flickerflapper

Word(s): 
flickerflapper
Phrase: 

flickerflapper fore our unterdrugged, 

Page and Line: 
266.31
Book: 
II.2 (pp. 260–308)

The word flickerflapper, besides being a tongue-twister when said three times fast, holds a lot of "roaring 20's" vocabulary within it. Cinema goes by many descriptive names, based on what it's made of ("film," "pics," "silent pictures," "silents") or what it does ("motion pictures," "movies," "talking pictures," "talkies.") The illusion of motion in film is achieved by what is called "persistence of vision," a curious effect of the mind that still images, presented in rapid succession, can seem to move. It's why "flip books" work. A good rate of speed for film (and the eventual industry standard) is 24 frames-per-second. Which means that in any sound film you watch, there a twenty-four images (and the little black strip separating each image) whizzing by you every single second. The little black strips also are seen my the eye, which accounts for the slight fluttering of the image. This is why Cinema also was called "flickers" or "the flicks." The flickering effect was worse in the early days of silent cinema, when 16 frames-per-second was the rate of projection, but when "sound pictures" emerged in 1927, the industry standard changed to 24 frames-per-second, and the flicker effect became less noticeable.

A flapper is a slang term for a certain type of woman, dating back to sometime in 19th-century England, and meaning "a young girl," "a teenage girl," " an energetic girl," or, in the worst spin on the word, "a prostitute." The word became popular in America following the release of the 1920 silent film "The Flapper" starring Olive Thomas, cinema's first flickerflapper. Here's Olive Thomas in a frame from the movie, as she shares a smoke with another flapper.

Floods of famous flickerflappers followed. Louise Brooks (right) was famous for her role of Lulu in G. W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929), a tale of gunplay, mistresses, seduction, prostitution and brutal murder. Perhaps the hottest of all the flickerflappers of  the 1920's was Clara Bow (left) who was dubbed the "IT Girl" by the Hollywood press -- "IT" being a 1927 silent movie in which she she starred. In the title cards at the beginning of the movie, "IT" is described thusly: " "IT" is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With "IT" you win all men if you are a woman—and all women if you are a man. "IT" can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction." (IT seems to be "sex appeal" for those too embarressed to say the word "sex.")

Decades later, through a lens of feminism, the phrase "IT Girl"" seems like a literal objectification of women, but the phrase "has legs" as they say in Hollywood about longevity. Edie Sedgwick was called the It Girl by Andy Warhol, and the phrase has come to mean, according to satirist William Donaldson  "a young woman of noticeable 'sex appeal' who occupied herself by shoe shopping and party-going."

In the animated cartoon world, the ultimate flickerflapper, hands down, is Betty Boop. Betty's character started off in a bit part as a sexy zaftig dog character in Dizzy Dishes  (1930), where she sang from a nightclub stage the words "Boop-boop-a-doop."  In 1931, Betty appeared in a cartoon named after her catchphrase,  "Boop-oop-a-doop."

As Leslie Carbaga's illustration below clearly shows, Betty quickly evolved into a human over a few short years. Her long ears evolved into hoop earrings, and her baby-doll head on a sexy flapper body proved a box office smash. At the time when Betty first appeared, the Fleischer Studio's characters Ko-Ko the Clown and Bimbo had been stars of the Studio for over a decade; almost overnight they were transformed into Betty's sidekicks in a series of excellent cartoons.

Many women helped Betty attain flipperflapper status. The low-cut wardrobe and sultry behavior of Betty was drawn from a variety of popular actresses, including Mae West and  "It" girl Clara Bow (right of Betty, top picture). The origin of the voice of Betty was a hotly contested issue of the 1930's. Singer and actress Helen  Kane (top picture, left of Betty) became an overnight sensation in 1927 when she came up with the phrase "boop-boop-a-doop" while singing in a Broadway show: animator Grim Natwick admitted that Kane was an inspirational starting point for Betty. Five different women voiced Betty Boop over the years -- Kate Wright, Little Ann Little, Margie Hines, Bonnie Poe, and Mae Questel who was the most used voice actor for the voice of Betty Boop. Flipperflapper and singer Helen Kane (below, left, paired head-shot to head-shot with Betty)  claimed that Betty Boop's voice and the "boop-boop-a-doop" were hers, and in May 1932, sued the Fleischer Studio and Paramount Pictures, charging unfair competition and wrongful appropriation. She lost the lawsuit when Paramount produced film of a black singer "Baby Esther" (right) also singing "boop" in her songs; the judge was convinced the "boop" was not unique to Kane, and ruled against her.

    

Betty's career was irreparably damaged by "The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930" (also known as the "Hays Code"), the industry clampdown to regulate "loose morals" in films (particularly in foreign films like "Pandora's Box") and the devestating follow-up, the Motion Picture Production Code of 1934 were the death-knell for the cartoon flipperflapper. New regulations like "Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden" meant no more shimmying and lower hemlines for Betty. Look at the dress lengths in the timeline comparison picture above. A sex symbol who is not allowed to move in a suggestive manner or wear skimpy wardrobe will have a very hard time drawing a crowd. Betty Boop, and all the human flipperflappers too, had their careers cut short by Hollywood's artistic self-censorship in fear of even stricter Washington industry regulation.

The "Hays Code" era ended in 1968 with the installment of the MPAA rating system (Movies rated G -- General, M -- Mature, (later modified to GP in 1970, then rebranded as PG "Parental Guidence"in 1972 , and augmented with PG-13 ("parents strongly cautioned against sending 12-year-olds or younger to this") in 1984 after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's essential-to-the-plot beating human heart sacrifice rituals traumatized a nation of jaded kids' parents. For older folk, there's R -- "Restricted to 17 and older" and X "adults only" -- though X-Rated Midnight Cowboy winning the 1969 Best Picture Oscar caused a re-thinking of the "X rating" (just sex) and development of NC-17 (not only just sex).

The ratings system gives American audiences the illusion that adult content can now be freely shown onscreen, but Hollywood censorship continues. Sure, a actress in a leading role can wear a skimpy dress on-screen, and curse just enough times to get a "must have" PG-13 rating, but can she light up and puff away (on anything smokable) like Olive Thomas in 1920's The Flapper, without dying of cancer by the final reel? Doubtful, unless she's playing an antihero, or a villain. The world is still not flapper friendly, nor the world of modern cinema to the flipperflapper.

After the lawsuit trial was over, Helen Kane, Betty Boop and Baby Esther all kept on singing their "boops" to diminishing numbers. Betty's last appearance in a cartoon for the Fleischer Brothers, Rhythm On The Reservation debuted July 7, 1939, just over two months after the publication of Finnegans Wake. James Joyce, a man who enjoyed going to the cinema in Paris, where he spent the bulk of the 1920's and '30's, would have had lots of exposure to the words "flickers" and "flappers" and had plenty of opportunities to see American, and perhaps even Parisian flickerflappers onscreen.

In 1954, fifteen years after Betty had faded from the silver screen, Helen Kane released a four-song 45 RPM EP on MGM, "The Boop Boop a Doop Girl," indicating ruling or no, she knew who she was. Boop Boop a Doop Girls and It Girls (and Big-headed Dog Girls too) -- flickerflappers all, I salute you!