Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Rise and Fall of Betty Boop

Let's wrap our five-part interview with toy collector Mel Birnkrant with this question: Did the sensibility behind the Hays Code for movies in 1934 filter down to children's toys or animation in that period? I'm thinking of Betty Boop. Didn't she become less sexy and more cutesy? What examples could you show for this?

Mel says: "The Hays Code literally led to Betty Boop's untimely death. They made her button up her mouth and her dress.  And in the end, even her proportions changed, as she travelled down the road that led to the Uncanny Valley. I just spent a miserable afternoon watching Betty Boops Final cartoons.  Betty’s image is very popular today, but few of those who wear her image on their clothes and fashion accessories actually know her story. 

"To put it in a 'mutt-shell,' she began life as a dog, and not a particularly attractive one. Here she is in making her first appearance in a cartoon called Dizzy Dishes. Bimbo too looked different then.

"Soon, Betty transformed into a human. Nonetheless, she still chose Bimbo as her boyfriend.  Here they are, Ahem, in bed. 

"Soon Betty got much better looking, This image below presents her at her most perfect,  Of all the images of betty Boop this one remains for me the most iconic. I used it on the box for a Betty Boop doll I designed half a century ago. At that moment in time, 1970, she had become virtually unknown. Thus, this was the first Betty Boop product to appear since 1939.  I stumbled across one of these in mint condition on eBay, just the other night. For Twenty dollars I couldn’t resist buying it. 

"Betty Boop’s career spanned a short nine years, from 1930 to 1939. Halfway through her journey, in 1934 the Hays Bureau clipped her wings. The comparative drawings below graphically demonstrate how they compelled Betty to change.


"Nonetheless, she carried on for a five more years with her attire and innocent sexuality toned down. In spite of this, her delightful voice and sparkling personality remained the same. In this latter part of her career, she stopped hanging out with animals and clowns. Bimbo and Koko both disappeared, and her world was suddenly populated with human beings of the same species as her own. She also got a puppy called Pudgy, who often stole the show.  Slowly, it was all downhill from there. 

"The official model sheet below conveys how Betty had changed by 1938. Her head became much smaller, she also became taller, and her proportions were more conventional.  Her original outrageously stylized proportions had been easier to accept than this newer version. Now with a body that was more anatomically correct, her slightly oversized head seemed uncomfortably out of place.. 


"Bettys final cartoons are hard to watch.  In this one from 1938, Betty, looking spanking clean, attempts to discipline a monkey. That was a high point compared to what was to follow in 1939.  

"In a short titled, “Musical Mountaineers,” Betty encountered hostile hillbillies who were definitely not of the Beverly Hills variety. Fortunately, she survived, Her career was not so lucky.

"Worse still, was a 1939 cartoon called, Rhythm On The Reservation. By any standard it would be considered outrageously racist. In it, Betty wins over a menacing tribe of Native Americans by teaching them how to play musical instruments.  This image reveals how dramatically Betty’s look had changed. 

"In what amounted to the final indignity, the studio forced Betty to introduce her own replacement, “Sally Swing.” It appears that the studio saw Sally as a big deal. 

"They even created a poster for her. They hoped that Sally would take Bettys place for the next decade. Sally’s voice was purported to be that of 15 year old Rose Marie.  

"Here we see the two of them together, along with Sally’s poster, upon which Betty appears in name only."


Thanks, Mel Birnkrant for sharing these fascinating guest posts about popular culture in the 1930s. For more stories of vintage character toys and the art of toy invention, visit his website.  

This series:

Part 1: Materials and Workmanship of 1930s Toys

Part 2: 1930s Toys, Comic Types and Characters

Part 3: Why Did Animation Flourish in the 1930s?

Part 4: What They Cut from King Kong

Sunday, August 9, 2020

What They Cut from King Kong

Continuing the series on the popular culture of the 1930s, I asked toy collector and inventor Mel BirnkrantFrankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and many other great monster movies come from the 1930s. How do those films relate to the economic background that they came out of?

Mel says: "I guess you would call it Escapism, or getting away from the monstrous reality of the Depression to embrace reel monsters instead. Compared to 1930s reality, Frankenstein was barely scary. The ultimate cinematic Monsterpiece that set the bar sky high for all the creatures that followed after was King Kong.

"King Kong was not quite the pussy cat that millions thought him to be. When the film was re-released in 1938, Hollywood censors cut out several scenes that they considered to be either too violent or too sexy. Thus many of us grew up thinking Kong was not a ruthless killer, but essentially a nice guy who was just misunderstood.

