Archie's Betty (2015)
Dir. Gerald Peary
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Who in their right mind didn't read Archie Comics? Millions upon millions of fans all over the world dove into the world of this loveable carrot-topped high school student who lusted after the mega-hot brunette Veronica, but who alas, couldn't always see the forest for the trees - that the best romantic bet was (the equally hot) blonde Betty.
Dappled with a lovely array of supporting characters, Archie comics presented a riotously funny and culturally astute world of average clean-cut teenage life in post-War America. Keeping a happy non-political microscope trained upon these kids, we were able to follow their adventures all the way through the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Cold War, massive social upheavals, student unrest, the civil rights and all those turbulent anti-war/anti-draft movements. If you slavishly devoted yourself to Archie comics, you'd ever know any of that stuff was happening anyway. Archie provided a safe haven for all.
The villains, if they can even be called that, included the conceited rich boy Reggie and the teachers/administrators of the sleepy Riverdale high school. Even the latter weren't really villains in any traditional sense, they just wanted the kids to stop goofing off and do well in school.
No Red Skull, Doc-Ock or Doctor Doom plagued the kids of Riverdale.
For me, I restricted my Archie reading to the Saturday colour comic pages and daily B/W strips in the newspaper. Being a snob even back then, I'd never be caught dead actually buying Archie in any comic book store. Those purchases were left up to my little sister. I would, however, read all her Archie comics in a tantalizing closet of shame (replete with Portnoy-inspired Mounds wrappers for added intimacies).
For years, though, I harboured a grudge against Archie. All the comic books in our family home were stored in cardboard boxes in the basement. During a horrendous sewer flood, my Dad insanely tried to save as many of my comic boxes as possible. Some of them "drowned" forever. Alas, poor, desperate Dad couldn't distinguish between what was painstakingly marked on the boxes in bold, black felt. Upon surveying what was saved, I discovered that all my precious Golden Age Marvels - most of which would have increased in value (to the tune of thousands of dollars) - were lost forever. What remained were several boxes of my sister's Archie Comics.
The aforementioned tragic event occurred 25 years ago and remained as a black stain upon my heart the whole time. Luckily, filmmaker/critic Gerald Peary's sweetly obsessive feature documentary, Archie's Betty, was what finally restored my faith in the ageless carrot-top of Riverdale.
Before succumbing to his eventual dotage, Peary chose to embark upon an incredible journey with his co-producer Shaun Clancy to seek out the real-life inspirations for original cartoonist Bob Montana's Archie comics. And yes, they're out there. They exist. Archie and all his friends are living, breathing entities. (Well, some more living and breathing than others, but surely you catch my drift here.)
Using a nice array of archival materials, graphics, personal reminiscence and interviews, Archie's Betty proves to be a lovely, nostalgic journey into the very thing which captured (and continues to capture) the imaginations of loyal readers and aficionados numbering in the mega-millions. What's especially engaging is that the picture is rooted in Peary's own personal obsession with Archie. As such, the picture has a gentle rag-tag quality with Peary himself narrating the story. Playing beautifully with the fanboy aesthetic, he's crafted a fine documentary which sprints along nicely with the sprightly cutting of editors Aleksandar Sasha Lekic and David Reeder.
He spins the true-life yarn of a young Jewish kid (Peary himself), the first in his family to be born in America. He discovered Archie comics on trips with his Dad to the local Flat-Top-styling barbershop in his hometown. Peary's parents, having fled the horrors of Jew-hating Nazis and Pogrom-happy Russian Cossacks, hilariously and ironically lived in a variety of American locales in which they were the only Jews for hundreds of miles. (In a contemporary context this is not unlike being the only Muslims living in Alpena, Arkansas.)
Here, the geeky, bookish, movie-loving Peary (who eventually became one of America's most esteemed film critics) found plenty of laughs, solace and boners (mostly over Betty). Acting on a good tip, Peary begins his pilgrimage to Montana's hometown - Haverhill, Mass. Peary's obsession leads him (and us) on a Willard-like quest up the big river known as America. Seeking neither Col. Walter E. Kurtz, nor the Heart of Darkness, Peary ferrets out all of Archie artist/scribe Bob Montana's old girlfriends, pals and acquaintances.
Mysteries abound. Some folks clearly seem to be inspirations for the beloved comic book, others appear to be amalgams. Many are still living. Some are dead and here Peary must place a Deerstalker cap upon his brainy, fevered noggin to piece together the lives of those who've joined the late Montana in the clouds of comic book Heaven.
What drives Peary like a cattle stampede in a John Ford western, is Betty - Blonde Betty - the love of Peary's early manhood. the real-life Betty - Archie's Betty. This is the most compelling and deeply moving search of all and the results are guaranteed to open the ocular sluices.
The journey will be a treat for all, but none more so than Archie fans young and old. In fact, Peary's film is so delightfully and humorously reverent, that it will no doubt add even more lucre into the gaping, bottomless maw of Archie Comic Publications Inc. And yes, the film not only helped me make peace with my Archie enmity, but thanks to one of Peary's interview subjects, the Archie expert Natalie Pendergast, I learn that her perspective is one that must have been shared by generations galore. As she explains:
"Before I knew anything about comic book theory or the scholarship of the comic and graphic novel, I was first a huge fan of Archie comics as a young child. As a girl I felt like I could relate much more to the characters. because of the scenarios - romantic, focusing on problems with friends, parents, school difficulties and what-not."
I thought about my little sister, over forty years ago and even my young teenage daughter now, at least ten years younger than the astute Pendergast, and the generations upon generations of young women who sought out Archie for those things that were more familiar than the usual macho posturing of comics. Hearing Peary's tales and then experiencing as he finds real-life inspirations for these characters, made me think of my own deeply submerged love for Archie.
I look at those rescued boxes of 40 year old Archie comics differently now. I sometimes even open the lids and reach into the treasures within and enjoy them now, not just in a closet, but openly and delightedly as I share them with my own little girl who now has the real thing to cherish in addition to her huge collection of thick, paperback-bound Archie comic compilations.
If anything, Archie's Betty places Bob Montana and the Archie Comic Publication's work within the context of being based on real people and as such, continues to speak to kids of all ages, all over the world, for God knows how many more generations.
Or, as Archie oft said, "Fantastic!"
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars
Archie's Betty is currently in platform release in the USA in cinemas, cinematheques film festivals and comic book conventions. Feel free to visit the official website for more information HERE and to buy it on DVD click HERE.
In Canada, the official Canuck premiere will be in early 2016 as
a theatrical engagement at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.