Reclaiming a place in animation history for a female pioneer

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Reclaiming a place in animation history for a female pioneer
BMK Flower Fairies title card.

NEW YORK, NY.- The pioneers of hand-drawn animation were all men — or at least that is what historians (men, almost exclusively) have long told us.

Winsor McCay made the influential short “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 well-documented early contributions. Walt Disney hired a team that became mythologized as the Nine Old Men.

Earlier this year, however, the animation scholar Mindy Johnson came across an illustration — an old class photo, of a sort, depicting the usual male animators from the early 1920s. In a corner was an unidentified woman with dark hair. Who was she? The owner of the image, another animation historian, “presumed she was a cleaning lady or possibly a secretary,” Johnson said.

“I said to him, ‘Did it ever cross your mind that she might also be an animator?’” Johnson recalled. “And he said, ‘No. Not at all.’”

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

As part of an investigation that found Johnson cold-calling people in Minnesota, digging through archives at the University of Iowa and salvaging corroded cans of nitrate film from a San Diego garage, Johnson confirmed her hunch. The woman was Kelley, and she animated and directed alongside many of the men who would later become titans of the art form. According to Johnson’s research, Kelley started her career in 1917 and began to direct and animate shorts that now rank as the earliest-known hand-drawn animated films by a woman.

So much for that cleaning lady theory.

“History is recorded, preserved, written about and archived from a male perspective, and so nobody had really examined the level of what women did — their contribution was often just passed off as a single sentence, if at all,” Johnson said. “Finally, we have proof that women have been helming animation from the very beginning.”

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

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

“Her forms are glorious, especially when you compare it to something like Walt Disney’s ‘Goddess of Spring,’ 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 viewed as a critical steppingstone for Disney because it was used to develop techniques for the rendering of human forms, with the groundbreaking “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) as a result.

Kelley’s second film had a Christmas theme and was made in 1922. It includes stop-motion animation and finds a girl reading a book beside a crackling fire, a stocking dangling from the mantel. Santa climbs out of the book and sets about his duties.

“Mindy has made a significant breakthrough, filling in an important gap in our understanding about the beginnings of this industry and art form,” said Bernardo Rondeau, the Academy Museum’s senior director of film programs. Johnson’s presentation at the museum is part of a series of screenings and talks dedicated to newly preserved and restored films 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 short films; copper prints; a journal and scrapbooks; and photos with notations by Kelley. One of the cans of film included a badly damaged animated short that Kelley directed with characters from “Gasoline Alley,” the comic strip that debuted in 1918.

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

Johnson, who teaches animation history at 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 in the early days of Walt Disney Studios. She is now working on a book and documentary about Kelley — animation’s version, perhaps, of the 2013 film “Finding Vivian Maier,” about a nanny whose previously unknown cache of photographs earned her posthumous recognition as an accomplished street photographer.

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

“It matters, in part because the animation field is still so dominated by men,” she added. “I’ve seen the posture of my female students change when I have told them about Bess. They’re like, yes, I have a place at this table. I have a place at the head of this table.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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