I spent the first 11 years of my life in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and though I wasn’t a big fan of the “Archie” comic books, I was aware that Archie and his friends lived in a place called Riverdale, and wondered if that was based on my hometown.
It wasn’t. As I learned from “Archie’s Betty” — a documentary that will be shown at 4:15 p.m. Sunday at Voorhees Hall of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, as part of the New Jersey Film Festival — Archie’s Riverdale was primarily based on Haverhill, Mass., the hometown of cartoonist Bob Montana.
“Archie’s Betty,” a must-see for any fan of the comic series, was made by journalist Gerald Peary, who, in 1988, wrote an article about the real-life sources of “Archie” characters and places for the Boston Globe. The new documentary, which he directed and narrates himself, finds him re-investigating some of the conclusions he came to in that initial article, and finding that they were, in some cases, misguided or incomplete.
As the title suggests, the biggest “find” of the documentary has to do with the Betty character, a veritable archetype for the wholesome American girl-next-door. Peary now believes that Betty was primarily based on a woman not even mentioned in that 1988 article — Betty Tokar Jankovich, a girlfriend of Montana’s during his days as a young cartoonist in New York City — and he tracks her down. After splitting with Montana, Betty Tokar ended up marrying Paul Jankovich, a member of the Perth Amboy police force who retired as Chief of Police in 1981, and died in 2010. Betty is still alive, at 94, and living in Edison (Montana himself died in 1975).
Betty Jankovich, it turns out, is as sweet and good-natured as the cartoon Betty. In her interview segments of the documentary, she practically radiates good vibes.
Yet as the documentary makes clear, the Archie cartoon characters don’t correspond exactly to people in Montana’s life, but are composites of various people he knew and, sometimes, film actors (Veronica Lake for Veronica, Mickey Rooney for Archie himself), enhanced by Montana’s imagination. The cartoons were also, in many ways, a team effort, and the input of Montana’s bosses may have helped shape different characters.
So, yes, it’s overly simplistic to say that Jankovich is the “real” Betty. And yet, watching her in this movie, you can easily see her influence.
And you will be able to see that for yourself on Sunday, since both Peary and Jankovich will attend the screening, and participate in a Q&A session.
For information, visit NJFilmFest.com.
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