Rescuers, yes, but exemplars of animal rights? Not exactly.
Eighty-eight years ago, forty years before the dawn of the animal rights movement, a muscular quasi-vegan sailor and his lanky girlfriend rescued animals on the silver screen, soon joined by a sexy “flapper” who sang jazz and her aged but ever inventive grandfather.
Popeye, Olive Oyl, Betty Boop, and Grampy, all cartoon characters, might even be recognized as the first popular exemplars of direct action on behalf of animals.
On screen for long lifetimes
There can be no doubt of their popularity, both in the midst of the Great Depression and today.
The Popeye cartoon Be Kind to Aminals has been aired somewhere more-or-less continuously since it debuted on February 22, 1935.
The Betty Boop cartoon Be Human, released on November 20, 1936 and initially a smash hit, was out of distribution for several decades due to ownership and copyright issues, but has also aired practically continuously since it was re-released in 1977, coincidentally just as the contemporary animal rights movement gained momentum.
To what extent Popeye, Olive Oyl, Betty Boop, and Grampy were influential on behalf of animals, however, or should have been, or should be now, can be debated.
All four characters were originated and drawn primarily by Max Fleischer, directed by his younger brother Dave Fleischer, neither of whom, nor any of their family, had any other known involvement in animal advocacy.
Both brothers, born in 1883 and 1894, respectively, were already middle-aged and established pioneers of animated film production by the time the characters Popeye, Olive Oyl, Betty Boop, and Grampy turned their concerns toward animals.
Betty Boop, who debuted as a poodle in 1930 before metamorphizing into a teenaged girl, and Popeye and Olive Oyl, debuting on screen in a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon, were already established box office favorites, often out-drawing Mickey Mouse, whose debut had come in Steamboat Willie (1928).
Mickey Mouse debuted as a sadist
The original incarnation of Mickey Mouse was downright sadistic toward a cow and a parrot. Walt Disney Studios was still years away from the Disney formula that emerged in Snow White & The Seven Dwarves (1937), in which the good characters were always kind to animals, while villains were cruel to animals before displaying villainy toward humans.
But Popeye and Olive Oyl, while not cruel to animals in their early cartoons, did not appear to be especially sensitive toward animals, either, and did exhibit casual, unthinking racism.
Only Betty Boop, dancing with jazz impresario Cab Calloway, escorted by Bimbo, who began as a boy but became a small dog, might be considered to have demonstrated what might today be considered culturally enlightened behavior.
Humane movement was as old then as Popeye, Olive Oyl, Betty Boop, & Grampy are now
When Popeye, Olive Oyl, Betty Boop, and Grampy began their brief flirtation with proto-animal rights advocacy, the organized humane movement as we know it today had already existed for nearly 70 years, since the formation of the American SPCA by Henry Bergh, unless one takes it back to the foundation of the first U.S. animal shelter by Elizabeth Morris and Anne Waln eight years before Bergh began investigating and prosecuting cruelty.
Bergh, dubbed “The Great Meddler” by critical media, engaged in direct intervention on behalf of animals, much as Popeye, Olive Oyl, Betty Boop, and Grampy did on screen.
After Bergh (1813-1888), the humane movement continued to build momentum for close to 30 years, chiefly through the initiatives of the American Humane Education Society, a subsidiary of the Massachusetts SPCA.
Were Popeye, Olive Oyl, & Betty Boop members of a Band of Mercy?
Begun by Massachusetts SPCA founder George Angell himself, the American Humane Education Society was guided after Angell died 1909 by Francis Rowley, his successor as president of both organizations.
The American Humane Education Society formed 265,000 affiliates called Bands of Mercy in grade school classrooms, and brought 750,000 teenagers into Jack London Clubs. Given their screen ages, one might imagine that Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Betty Boop as children were members of either the Bands of Mercy, the Jack London Clubs, or both.
