Obituary: Mae Questel

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The Independent Online
Mae Questel, voice-artist: born New York 13 September 1908; married (one son); died New York 4 January 1998.

She had the widest of eyes that bespoke the purest of innocence, while the heave of her beautiful bosom and the curve of her lovely thighs exposed beneath the shortest of skirts - some 40 years before the mini was invented - portrayed every erotic thought the mind of man was heir to.

This was Betty Boop, the unique embodiment of sex and purity in one fulsome flapper, the dream girl of the Twenties who drove every cast member of her cartoons eye-popping wild. Betty Boop it was who sang and danced her short-skirted way through a sequence of cartoon films unique in animation history, only stopped short in her high-heeled tracks by an outraged Hayes Office, the American film censors.

In recent times, her black-and-white five-minute frollics were colourised for the television generation and caused the second sensation of Betty's long life. The first came early in her career when Miss Helen Kane, the original "boop-boop-a-doop girl" of stage, screen and recordings, sued the Fleischer Brothers for pinching her act. Max, Dave and their pen-and- ink Betty won the day, however, and Betty continued with a new voice impersonating Helen Kane while singing such saucily similar songs as "Don't Take My Boop-Boop-a-Doop Away".

The young lady who took on Betty Boop's voice for a trial run when in her twenties, and made an almost lifelong career of cartoon voices from then on, was Mae Questel. She was not the original Betty, being preceded by Margie Heinz, Kate Wright, Bonnie Poe and Little Ann Little, a pocket- sized pretty who did one Boop film, Dizzy Dishes (1930), and then toured as Boop in Vaudeville whilst a cartoonist called Pauline Comanor drew her pictorial persona on an easel.

Mae Questel was, however, more of a mimic, and had been doing an impersonation act on the theatre stage. The director Dave Fleischer gave her a test and from then on she was a cartoon regular, voicing everyone the studio drew from Betty Boop to Popeye's skinny girlfriend Olive Oyl, and a couple of times even the one-eyed sailorman himself.

Interviewed by the animation historian Leslie Cabarga, Questel said she seemed to become Betty Boop in life, not just with the way she talked, but also the way she walked. "It took me a long time to lower my voice from Betty's squeak and get away from the character," she said. She had to, of course, when the studio finally dropped the Boop series in 1939, but by then Olive Oyl had taken over. Questel promptly developed the angular arm gestures and wonky legs.

Betty Boop herself was created by the staff cartoonist Grim Natwick, and, incredible as it may seem, she was originally a female dog. Fleischer's new series of Talkartoons starred a semi-human hound called Bimbo and the sixth of the series, Dizzy Dishes, had the dog running a restaurant. The cartoon cabaret was an as yet unchristened female dog. Natwick recalled:

I had a song sheet of Helen Kane, the boop-a-doop girl who was in Paramount on Parade (1929), and the dog's spit-curls came from her. So I just designed a little dog and put cute feminine legs on her. I suppose I used a French poodle for the basic idea of the character.

When the producer Max Fleischer heard of the new cartoon star's audience appeal, he ordered her to become a full female. So Natwick turned her long ears into earrings.

Natwick's fellow animators loved drawing Betty, and she became sexier by the cartoon, and always sang a new boop-a-doop song every time. Bimbo the dog was reduced in status from stardom to support, finally becoming Betty's pet. Betty herself even appeared bra-less as a hoola-hoola dancer in more than one cartoon, finally doing the same again in the 1933 film that introduced Popeye the Sailor to cinema audiences.

It all became too much for the censors, and the Fleischer Studio was forced to clean up their Boop act. Despite the instant decline from adult to juvenile entertainment, there were over 90 Boop tunes produced before they closed the series in 1939.

Mae Questel's cartoon-voice career continued with the Fleischers and beyond, when Famous Studio took over the production of cartoons for the parent company, Paramount. She voiced over 150 Popeye films, and made records of boop-a-doop songs. One such, a version of Shirley Temple's famous "Good Ship Lollipop", is said to have sold some two million copies.

In later post-war years, she turned to acting, but frequently returned to the cartoon studios to voice such new characters as Little Audrey and Casper the Friendly Ghost. But it is as the immortal voice of Betty Boop she will be remembered.

- Denis Gifford