Twenty-five years ago, The Rocketeer hit theaters. Released in the wake of Tim Burton’s Batman, it was a different kind of comic book movie, an unabashed period piece from Joe Johnston, an effects artist-turned-director who’d enjoyed a hit two summers before with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and who, years later, would go on to bring Captain America to the screen in a film that hearkened back to The Rocketeer. But one element lost in the move from page to screen was the pinup queen and ’50s icon who’d been integral to the comic, Bettie Page.
Enter The Notorious Bettie Page
The Rocketeer was the creation of Dave Stevens, an artist in love with the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the “good girl” art of the 1940s and 1950s. Stevens, who worked extensively as a storyboard artist, was exacting and uncompromising, known for his attention to detail. In 1982, he delivered The Rocketeer, an independently published comic book like nothing comics fans had seen before. The Rocketeer was a mash-up of Golden Age Hollywood glamour and the era’s fondly remembered pulp fiction. And nowhere was that more obvious than with Cliff Secord’s girlfriend Betty, who was clearly based on none other than Bettie Page.
Page, at the time, was a sex symbol with a cult following and a mysterious past. In the early 1950s, Page began modeling for “camera clubs,” gatherings of camera enthusiasts that doubled as opportunities to create nude photography. Much of her appeal came from a self-possession rare to the era, and even now. You could look at Bettie Page all you wanted, you could look at her naked if you found the right picture. But the images of Page suggests she didn’t give a damn what you thought of her while you looked and that she wouldn’t take a photo just to make somebody happy. Models at the time would look away: Page looked directly into the lens.
Her most famous work is easily the photos she took with Bunny Yeager, a pinup model herself and a photographer whose work in erotica has tended to overshadow her technical skill. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of their work together is their use of direct address. Page looks into the camera, never away, whether on the beach or lounging with live cheetahs. It was Yeager who shot Page’s Playboy centerfold, with Page dressed in only a Santa hat, hanging a silver ornament, a photograph personally selected by Hugh Hefner.
But, just a few years later, despite her fame, Page had completely vanished. In the late ’50s, she became a born-again Christian and focused on missionary work. That never really came together for her, and after moving to California in 1979, she got in a series of altercations. After an assault arrest where she allegedly stabbed her landlady, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and as The Rocketeer arrived on shelves, she was being committed to a mental hospital by the state.
Stevens was completely unaware of this. Even Page’s most ardent fans had no idea where she’d gone after she retired in the late 1950s. But it was that charisma, that ownership of self, that drew Stevens to her. In fact, Stevens’ 120 pages of Rocketeer comics ends with a splash panel that could come straight from one of her pinups. And yet, Page is nowhere to be found in the movie.
In the movie, Jennifer Connelly plays “Jenny,” Cliff Secord’s girlfriend and very much “the girl next door” (something Page’s own website pokes fun at). The movie goes out of its way to make clear Jenny is no Disney princess; she knocks out the movie’s villain at one point and thwarts a Nazi escape, albeit accidentally, with a flare gun in the finale. But while Johnston makes a knowing reference to Jenny’s predecessor with a long tracking shot of Jenny putting on a stocking, Betty is seemingly off the boards for Disney.
As to why, the answer, according to an interview Stevens gave, was money:
Well, the problem with the film version of The Rocketeer was that it ended up at Disney and they wanted nothing to do with a female character that was based on a real person for rights reasons. Plus it was a very sexy character and Bettie Page had really caught on in pop culture before we even got into pre-production. So they immediately called for changes in the character. We were still calling her Betty in the first few versions of the script, but by the time we were shooting, the name and appearance had changed, and she wasn’t Betty anymore.
What’s odd is that Disney didn’t seem to have a problem with anybody else the movie parodies. Neville Sinclair, the film’s villain, is not just blatantly Errol Flynn, but based on a notoriously dubious biography of Flynn that accused him of being a Nazi sympathizer and spy. Ronald “Tiny Ron” Taylor went through extensive makeup to resemble Hollywood character actor and cult figure Rondo Hatton. It even goes so far as to rewrite the history of the rocket pack as an invention of Howard Hughes, played by Terry O’Quinn, rather than pulp hero Doc Savage.
The issue was as much about how Disney saw itself as it saw Page. Even at the time, Disney had a strict divide between the family-friendly movies it put out as the Walt Disney Picture Company and the darker, more mature movies that were released by its label Touchstone. Superheroes were for kids, period, and a woman like Page, as far as the Mouse was concerned, had no place in a kids’ movie. Somehow, though, the spirit of Betty as a character remained in Connelly’s performance; just like in the movie, she didn’t take anything lying down, whether it was an attempt to kidnap her or just Cliff screwing up, yet again, the basics of being a good boyfriend.
An Unlikely Friendship
Bettie Page was released from the mental hospital she’d been sent to in 1992, and came out to a world where women a third her age were copying her hairstyle and her photographs were hanging on dorm room walls. She struggled, for much of her remaining life, to receive the credit and royalties she deserved, but Stevens, for his part, sent a check without even being asked. A few years later, Stevens happened to be available when Page needed a ride, and the two formed a strong, if unlikely, friendship. Critics have noted that Stevens’ passion for capturing the spirit of his subjects gives his depictions of Page much more than just a sexy allure. Stevens is preoccupied not with the frills on lingerie, but the charisma that made Page such an enduring figure years after her retirement.
In the years since, while her contemporaries have been forgotten and even the magazine that helped make her famous has struggled, Page’s reputation has only grown, even after her death in 2008. Even Beyoncé has paid tribute to her. Rumors of a Rocketeer reboot have been floated in the past, although little has come of it. Stevens died 2008 as well, from hairy-cell leukemia at the age of 52, and other writers and artists have been continuing his legacy in the comics. But if the Rocketeer returns to screens, he should bring Betty along with him. After all, if we can accept a grown man flying around in a rocket pack, we can accept he has a self-assured girlfriend.