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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.”

Helen Kane

Helen Kane

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.

Helen Kane

Helen Kane

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.

Helen Kane

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.”

Helen Kane

Helen Kane

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.

Helen Kane

Helen Kane

“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.”

Helen Kane

Helen Kane

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

Helen Kane

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.

Helen Kane

Helen Kane

Helen Kane

Helen Kane

Helen Kane with Jack Oakey and Jean Harlow

Source: Eve Golden’s article on Helen Kane in Films of the Golden Age #2

 

10  Comments Posted On This Article
Lindsay Lane Comment posted on Wed - Apr 16, 2014

She’s magnificent! I love her songs!

 

Jessica Cangiano Comment posted on Thu - Apr 17, 2014

That was an engaging, really lovely biographical read. It’s such a shame that she only lived to her early 60s, but at least it seems like she had a very full and rewarding (if exhausting at times) life during those six decades.

♥ Jessica

 

Mary Lambert Comment posted on Fri - Aug 01, 2014

An amazing woman who’s fame was exploited by the Fleischers & Paramount.

 

[…] As for Helen Kane, after the Boop lawsuit, her career went through several ups and downs. Her flapper style lost favor during the Great Depression, but she made several TV appearances in the 1950s and 1960s until she passed away on September 26, 1966 at age 62 in Queens, New York (she’s buried at the Long Island National Cemetery). Dan Healy, her third husband who had been married to her for 27 years, was with her when she died. To hear more Helen Kane, head over to the Internet Archive. For more photos of Kane, check out 21st Century Flapper. […]

 

Shellena Comment posted on Wed - Sep 10, 2014

She was talented, amazing, funny, and sweet all rolled up in one. I think she would have won that law suit today. <3

 

Alia Comment posted on Thu - Apr 23, 2015

I was under the impression she stole her whole look and sound from a black woman named Esther Mae.

 

Panna Comment posted on Thu - Jun 04, 2015

Actually Helen Kane stole her look and singing style from a Cotton Club performer Baby Esther. She actually testified to this during the trial when she tried to sue the creators of Betty Boop. Basically the judge found that she couldn’t sue them, because she stole her act from Baby Esther!

 

Riikka Pennanen Comment posted on Wed - Nov 04, 2015

Alia and Panna – many thanks for your comments! I wasn’t aware of this when writing the blog post last year – otherwise I would have given credit where credit is due. However, I’m working on a blog post about Baby Esther herself so look forward to that in the near future!

 

Jay Raskin Comment posted on Fri - Feb 23, 2018

Great biological information. Thanks.
It is false that Helen Kane took anything from “Baby Esther.” Esther Jones was actually known as “Little Esther” not “Baby Esther.” It was not Jones who ever claimed that Jones took anything from her. It was her sleezy manager from 1925-1930 who made the claim for the first and only time in 1934 at the trial when she was suing Fleischer and Paramount for stealing her act in Betty Boop. Bolton was paid at least $300 for his testimony (the equivalent of about $3,000 today). There is a lot of evidence to prove that Bolton was lying and no actual evidence that Kane took anything from “Baby Esther.”

 

Tikal J. Comment posted on Tue - Mar 27, 2018

@ Alia & Panna – Baby Esther aka Lil/ Little Esther was a child performer from Chicago who was a singer, dancer and acrobat who inspired Helen Kane to scat sing in 1928. Helen Kane took on Esther’s idea and adapted it and became famous overnight. Esther left America in 1929 to tour Europe, where she was dubbed Josephine Baker’s successor. Helen had great success too, up until the creation of Betty Boop when it later came out that Helen had been inspired by Esther’s scat singing. Funny story, both Esther and Helen had the same booking agent in 1928.

 


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Welcome to 21st Century Flapper!
My name is Riikka and I hail from Helsinki, Finland. I'm a film researcher and a freelance journalist, a sartorial devotee of vintage fashion and endlessly fascinated by early 20th century visual culture. I write about film, fashion, design, architecture - and all things old and pretty.

Olen helsinkiläinen elokuvatutkija ja toimittaja, jolle 1900-luvun alkupuolen visuaalinen kulttuuri on todellinen intohimo. Blogi sivuaa kiinnostuksen kohteitani 1920- ja 1930-luvun elokuvista aina ajan muotiin ja designiin asti.



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