Cartoons have provided a showcase for memorable and talented voices. The Simpsons have two regulars – Hank Azaria and Dan Castellaneta – who between them voice more than fifty characters on the show. Frank Welker has provided the voice for nearly every type of creature imaginable: human (Fred, from Scooby Doo), robot (Dynomutt), ghost (Slimer, from Ghostbusters), the Shmoo, dinosaur (Dino, from Flintstones), dogs, sharks, cats, and even the catbus from My Neighbor Totoro. Tara Strong is among the most sought voices in the current industry, having played everyone from Timmy on Fairly Oddparents to Twilight Sparkle in My Little Pony to Raven in Teen Titans.
Among them all, Mae Questel stands out. Not because she handled both male and female voices – that trait is surprisingly common in the more successful female voice actors – but because of which characters they were.
Questel was an actress for the earliest popular cartoons. Specifically, she had her big break as the voice for a new character who was partly inspired by her look – Betty Boop. (While Questel did not have the character’s famously disproportionate head, she did share a hairstyle and a slender build.) She continued playing Boop for eight years, and reprised the role for the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
That wasn’t her only prominent role. She played Little Audrey in the original Harveytoons, and took the role of Casper the Friendly Ghost for a short. In her later years, she started taking on live action roles as grandmothers or elderly neighbors; her final role was Bethany in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. But outside of Betty Boop, her voice became synonymous with one character: Olive Oyl. Questel played Oyl in all Popeye cartoons made from their introduction in the early 1930s through 1962.
With such a distinctive voice, and one very prominent role, one might reasonably think she didn’t have a particularly broad vocal range or control. This was not the case.
Jack Mercer had been voicing Popeye the Sailor opposite Mae’s Olive Oyl for more than a decade before World War II forced him into the military. He provided some recordings for upcoming cartoons before reporting for duty, and those cartoons were released… but the war was not a short event, and the studio needed new shorts.
The person who voiced most of the Popeye shorts during Mercer’s absence was Mae. She played against herself, voicing both main characters in one of the most popular cartoon series of the day.
As the Popeye cartoons of the era didn’t credit voice actors, the studio managed to keep the secret until Mercer came back and resumed the role which made him famous.
Curious about how well she could handle it? Click on the linked video and progress to 5:03 for her Olive Oyl work, then 5:48 for her Popeye work.
Question of the night: What’s your favorite movie theater-era cartoon short?