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Jun 112015
 

Here is a terrific documentary that will appeal to people who grew up in the mid-20th century and also their children and grandchildren who will see that life hasn’t changed so much, after all.

Archie’s Betty, written and directed by Gerald Peary. Screening at Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art on June 14 at 12 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Veronica, Archie and Betty in a '50s issue of "Archie Comics."

Veronica, Archie and Betty in a ’50s issue of “Archie Comics.”

By Roberta Silman

One of the most interesting things about getting older — and there are more interesting things than most people will admit — is that certain memories seem to surface with a strange insistence. I thought of that as I began watching Gerald Peary’s charming documentary, Archie’s Betty. As the child of an immigrant family who fled the Nazis, Peary started life in America in a small town in West Virginia, then moved to South Carolina. Like lots of kids he went with his Dad when the “old man” needed a haircut and, in the barber shop, he would become absorbed in the comic books that were set out in piles for kids like him to read. That’s how he was introduced to the Archie comics so popular in the 1940s and ’50s.

Written and drawn by the very talented Bob Montana, Archie’s adventures took place in small town America where there was the popular, envied Archie who seem to have his pick of all the girls, including the rich and adventurous (to say the least) Veronica. He was also the heartthrob of his next door neighbor, a shyer, sweeter girl named Betty. There was also a cast of all kinds of minor characters, adolescent archetypes that were recognizable to us all. Getting to know Montana’s characters was like reading a book of instructions on how to maneuver one’s way through the somewhat confusing maze of activity and emotions and embarrassments that we all remember as high school. Like so many kids, Gerry was enchanted by Archie and became a fan.

But what fascinated Peary as he matured was: Where did these characters come from? On whom were they based? And, perhaps most important, could he find them? His quest started with Montana, who was a brilliant cartoonist who could also tell a story and develop interesting characters and plots. As he followed Montana through his all too short life, Peary found people at Haverhill High School in Haverhill, MA, not far from his home in Cambridge. There he interviewed people who had no doubt who Archie and Veronica were and who are absolutely sure that all the characters had their original prototypes in their town. But there was some doubt about Betty. Was she really based on someone from Haverhill, or was she an amalgam of a few girls? No one was quite sure.

As we watch Peary interview all these folk, who are now in their seventies and eighties, we see how different, how innocent the world before TV and the Internet was. We also see what a kind and caring man Peary is, as he sorts through masses of information and drives hundreds of miles, determined to find out more about Montana and Archie, who, it turns out, may be more alike than anyone suspected at the beginning of this story.

The first half of the movie is lots of fun as we learn more and more about the making of Archie and get an intimate look at the America of that time. But for me the movie got even better during its last half, when the search for Betty heated up and revealed an early love affair of Montana’s. Peary finally discovers an amazingly smart and beautiful woman named Betty Tokar, not in Haverhill or even in Massachusetts, but in New Jersey. The scenes with Betty, now in her early nineties, are wonderful and repay Peary’s persistence in a way that I suspect he never even dared to hope.

As Peary admitted in the Q and A after the movie, he was always an admirer of the Bettys of this world, and his affection for the character and the real person are moving and special and strike a chord in all our hearts — the girls who were more like Betty and the boys who could never get the attention of the flirty Veronicas, that very popular girl in every high school we all envied and despised simultaneously. Those Veronicas who peaked in high school, who often married their high school sweethearts and for whom it was downhill ever after.

Here is a terrific documentary that will appeal to people who grew up in the mid-20th century and also their children and grandchildren who will see that life hasn’t changed so much, after all.


Roberta Silman Her three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again have just been released by Open Road Distribution and can be purchased as ebooks at Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Google Play. She has also written short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for Arts Fuse. She can be reached at rsilman@verizon.net.

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  3 Responses to “Fuse Film Review: “Archie’s Betty” — A Charming Documentary about Comic Book Americana”

Comments (3)
  1. Thanks, Roberta, for your sweet, kind, and also very perceptive review of my film, Archie’s Betty. I would make only one small adjustment: Archie had the pick of all the girls at Riverdale High…except Veronica! She teased, she flirted with him, but she always remained elusive. for the seventy-odd years of Archie Comics.

  2. I would only suggest that people check out MAD magazine versions of Archie for how it felt for people at the time. This is very revisionist stuff.

  3. “How it felt for people at the time”? Sorry, Miles, I don’t understand your point. Do you mean that people thought that Archie was saccharine and stupid, and a Mad parody proved this? If I’m typical of those who grew up in the 1950s, I embraced both Archie and Mad. I liked what was sweet and sincere, liked what was raucous and cynical. I still do.

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