An LP of Helen Kane “the Boop-Boop-a-Doop” Girl!” has been listed on EBay. Bidding starts at $59.99.
1903 – 1966
Helen Kane is one of those performers you either love, or you want to strangle within 30 seconds. I fall into the first category (though I sympathize with the second—I have a baby-talking coworker who still lives only because I have an iPod to drown her out). Helen would be forgotten today if not for that thieving bitch Betty Boop, who pulled an All About Eve and stole Helen’s looks, her voice and her career. Next time (and this happens to you every day, I’m sure) someone says, “Helen Kane provided the voice for Betty Boop,” you have my permission to sock them right on the beezer.
Helen was a vaudeville star of the late 1920s, with a good strong singing voice; her scat interpolations (boop-boop-a-doop, vo-de-o-do and others) being her hook. Paramount grabbed her at the dawn of the talkies, and she made half-a-dozen films for them in 1929 and ’30, usually playing the heroine’s wise-cracking pal. And—for my money—she was adorable. Tough, sharp, funny, and a good singer and dancer (watch her hoofing a mean “Prep Step” in Sweetie).
Then in 1930—right smack in the middle of Helen’s movie career—Fleischer Studios decided to cash in and create a cartoon caricature, Betty Boop (who started out as a dog girlfriend for Bimbo; Betty soon became human and Bimbo remained a dog, their hot romance undimmed by what others might consider a handicap). A series of Betty Boop soundalikes were hired for the voice-overs; the most famous, Mae Questel, later admitted she was spotted while doing a Helen Kane impression.
Problem was, the Betty Boop cartoons were much better than any of Helen’s Paramount films: funnier, weirder, naughtier. By 1931, Helen was reduced to making short subjects and back touring in vaudeville, while the Betty Boops only got better and better (till the Production Code turned her into a wholesome cutie-pie and ruined everything—the series finally ground to a long-overdue halt in 1939). Helen, as any sensible person would do, sued the Fleischers’ asses, for appropriation of her image and her voice. Frustratingly, the trial notes no longer exist (and believe me, I looked, to the annoyance of the nice people in the New York court archives). But we know from newspaper coverage that the Fleischers and the voice-over actresses shamelessly perjured themselves (as Mae Questel later admitted), and the judge tossed Helen’s case out. Watching Helen Kane, and then watching a Betty Boop cartoon, you want to go back in time and smack the living daylights out of a certain Judge McGoldrick.
Helen Kane’s story ends in professional frustration but personal happiness. She retired from show business in 1935 and settled into a third, happy, marriage to restaurateur and man-about-town Dan Healy (not to be confused with Ted Healy, who unleashed The Three Stooges upon the world). The couple lived a paycheck-to-paycheck lower-middle-class life in Queens, surrounded by family (Helen’s niece sounds exactly like her). Through the 1950s and early ’60s, Helen tried for a comeback, doing the kind of character roles being played by Marion Lorne, Shirley Booth and Elizabeth Patterson, but ill health and her New York locale hampered her efforts. Still, she was funny and philosophical: I have a long taped interview she did late in life, and there’s not a touch of bitterness or regret.
Helen Kane died after a long bout of cancer in 1966, and Betty Boop lives on. I leave you with a YouTube clip of Helen (accompanied by one of my heart-throbs, the wonderful Skeets Gallagher) at her best, in her third film, Pointed Heels (1929): now, seriously, don’t you want to bust right into that courtroom and shout “what the hell do you mean Betty Boop was not based on Helen Kane, you idiots?!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1e3j30NnEs