"In 1972 a copy of the original movie was discovered in England, and copies of the film with the missing sequences restored have since been released. One of the most stunning aspects of these missing scenes is the contrast in quality. The copy found in England was dramatically superior to the copies of the movie that had been copied and recopied over the years.

"The missing sequences include this shocking scene, in which Kong exercises his dentures to masticate a tribe of natives, gnawing them to death, then, stomping on them for good measure.

"Another sequence that is genuinely horrible is this one in which Kong reaches into a high-rise window and pulls out the wrong girl, upside-down. When he realizes it isn’t Fay Wray, he casually drops her to the ground.

"The most fabled of the missing scenes is this, in which Kong playfully undresses Fay, then, sniffs his digits.

"There was also a legendary lost spider pit scene that was repudiated to be removed after the first showing, at the time the film was released in 1933. In 2005, Peter Jackson recreated the scene in the style of the original, based on a few surviving stills and drawings."

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Why Did Animation Flourish in the 1930s?

Continuing the series on Toys of the 1930s, I asked toy collector and inventor Mel BirnkrantFor all the lean times and economic challenges, the 1930s strike me as a time of incredible creativity, too. In the decade from 1928-1938 you go all the way from Steamboat Willie to Snow White. There's all the surrealism of Fleischer, too. How do you explain the innovation that grows out of those tough times?
"Throughout the Great Depression, the enchanting pages of the Funny Papers offered the world a welcome diversion, and one that was nearly free. These pleasant personalities snuck into our lives, hiding among the pages of the daily newspaper, and they appeared there in glorious full color every Sunday. This simple form of in house entertainment was the TV of its day.

"Meanwhile, the movie industry had been growing dramatically, throughout the 1920s. Even in the depths of the depression, many families could afford the modest fee that was required to spend an entire evening escaping from reality at the movies once or twice a week. 
"Now, beginning with the advent of sound in the early 1930s, Hollywood burst into flame in a great conflagration of creativity. 

"This ignited the Golden Age of Animation, and the World would never see the likes of it again. Sadly, the Second World War abruptly snuffed it out."
Books on animation history:
Mel Birnkrant website

Friday, August 7, 2020

1930s Toys: Comic Types and Characters

I asked toy collector Mel BirnkrantAs you get into the 1930s, was there a difference in the imagery, the sorts of characters, and the "attitude" of the comic types? 

Today, it’s hard to visualize how small the toy industry really was for the first half of the 20th Century.  What in those days would be considered a bestselling toy would qualify as a flop today. Most toy designs tended to be generic. Then, starting in the 1920s, comic character toys began to appear. For the most part, these images were derived from the Funny Papers. Thanks to which whole families of popular personalities appeared on America’s doorsteps every day.  

Here is the complete set of bisque figurines based on 1920s comic strip characters. They were referred to  as “nodders,” and were made in Germany, in 1928.  

1920s Comic Characters also generated a growing repertoire of tin windup toys., colorful and always sculptural.

With the introduction of sound movies in the 1930s, a great explosion of creativity took place. With it, came the Great God Mickey. His image dominated the toy industry for the next 10 years.  Compared to him, the Funny Paper personalities of the 1920s seemed tame. They were politely whispering, while Mickey Mouse and a growing number of his animated friends were shouting at us from the silver screen.

Throughout the 1930s, Mickey was the undisputed King of Toys. This 1937 cover of Playthings Magazine celebrates The Eighth Year Of His Reign.


Read more at Mel Birnkrant's website

This series

Part 1: Materials and Workmanship of 1930s Toys

Part 2: 1930s Toys, Comic Types and Characters

Part 3: Why Did Animation Flourish in the 1930s?

Part 4: What They Cut from King Kong

Part 5: How Betty Boop Changed in the 1930s

Windows to Forgotten Worlds

Building windows to forgotten worlds. Thanks to Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine for profiling me and the field of imaginative realism.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

1930s Toys: Materials and Worksmanship

How did toys and comics change during the Great Depression? I interviewed toy collector and inventor Mel Birnkrant. Over the next few days, I'll share his answers. 

Question 1: If you compare toys from the 1920s to toys of the 1930s, was there a noticeable change in materials or workmanship? 

Mel Birnkrant says: "The materials and workmanship of toys changed dramatically during that period of time. There were several factors at play. The first was country of origin. Hand in hand with that was the changing materials from which the toys were made. 

