Late 1920s singing sensation and actress Helen Kane is one of my favourites. With her coquettish vocals, a distinct Bronx dialect and risqué lyrics, she gave the flappers a voice. One look at those big, expressive brown eyes and bee-stung lips, it is no wonder why the original “The Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl” inspired the legend that is Betty Boop. Helen Kane was like an all singing, all dancing kewpie doll come to life – armed with sass a plenty. “If it’s naughty to vamp the men / sleep each morning till after ten / then the answer is yes, I want to be bad!”, she sang in 1929.
Born Helen Schroeder on August 4, 1903 in the Bronx, Kane was starstruck from an early age. By the time she was 15-years old, Helen was performing onstage professionally, touring the Orpheum Circuit with the Marx Brothers. Kane spent the early and mid-1920’s trouping in vaudeville as a singer and played the New York Palace for the first time in 1921.
In 1928 Helen Kane was appearing at the Paramount Theater in Times Square. She was singing the popular song “That’s My Weakness Now,” when she interpolated the scat lyrics “Boop-Boop-a-Doop.” “I just put it in at one of the rehearsals,” she later said. “A sort of interlude. It’s hard to explain – I haven’t explained it to myself yet. It’s like vo-de-o-do, Crosby with boo-boo-boo and Durante with cha-cha-cha.”
The audience went crazy and only four days later, Helen Kane’s name went up in lights. Seemingly overnight, she came out a star. “One day I had fifty cents,” Helen laughed, “and the next day I had $50,000.”
At the height of her fame in late 1928 and early 1929, there were Helen Kane dolls and Helen Kane look-alike contests, appearances on radio and in nightclubs. “Money was falling off trees,” the singer said of her big success in 1928.
In 1929, Paramount Pictures signed Helen Kane to appear in a series of early musicals. Her first of three 1929 films was a comedy titled Nothing But the Truth, in which Helen has a small role but she got to sing “Do Something”. She next went into a cute college musical, Sweetie, starring Nancy Carroll. Kane was teamed with Jack Oakie – and the comedy couple handily stole the film.
Helen’s third 1929 release was Pointed Heels, also in a supporting role. She and Skeets Gallagher provide the music and comedy whilst William Powell and Phillipe Holmes vie for the attention of Fay Wray’s showgirl with a heart of gold.
In 1930, animators Dave, Max, and Louis Fleischer decided to cash in on Helen Kane’s popularity. They assigned staff animator Grim Natwick to come up with a girlfriend for Bimbo the Dog; the result was an animated caricature of Helen Kane, with droopy dog ears and a squeaky, Boop-a-Doop singing voice. “Betty Boop,” as the character was dubbed, became an instant smash hit and the star of her own cartoons. By 1932, Betty Boop became human – and Helen Kane had real competition on her hands.
Kane made another three films for Paramount in 1930 – but unfortunately none of them with scripts equaling Fleischer’s risqué cartoons. In the all star musical revue Paramount on Parade Helen Kane is a teacher instructing her young students on Boop-a-Dooping.
As the title role in Dangerous Nan McGrew, Helen moved up to her first – and only – starring vehicle, playing a singer in a travelling medicine show run by Victor Moore. Her next film, Heads Up, teamed Kane with Charles “Buddy” Rogers. Her character, Betty Trumbul, was created specifically for Helen – but sadly it ended up being her final film.
With the hardships of the Great Depression and the downfall of the flamboyant world of the flapper, Helen Kane’s style began to date rapidly. By late 1930, Paramount felt that the Boop-a-Doop craze was passing, and let Helen’s option lapse. The irony is that, personally, I feel Helen Kane and her star image have aged well and still feel fun and fresh to contemporary audience.
In May, 1932, Helen Kane filed a $250,000 suit against Max Fleischer, his studio, and Paramount Publix Corporation, charging unfair competition and wrongful appropriation in the Betty Boop cartoons. The trial went on for two years. Ultimately, Judge McGoldrick ruled against Kane 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 stated, “as all of my friends believe the cartoons a caricature of me.”
In 1933 Kane appeared in a stage production called Shady Lady. “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 1935, Helen Kane dropped out of show business.
“I was tired, worn out, and I quit,” Kane explained in the 1950s. “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.”
Fame came calling again in 1950 when MGM filmed Three Little Words, the story of songwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Debbie Reynolds was cast in the role of Helen Kane and given the song “I Want to Be Loved By You.” Kane herself was called in to dub Debbie’s voice and, at the age of 53, she was suddenly back in the limelight.
Helen Kane’s flapper image was back in fashion in the late 1950s. In Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), Marilyn Monroe plays a character called Sugar Kane, which is a reference to Helen Kane. Marilyn also performs “I Want to Be Loved By You”, a song that Helen recorded back in 1928.
Helen Kane battled breast cancer for more than a decade. She died on September 26, 1966 at age 62. Dan Healy, her husband of 27 years, was at her bedside.
Source: Eve Golden’s article on Helen Kane in Films of the Golden Age #2