Imagine voicing a character for twenty years, then being expected to audition to keep playing her—and losing the audition. That’s simply astounding to me. I’ll admit to not being enormously familiar with animated Popeye; Popeye as a whole was not especially interesting to me in his animated form, and I was considerably more interested in the collection of strips from the book we had when I was growing up. The animated version felt flat. So I don’t know; did they somehow modernize the voice? But even if they did, I feel certain Mae Questel could’ve provided what they wanted.
When Max Fleischer was looking for a combination of Helen Kane and Clara Bow to voice his new cartoon character, he chose Questel. She was already on the radio at the time; she was Mae Questel, Singer of Personality Songs. Essentially, she was a singing impressionist, and Kane was on her repertoire—along with Mae West, Fanny Brice, and Maurice Chevalier. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to know that she was fully capable of being something akin to Mel Blanc, even more than June Foray. (I like June Foray, but her repertoire was more limited than Blanc’s.) In addition to Olive Oyl, she voiced Swee’pea for the Popeye cartoons, and even voiced Popeye himself briefly during World War II, while costar Jack Mercer was in the military.
This was all over the objections of her parents, too. In a bit of a Jazz Singer situation, her Orthodox Jewish parents disapproved of her ambitions and even briefly forced her to drop out of the Theatre Guild school. One assumes they weren’t thrilled when their seventeen-year-old daughter won a talent show at age seventeen and went into vaudeville, less so when she was sexpot Betty Boop. However, she is buried in a Jewish cemetery, so one also assumes she didn’t lose her faith entirely.
I’ll tell you, I hate doing these and discovering that people died of Alzheimer’s. I had this problem with yesterday’s obituary of Katherine Helmond; I don’t like thinking about the minds that are capable of what I’ve seen from them degrading with the disease. There are few things that disturb me more, honestly. It also seems that Questel was a bright, talented woman who deserved better than that slow fade into darkness—she attended Columbia while working, after all.
And, of course, we all remember her from one of her final film appearances, where she was called on to reprise her famous role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, wherein Betty Boop worked in the Ink and Paint Club as a waitress. I don’t like Woody Allen and never have, but he did also call on Questel to voice Helen Kane in his film Zelig, because Kane was dead. She even appeared in one or two of his movies in person, not just as a voice, and for those of you who like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, she’s Aunt Bethany in that. It was her final film role.