"But most importantly, to understand toy history, one must see it as an ongoing quest for new materials, with which to render and manufacture objects in 3D.
"Throughout the first quarter of the 20th Century, most toys were made in Germany. German toys were often made of wood. Hand carving was commonplace and considered manufacturing. This early wooden Mickey brush holder was “Handufactured,” (a term I just made up,) in Germany.

"Cast iron was also used worldwide to render objects that could be duplicated in quantity. Although cast iron toys were durable, they were also extremely heavy. This cast iron Andy Gump car, made in the 1920s is considered a classic.
"Throughout several centuries, dolls were mostly cast in bisque, and most of these were made in Germany. Heavy and easily breakable, bisque was then the only means by which one could replicate a realistic face. Some doll collectors would maintain that this is still true today. This Rose O’Neil Kewpie is an exquisite example of the lifelike delicacy that German bisque achieved.

"Tin toys were another means by which one could render objects in 3D. Tin imposed a stylized look of its own. This Barney Google windup toy is a good example of that principal. The Image is transformed and enhanced by the limitations of the tin medium to, perhaps unintentionally, achieve a stylized elegance. To see this toy as a stunning sculpture, visualize it twelve feet tall.
"Throughout the first quarter of the 20th century, Germany was to the toy industry what Hong Kong is today. Then, in the early 1930s, Japan stepped onto the stage, and with them came a new material, celluloid. Suddenly, there was a cheaper, lighter means to render images in 3D. 

This skating Mickey is an excellent example of the beauty and perfection that celluloid could achieve.

"Although, this new material could render almost any image with newfound fidelity, it also developed a look and language of its own that was totally unique, and highly Geometric. Celluloid was also Depression friendly. Unlike toys made of wood, bisque and cast iron, toys made of celluloid were lightweight and cheap.
"After the Second World War, celluloid which was extremely flammable was deemed illegal, and overnight replaced by the ever-growing list of modern plastics we know today.

"Throughout these years, toys were also made in the USA. Early in the 1930s, new materials were introduced here. Dolls might now be made of rubber and also of a paste like material, called composition. Each of these new materials enabled a unique look that altered the appearance of the original subject matter, in some instances for the better. 

"In my humble opinion, the entire series of composition and wood jointed dolls, created by doll maker, Joseph Callus were always exquisite sculptures. The restrictions of this medium lent a new dimension to the comic characters it portrayed.
"Here is an exquisite pair of composition jointed dolls by Joseph Callus. They represent Betty Boop and her then boyfriend Bimbo, at the peak of their refinement. This particular Betty Boop doll was originally owned by Max Fleisher.

"The Second World War put an end to these visually exciting playthings. And after the war, toys were never quite the same, or quite as great. Wartime toys were often awful, mostly made of paper. And what few toys there were, were made entirely in the USA. 
Here we see a cardboard Lionel train. Much to my disappointment, Santa brought me one of these in 1943.
Tomorrow: Changes in Imagery

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Mønsted's Open Landscapes

Peder Mork Mønsted is best known for his scenes of forest streams, so it's interesting to see what he does with open fields. 

Heather Covered Hills by Peder Mork Mønsted contrasts the greens with the reddish tinge of the heather. 

A view of Borresö from Himmelbjerget, Denmark, 1912 by Peder Mork Mønsted.

Below are some larger scans of the images.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Alexander Hugo Bakker Korff

Alexander Hugo Bakker Korff (1824 – 1882), was a Dutch painter of genre scenes in the 19th century. 

Korff is best known for his scenes of women in domestic situations.  This one shows a woman rummaging around in a rag basket for making a patchwork quilt. This painting is quite small: 21 cm (8.2 in) by 16 cm (6.2 in). 

He lived in a house with his two posh, unmarried sisters. They would pose wearing items from his collection of 18th century costumes. 

This painting is called the Secondhand Dealer, and it's about 5 x 7 inches.

This one is called "Under the Palm." 

Two prosperous women listen in reverie as another woman plays a romantic tune.

Probably most of his inspiration came from Gerard Dou and Gabriël Metsu, who lived in his town of Leyden. His scenes are also reminiscent of Ernest Meissonier and Norman Rockwell, with frontal lighting, a stage-like space, fine detail, old fashioned setting, and a charming human situation. 

Two women say grace over a luncheon of soup on an October day, and one of them has her dog in a basket.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Becher Typologies

Hilla and Bernd Becher were photographers who captured sets of matching black and white photos of related industrial objects. 

