All of the pioneers of hand-drawn animation were men—or at least that’s what historians have long told us.
However, Mindy Johnson, an animation scholar, stumbled upon an illustration last year—a photograph of an older generation showing male animators from the early 1920s. An unknown woman was standing in one corner. The owner of the black-haired image, another animation historian, “assumed it was a housekeeper or possibly a secretary,” Johnson said.
But Johnson wondered if it might be Bessie Mae Kelly, whose name she had discovered years earlier in a lost article on vaudeville characters who became entertainers.
After visiting Minnesota, rummaging through the archives of the University of Iowa, and salvaging a rusted can of nitrate film in San Diego, California, Johnson confirmed his guess. The woman was Kelly, and she encouraged and mentored many men who would later become titans of the art form. According to Johnson’s research, Kelly began her career in 1917 directing and animating short films, which today rank as the first known hand-drawn animated films by a woman.
“We finally have proof that women have been at the forefront of animation since the beginning,” Johnson said.
Tissa David was previously believed by historians to be the first woman to direct her own hand-crafted work. He was credited in Jean Image’s “Bonjour Paris” in 1953.
Johnson recently presented his findings at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. The event included the first public screenings of two of Kelly’s restored and previously unknown short films. One, “Flower Fairies,” was completed in 1921, Johnson said. This includes composite animation (live footage combined with hand-drawn animation). Sweet-natured, winged human-like creatures wake up the flowers and dance among them.
“Her forms are spectacular, especially when you compare her to something like Walt Disney’s ‘Goddess of Spring’ from about 15 years later,” Johnson said. “The Goddess of Spring” is considered an important step forward for Disney as it was used to develop techniques for depicting the human form, resulting in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) Happened.
The second tape, made in 1922, had a Christmas theme.
The material is located in Johnson San Diego—in the possession of Kelly’s great-nephew—including original rice paper drawings used in the production of the short films. One of the film canisters contained a badly damaged animated short film that Kelly had directed featuring characters from “Gasoline Alley”, a comic strip that premiered in 1918.
Johnson, who teaches animation history at the California Institute of the Arts and Drexel University in Pennsylvania, is working on a book and documentary about Kelly.
“I want to help Bess reclaim her legacy,” Johnson said. “It matters, because the field of animation is still very male-dominated. I’ve noticed a change in their body language when I tell my students about Base. It’s like, yeah, I have one on this table.” There is a place. I have a place at the top of this table.
By: Brooks Barnes