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Helen Kane $250,000 Lawsuit (1934)Helen Kane, who died in 1966 at the age of 62, enjoys an ironic form of immortality. Her features and style of singing are definitely caricatured by the Boop character, but relatively few people alive today are aware of it. For any performer that kind of twisted anonymity at the time of the production of the cartoon feature “Dizzy Dishes,” Kane was well known for her distinctive kewpie doll looks and high-pitched singing voice. Ironically, Natwick’s caricature of her in “Dizzy Dishes” is not all that apparent until the unnamed nightclub performer sings. Kane’s trademark was a scat-sing chorus of “boop-oop-a-doop,” which was included in the cartoon performance.
Helen kane appeared in several early sound films for Paramount, such as the campus musical “Sweetie” and starred in the musical short “A Lesson in Love.” Considering how the Fleischer Studio took advantage of its business arrangement with Paramount, it’s not surprising that a caricature of Kane turned up in the fleischer studio Cartoons
Comic strip historian Bill Blackbeard noted in his collection of the Betty Boop comic strips that Helen kane had contacted King Features in 1933 when she learned that negotiations between the syndicate and Max for a Betty Boop comic strip were stalled. She proposed a strip called “Helen Kane, the Boop-Oop-A-Doop Girl,” which the syndicate accepted and ran in several Hearst newspapers in 1933 and 1934. The strip with its short-term contract was used as a bargaining chip in talks with Max. Once the deal was struck for a Betty Boop strip, The Helen Kane strip was dropped. Helen kane was drawn for her strip in a way that closely resembled Betty Boop. Interestingly the Kane and Boop strips both presented a “behind the curtain” view of life in show business. Helen Kane’s time in the spotlight was waning by the mid-1930s though, while Betty Boop’s career was flying high. Perhaps that is what motivated her lawsuit against Max Fleischer and Paramount in 1934.On March 6, 1934, “The New York Times” reported that Helen Kane “sails east to her trial in four weeks against Max Fleischer. Helen Kane had wanted an accounting of the profits from the Paramount cartoon releases.” Helen kane was suing for unfair competition and imitation and sought the amount of $250,000. The trial began in April and concluded in May.
Betty Boop cartoons could be traced to the spit curls and singing style of Helen Kane. On April 18, the “Times” reported that Max took Mae Questel, Margie hines & Bonnie Poe to court with him who had performed the voice for Betty Boop they testified against helen kane. they had made “no effort to imitate Helen Kane.”
In the April 20, 1934 “Times” story, Max “declared that his character is a figment of his imagination and that the hair dress of Betty Boop also was developed by himself and was in imitation of Miss Kane.” Fleischer had a lot to lose if Kane won the case, and his testimony, clearly a lie, was an effort to keep the lucrative Betty Boop character and to prevent further actions by Helen kane.
On April 23, Supreme Court Justice Edward S. McGoldrick viewed a Helen Kane sound film with two songs and then watched two Betty Boop cartoons. The “Times” reported McGoldrick was told that out of 46 Boop cartoons 66 songs were sung and of those only four had previously been performed by Kane. McGoldrick saw more footage of Kane on April 24.
Lou Walton, a theatrical manager, testified that baby Esther, a Negro girl under his management, had interpolated words like ‘boo-boo-boo’ and ‘doo-doo-doo’ in song at a cabaret here in 1928 and that Miss Kane and her manager had heard her there. Justice McGoldrick will hear a sound film of her to aid his decision,” the “Times” reported on May 2, 1934. The implication was clear; Kane’s trademark was not hers and hers alone.
The decision was handed down on May 5, 1934. Kane’s suit was denied on the basis “the plaintiff had failed to sustain either cause of action by proof of sufficient probative action.” Kane and her attorney vowed to file an appeal, but never did. In a 1935 interview, Kane said she was quitting show business because she was tired. Kane had amassed a considerable fortune during the peak of her fame, and, after fading from the public eye, invested in several businesses. Unfortunately, her
investments failed, and Kane tried staging a comeback several times. When Debbie Reynolds portrayed her in the MGM musical “Three Little Words” (1950), Kane’s career was largely forgotten.
Later In 1954, MGM records issued the last Helen Kane recordings as a 45-rpm Ep X1164 called "The Boop-Boop-A-Doop Girl!", orchestra directed by Leroy Holmes, and the songs are "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street", "When I Get You Alone Tonight, Do Something" (from Nothing But the Truth)and "That's My Weakness Now
The year before her death, she had appeared on the Ed Sullivan’s long-running variety show in her last comeback effort. She had fought cancer for ten years prior to her passing according to her obituary in “Variety.”
Today, performers have greater legal protection over their features and trademark mannerisms and appearances. What Helen kane endured could not happen again.