Many of the Bands of Mercy and Jack London Clubs were initiated by the American Humane Education Society-sponsored African-American humane evangelists Richard Carroll, his son Seymour Carroll, John W. Lemon, and Frederick Rivers Barnwell.
A Bands of Mercy convention held in Kansas City in 1913 drew 10,000 parents and teachers, along with 15,000 children (almost certainly including Walt Disney and his sister Ruth, then in grade school nearby) who marched from their schools to a cavernous wooden convention hall, originally built to house the 1900 Democratic Presidential Convention.
Unfortunately, the 1913 convention, a fundraising slump during World War I, cost over-runs in connection with building the Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston, opened in 1918, and eventually the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 brought the gradual collapse of the American Humane Education Society.
Who modeled Betty Boop?
The First Church of Animal Rights, founded in 1921 by Diana Belais, collapsed almost as soon as it started, despite the active participation of Maud Ingersoll, the daughter of atheist evangelist Robert Ingersoll and founder of the American Anti-vivisection Investigation League.
Maud Ingersoll in style and appearance in her youth might have inspired Max Fleischer to create Betty Boop, but as she was 20 years older than Max Fleischer, almost certainly did not.
The accepted models for Betty Boop were singers Helen Kane, who unsuccessfully sued the Fleischers over alleged theft of her vocal style, and African-American singer Esther Lee Jones, whose style the Fleischers testified they had used.
Concern for horses?
In short, by the time Max Fleischer drew Popeye and Betty Boop into animal advocacy, the cause had lost momentum and lapsed into near-irrelevance to mainstream Middle American life for most of the next 50 years, except when humane societies were called upon to catch and dispose of dangerous or merely inconvenient stray dogs and cats.
This raises the question why the Fleischer brothers had their most successful characters take up animal advocacy when they did, as militantly as they did.
Whatever their motivation, it certainly was not to ride a wave of popular enthusiasm.
It did, however, come at a time when automobiles and trucks had almost completely displaced the use of horses for transportation.
Horse abuse rose in the Great Depression
Trained workhorses, expensive to buy in their early years, were in their older years sold either to slaughter or to people who formerly could not afford horses and knew little or nothing about horse use and care.
Addressing horse abuse had until then always been the focal activity of most humane societies, through the use of constabulary law enforcement authority as pioneered by Henry Bergh. But as the National Humane Review, the monthly magazine of the American Humane Association, many times mentioned, horse abuse during the early years of the Great Depression appeared to be more frequent and obvious than ever before, even though the numbers of working horses had precipitously declined.
Simply seeing more horse abuse might have moved Max and Dave Fleischer to issue Be Kind to Aminals, the nineteenth theatrical cartoon starring Popeye, Olive Oyl, and the ever brutal Bluto.
Be Kind to Aminals opens with Popeye and Olive Oyl sitting on a park bench feeding birds. Bluto comes by, driving an overloaded produce cart, flogging a horse who can barely pull the cart.
The cart arrives at a drinking trough for horses, similar to those installed in cities all over the U.S. in the early years of the humane movement, examples of which are still visible in Boston, Massachusetts; Oakland, California; and Portland, Oregon, among other places.
But Bluto’s horse cannot quite reach the water. Bluto himself drinks all of the water, then resumes flogging the horse.
Popeye takes beating for the horse
Popeye, trying to spare the horse, climbs on the horse’s back, taking the beating himself. Olive Oyl kisses the horse. Bluto uses his whip to drive Popeye to the top of the loaded cart, where Popeye eats bananas, discarding the peels, causing Olive Oyl to slip and do a fast boogie-woogie trying to stay on her feet.
Bluto throws more bananas at her feet, and Popeye’s, after he falls off the cart.
Bluto then punches the horse in the face, until Popeye breaks open and devours a crate of spinach. Popeye, Olive Oyl, and the horse together beat up Bluto.
The cartoon ends with Bluto pulling the cart, the horse driving, and Popeye and Olive Oyl celebrating atop the load.