Water Towers by Hilla and Bernd Becher

They needed overcast days to do their work, because the forms were always lit by indirect light.
Blast Furnaces by Hilla and Bernd Becker

They worked as a team, traveling around Europe and North America documenting the disappearing industrial architecture and arranging them in typologies reminiscent of natural history collections.
Water Towers by Hilla and Bernd Becher

They were attracted by the unintentional sculptural beauty of these forms. Bringing the images together invited viewers to compare and contrast. They said: "We photographed water towers and furnaces because they are honest. They are functional, and they reflect what they do - that is what we liked."

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Another View of Saint Eulalia

John William Waterhouse painted the martyrdom of Eulalia, which created a sensation at the Royal Academy when it was exhibited in 1885. 
Saint Eulalia exhibited 1885 by John William Waterhouse

Tradition says that she was a devout Christian who was killed by Romans in 304AD for refusing to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and for insulting the emperor Maximian. She declared her Christian faith and challenged the authorities to martyr her. While she was being tortured, "She taunted her torturers all the while, and as she expired a dove flew out of her mouth. This frightened away the soldiers and allowed a miraculous snow to cover her nakedness, its whiteness indicating her sainthood."

Catherine Nixey’s book The Darkening Age presents a different view of Eulalia, based on Roman sources. According to Nixey, the presiding magistrate Flavious Probus wrote that a fervent group of these early Christians were indulging in a suicide cult, hoping for a ticket to the afterlife. 

Nixey quotes Romans trying to talk Eulalia out of killing herself: “Don’t you see the beauty of this pleasant weather?” Probus pleaded with Eulalia. “There will be no pleasure to come your way if you kill your own self.” 

Which was she, an innocent martyr or a suicidal fanatic? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Rokeby Remote Learning Course

An artist and researcher named Courtney Clinton has found a trove of letters and sketchbooks in the Rokeby Museum that reveal how remote learning was handled a century ago.

Sketch of Honeysuckle Tree Branch, 1901, 
Rachael Robinson Elmer (1878–1919)

In a series of blog posts, Courtney will narrate the artistic journey of of one student, Rachael Robinson Elmer, who learned to draw and paint by means of an exchange of letters, drawing exercises, and critiques from a master.. 

To involve the rest of us online, she has invited us to join into the learning process with a free 12 week drawing challenge. 

She'll give everybody two weeks for each exercise. Here's the link to her first blog post and challenge. Future challenges will include doing an old master copy, a still life, a portrait, an illustration, and more. It's a great way to learn to draw and paint while learning how people learned in the past.

I asked her a few questions: 

1. How was art instruction in Rachael's time different compared to now?
Teachers were much tougher 100 years ago! Rachael is 12 when she first starts the course and her teacher Ernest Knaufft is not afraid to tell her when her drawing is “not good”. To a contemporary audience he might come off as mean but it’s extraordinary to watch how quickly Rachael progresses under his instruction.

When you read through the letters you understand that his criticism is very focused on objective truths like proportions, structure and line quality. His critics aren't a personal attack. He is trying to help her train her eye.

2. How would you describe Rachael's outlook toward nature?
Rachael grew up in Ferrisburg, Vermont on a Merino sheep farm. She is very connected to the land. Her father is a nature writer and she seems to emulate his work in her diary. In her writing she describes multi day hikes she would take with friends. She also keeps an almost daily record of the birds, flowers and sunsets she sees.

3. Can you tell us more about her process of doing nature studies, both in terms of practical techniques and mental approach?
Throughout her life Rachael kept up an active sketchbook practice. Rachael makes studies of both the individual parts of nature (branch of flowers, tree trunk, etc) and larger landscape scenes. Beside her sketches she often makes short observational notes. This tells us that her engagement goes beyond mere representation and is a kind of study of nature.

4. What would you like modern art students to get out of this project?
There is a narrative that exists that pits art theory against creativity. I lean into some of the philosophy that informs art theory to try and show how [the act of] engaging with the craft of drawing can actually inspire creative ideas. Beyond the lessons, the project also shares Rachael’s artistic journey. My aim is to demystify the life of an artist and give young artists a kind of path to follow.

5. Are there any other instructional books or resources that people can explore to help with their progress?
The books that influenced the form of this project are Color and Light by James Gurney; The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed, Fundamentals of Drawing by V.A. Mogilevtsev; and The Drawing Course by Charles Bargue. These books are designed for self directed learning. What I love about all of these examples is their use of images and drawing as the central tool for instruction.
Check out Courtney's Rokeby Remote Learning Course
and Courtney Clinton's website