Reclaiming a place in animation history for Bessie Mae Kelley

The pioneers of hand-drawn animation were all male – or so historians (almost exclusively male) have long told us.

Winsor McCay made the influential short film “Gertie the Dinosaur” in 1914. Paul Terry (Farmer Al Falfa), Max and Dave Fleischer (Koko the Clown, Betty Boop) and Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker) each made early contributions well documented. Walt Disney hired a team that became legendary as the Nine Old Men.

Earlier this year, however, animator Mindy Johnson came across an illustration – an old class photo, of sorts, of the usual male animators of the early 1920s. identified with black hair. Who was she? The image’s owner, another animation historian, “assumed she was a housekeeper or maybe a secretary,” Johnson said.

“I said to her, ‘Has it ever occurred to you that she could be a host too?’ Johnson called back. “And he said, ‘No. No way.’ »

But Johnson wondered if it could be Bessie Mae Kelley, whose name she had discovered years earlier in an obscure article about vaudevillians turned entertainers.

In an investigation that found Johnson was cold calling people in Minnesota, digging through University of Iowa archives and recovering corroded nitrate film canisters from a San Diego garage, Johnson has confirmed his intuition. The woman was Kelley, and she hosted and directed alongside many of the men who would later become titans of the art form. According to Johnson’s research, Kelley began her career in 1917 and began directing and animating short films that now rank among the earliest known hand-drawn animated films by a woman.

So much for that housekeeper theory.

“History is recorded, preserved, written and archived from a male point of view, and so no one had really looked at the level of what women were doing – their contribution was often just presented as a single sentence, if at all. at all,” Johnson said. “Finally, we have proof that women have been leading animation from the very beginning. »

Previously, historians considered Tissa David to be the earliest example of a woman directing her own hand-drawn work. She was credited on Jean Image’s ‘Bonjour Paris’ in 1953. (The first animated film directed and animated by a woman would be Lotte Reiniger’s 1919’s ‘Ornament of the Heart in Love’. But Reiniger worked in the silhouette stop-motion animation, which is very different from the hand-drawn variety.)

Johnson will present his findings Monday at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. The evening will include the first public screening of two restored and previously unknown short films by Kelley. One is called “Flower Fairies” and was completed in 1921, Johnson said. This is composite animation (live footage with hand-drawn animation on top). Gentle-natured, human-looking creatures with wings awaken flowers and dance among them. Kelley completed “Flower Fairies” through the Brinner Film Company, a small Chicago studio that rose to fame for newsreels.

Mindy Johnson spent five years looking for evidence that a woman hosted and directed alongside many of the men who became titans of the art form.Credit…by Mindy Johnson

“Her forms are glorious, especially when compared to something like Walt Disney’s ‘Spring Goddess,’ which was about 15 years later,” Johnson said. She was referring to a Silly Symphonies short that Disney based on the Greek myth of Persephone. ‘Goddess of Spring’ is considered a key stepping stone for Disney as it was used to develop techniques for rendering human forms, with the groundbreaking ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) as a consequence.

Kelley’s second film had a Christmas theme and was made in 1922. It features stop-motion animation and finds a girl reading a book next to a crackling fire, a stocking hanging from the fireplace. Santa Claus comes out of the book and goes to his homework.

“Mindy has made a significant breakthrough, filling an important gap in our understanding of the early days of this industry and this art form,” said Bernardo Rondeau, Senior Director of Film Programs at the Academy Museum. Johnson’s presentation at the museum is part of a series of screenings and lectures devoted to newly curated and restored films, many of which come from the Academy Film Archive.

The stash of materials that Johnson located in San Diego – in the possession of Kelley’s great-nephew – also included original rice paper drawings used in the creation of the shorts; copper prints; a diary and scrapbooks; and photos with notes from Kelley. One of the movie boxes included a badly damaged animated short Kelley made featuring characters from “Gasoline Alley,” the comic strip that debuted in 1918.

Johnson also discovered that Kelley had helped design and animate a pair of mice from Paul Terry’s influential “Aesop’s Fables” series (1921 to 1933). Johnson noted that Walt Disney has spoken of being inspired by the series. (“My ambition was to make cartoons as good as ‘Aesop’s Fables.’”)

Johnson, who teaches animation history at the California Institute of the Arts and Drexel University, is known for her 2017 book “Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation,” a 384-page examination of unsung female artists and writers of the early days. from Walt Disney Studios. She is currently working on a book and a documentary about Kelley – the animated version, perhaps, of the 2013 film “Finding Vivian Maier”, about a nanny whose previously unknown cache of photographs earned her posthumous recognition as than an accomplished street photographer.

“I want to help Bess reclaim her inheritance,” Johnson said.

“It’s important, in part, because the animation field is still so male-dominated,” she added. “I saw the posture of my students change when I told them about Bess. They’re like, yes, I have a seat at this table. i have a place in the head of this table.

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Reclaiming a place in animation history for Bessie Mae Kelley

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