. Born August 4, 1904, Ms. Kane was a popular American singer, best known for her "Boop-Boop-a-Doop" trademark and her signature song, "I Wanna Be Loved By You" 
It has been reported that Kane's mother reluctantly paid $3.00 for her daughter's costume as a queen in Kane's first theatrical role at school. This meager expense proved to be a wise investment; Helen went on to perform professionally onstage with the Marx Brothers not too long after she reached her fifteenth birthday.

As she took on the status of a singing sensation there were Helen Kane dolls and Helen Kane look-alike contests, appearances on radio and in nightclubs in addition to her continuing to tour the Orpheum Circuit. By late 1928 and early 1929 she had a huge cult following. With the advent of the Betty Boop cartoons, however, Helen began to feel her celebrity status was being infringed upon and she sued Paramount Studios and Max Fleischer charging "unfair competition and wrongful appropriation." Unfortunately, she lost this $250,000 lawsuit, and although she continued to perform, her popularity was never the same.

The trial dragged on for two years, the testimony getting more and more comical as Helen Kane and Betty Boop films were screened by Judge McGoldrick (no jury was called). Betty Boop voice-overs Mae Questel, Margy Hines and Bonnie Poe were brought in to testify; Helen denied copying her own singing style from black child performer Baby Esther or from a 1914 French song, “Bou-Bou-Ba-Ba-Bou.” The stenographer nearly had a nervous breakdown transcribing Boop-a-Doops and Bou-Bou-Ba-Ba-Bou’s. Amazingly, McGoldrick ruled against Helen in 1934. The judge “held that she had failed to prove that the defendants had appropriated her ‘baby’ style of singing,” according to one paper. “I consider it very unfair,” Helen quite naturally stated, “as all of my friends believe the cartoons a caricature of me.” Watching Helen and Betty side by side today, it’s impossible to fathom Judge McGoldrick’s decision.

That ruling wasn’t Helen’s only trouble: in 1933 she had been fined $46,500 for a bad business loan. She’d invested in a dress firm through one Murray Posner in 1930; when the firm went bankrupt, Helen was left holding the bag.

Indeed, the only good news for Helen was the show “Shady Lady,” which opened in July of 1933. “I am not going to talk any more baby talk and they will not get me to say Boop-Boop-a-Doop,” she insisted. “I am going to be a sort of miniature Mae West.” After Shady Lady closed, Helen went back to the grind of vaudeville, radio and nightclubs. 

In 1934 she went on a strict salt-free diet and exercise regime and dropped 43 pounds. She was unrecognizable: slim, with longer hair and delicate bone structure which had been lost under her baby fat. At 31, she looked like a Hollywood ingénue.

But in 1935, Helen Kane dropped out of show business. “I was tired, worn out, and I quit,” she explained in the 1950’s. “I could have gone on. I bought a home in California, went to Europe—a command performance before the King and the Queen of England—to Mexico, and spent a lot of money. Followed the seasons. I bought houses, swimming pools, invested in business.” But, she added, “I worked too hard until I finally knocked myself out. It was crazy, I was rich but I wasn’t having any fun. Before I was famous I always had a good time.”

Helen wed for the third and final time in 1939. Her husband was master of ceremonies and well-known Broadwayite Dan Healy; the bride was 36, the groom 52. They opened a nightclub on 52nd Street, but it lasted only a year. Theirs was a happy marriage, and Helen decided to settle down “and be Mrs. Healy for awhile.” She faded from public view in the 1940’s. 

Fame came calling again in 1950 when MGM filmed Three Little Words, the story of songwriters Kalmar and Ruby. Starlet Debbie Reynolds was cast as Helen Kane and given the song “I Want to Be Loved By You.” Helen was called in to dub Debbie’s voice, and was suddenly back in the limelight, at the age of 53. Television beckoned, interviewers were calling, and she even played the Palace once again in 1956. “With maturity has come a wonderful sense of humor and a great heart. She’s fat and funny and the face is as beautiful as ever,” wrote one reporter. In the late 1950’s, Helen developed breast cancer and underwent to mastectomies. Her cancer spread to her stomach, and Ms. Kane died September 26, 1966 at the age of 63.


Miss Emmi said...

I never knew this backstory, how fascinating! Thanks for that!

Richard @ The Bewildered Brit said...

What a truly fascinating post! I had no idea. Thank you!