Popeye & the Diet of Worms
Observed United Poultry Concerns founder Karen Davis in 2020, of the apparent vegan message in Be Kind to Aminals, “Sadly, Popeye’s attribution of his strength to spinach doesn’t seem to have had an impact on the masses. Maybe that day is yet to come. Back in the early days of United Poultry Concerns, we made a big poster with a blown-up image of Popeye for street demos that read ‘Popeye ate spinach!’ Eventually mice ate much of that poster and others besides.”
In any event, though Popeye is strictly vegan in most of the cartoons featuring him, almost every schoolchild for generations has heard that Popeye the sailor man lived in a garbage can, where he ate all the worms and spat out the germs.
Calumny or not, Popeye is crossed in theological memory with the 1521 Diet of Worms, the assembly of Roman Catholic leaders who demanded that Martin Luther explain his alleged heresies.
“Betty Boop’s Animal Hospital”
The Fleischer brothers after making Be Kind to Aminals established Betty Boop and Grampy’s bona fides as animal lovers in A Song A Day, released on May 22, 1936.
Operating “Betty Boop’s Animal Hospital,” overwhelmed by looking after patients including a hippopotamus who swallowed a grand piano, a goat who swallowed an alarm clock, and an alcoholic “pickled herring,” Betty Boop calls upon “Professor Grampy” to become her veterinarian.
A lively jazz tune played by improvised instruments assembled by Grampy, including a steam radiator, a bedframe, and a sewing machine, becomes the music that soothes the savagely suffering beasts, turning them all into dancers.
A Song A Day set the cartoon stage for Be Human, probably a garbled interpretation of “Be humane,” released on November 20, 1936.
Be Human, the longest and ultimately most disappointing of the three Fleischer films widely interpreted as expressing a proto-animal rights message, begins with Betty Boop singing “Be human, animals can cry. Be human. It’s easy if you try,” accompanying herself on piano until interrupted by the whimpering of a tethered dog who is being viciously whipped by a Bluto-like farmer.
Betty Boop sings her song again, trying to move the farmer, but the farmer instead first offers hay to his c0w and then deprives her of it , for not giving milk. Next he thrashes his hen for not laying eggs.
“You terrible person!”
“You terrible person!” fumes Betty Boop. She calls Professor Grampy at Grampy’s Animal Aid Society. Professor Grampy responds on the double, demonstrating some of the most reckless driving along the way between the heydays of Buster Keaton and Steve McQueen.
Professor Grampy catches the farmer in the act of beating his horse, hauling the farmer off to a dungeon to be flogged by a whipping machine, while the horse gives his former tormentor the horse laugh and Betty exclaims “Goody! Goody! Goody!”
As in Be Kind to Aminals, the administration of immediate extra-judicial violent punishment, though probably satisfying to a coterie of the most impassioned and impatient animal rights activists, strays far from the message of humane education furthering moral improvement that were the original themes of both the 19th century humane movement and the late 20th century animal rights movement.
Neither Henry Bergh nor Henry Spira, often identified as father of the animal rights movement, would have approved.
But Be Human strays even farther, into what might best be described as a “welfarist” endorsement of factory farming, shown in theaters close to the very beginning of mechanization of animal husbandry.
“Rescued” hens drop eggs through chutes leading to a pool table, where the eggs serve as billiard balls and the hens tally up their scores with no evident awareness that these might be their children.
A confined cow, milked by machine, supplies a bar where endless numbers of kittens drink milk. Neither free-range dairy nor “Feline Fix by Five” are in evidence, let alone any awareness that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.
The animation, even by current standards, is superb. Jarring though Be Human is to animal rights and vegan sensibilities, it is imaginative and entertaining.
As proto-animal rights films, though, Be Kind to Aminals, A Song A Day, and Be Human all must be seen as relics of a time when simply not beating horses or dogs and feeding animals were the most that animal advocates dared to ask of the public.