AFI Alum Mindy Johnson Restores Legacy of Early Animator Bessie Mae Kelley – American Film Institute


AFI Alum Mindy Johnson Restores Legacy of Early Animator Bessie Mae Kelley

Bessie Mae Kelley’s vaudeville circular promotional photograph. Courtesy of Manitou Productions.

While the work of early male animators, including Max and Dave Fleischer (BETTY BOOP) and Walter Lantz (WOODY WOODPECKER), has been historically well-documented, the essential contributions of early women animators have often been overlooked, minimized or erased over the years. In honor of Women’s History Month, we sat down with historian Mindy Johnson (AFI Class of 1989) who recently unearthed two films by Bessie Mae Kelley once thought lost to time, which are the earliest-known hand-drawn animated films directed by a woman. Kelley’s restored work had its world premiere at the Academy Museum in December 2022 – 100 years after its creation.

Johnson is the author of “Ink & Paint – The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation” and a professor of film and animation studies at CalArts and Drexel University. She was recently honored with the June Foray Award by the International Animated Film Association. We spoke with her about her journey to restore Kelley’s legacy, the early pioneer’s influence on animators including Walt Disney, and how she plans to continue championing her story in an exciting new book and documentary.

AFI: What made you suspect that there might have been earlier female animators working whom historians hadn’t identified yet?

Mindy: After I published “Ink & Paint” on the history of women at Disney, I received the Academy’s Film Scholar Award in 2019, which was a huge honor, and they charged me with uncovering more early women animators. Many early known male pioneers of animation had done what were called “lightning sketches,” so my theory was that there had to have been women doing that too. I was looking through a range of early vaudeville materials and stumbled across a short article that talked about an act featuring, “the only woman animator.” Even I was a little skeptical at first. I was able to find historical evidence of Bessie Mae Kelley in 1920s Vaudeville, but at the start I couldn’t place her at the studios at all.

Close-up image of opening titles from one of the surviving nitrate films by Bessie Mae Kelley. Courtesy of Manitou Productions.

AFI: How were you ultimately able to verify that Kelley worked at Bray Studios and confirm that she was in fact one of the earliest known female animators?

Mindy: As I was working to round out my research, I reached out to early animation historians in New York to ask if they had heard of Bessie Mae Kelley or had any clues. One colleague had some early drawings by Frank Mosher, who was a collaborator of Paul Terry’s at Bray Studios and ran Terry Tunes for many years. He noticed that, in one of Mosher’s sketchings, there were a bunch of male animators, but also a woman was present who nobody could ID. He described her as looking like a flapper and said they were pretty sure that she was either a secretary, an ink-and-paint girl or a cleaning woman. But after sending me a picture of the sketching, I was able to directly match it with a photo of Bess.

AFI: Can you talk about the importance of genealogy in your research process and how you were able to recover and restore two of Kelley’s short films?

Mindy: Unlocking the key to Bess took a freak accident. My mother had a really bad fall, so I flew back to Minnesota to be with her. At that time, I knew that Bess had married a man originally from my home state. I was able to get in touch with Bess’ great-niece who pointed me in the direction of a cousin in San Diego who had saved Bess’ scrapbook, journal and materials from when she worked at Bray Studios. After discovering two film cannisters, I literally hand-delivered the nitrate prints to the Academy at the height of the pandemic. Sadly, we lost at least three of Bess’ films which had started corroding and disintegrated in one of the film cannisters, but there were film ends that I was able to get onto a flatbed scanner, so we have proof that Bess was animating and directing the GASOLINE ALLEY comic strips. Speaking with comic experts, they all said, “Nope, nothing was ever made.” But now we have real evidence that proves otherwise.

Opening title card for “Flower Fairies” (1921). Courtesy of Manitou Productions.

I worked with the Academy’s Preservation team, as well as Katie Pratt, an independent restoration artist, here in Los Angeles, and she did absolutely stunning frame-by-frame work to restore two of Bess’ shorts films ­– FLOWER FAIRIES (1921) and A MERRY CHRISTMAS (1922). When I located Bess’ surviving films, it was exciting to discover her credits – “directed by,” “animated by.” I also brought in composer Carla Patullo and commissioned original scores for the films. Bess’ renderings, her animation, is gorgeous for the early 1920s. You can compare it to anything out of Disney – just a couple of years later or even a decade later – and it’s still not as clean or crisp as what she was doing.

AFI: Speaking of Disney, did Kelley influence others in animation, including the famed animator?

Mindy: Bess met Walt and Roy Disney as they would come through New York for business in the 1920s. At Fables Studios under Paul Terry, Bess was animating and worked on the early AESOP’S FABLES where she was tasked to design a mouse couple. The original names she gave the mice were Roderick and Gladys, but there were also variations including “Milton and Elizabeth” and “Milton and Lizzie” – whether that’s a nod to Bess herself, we don’t know. Mice existed as characters at the time, but Bess’ animation was the first mice couple. AESOP’S FABLES were the popular cartoons of the day and had tremendous influence on Walt Disney. He’s even on record as saying in the early ‘20s that he wanted to make cartoons as good as AESOP’S FABLES, and Bess’ mice had appeared by that time.

AFI: Tell us more about the upcoming book and documentary on Kelley that you’re planning.

Surviving materials from a collection featuring early animation walk cycles of Avery and Walt Wallet, two of the lead characters of the 1918 Frank King comic strip series GASOLINE ALLEY. Courtesy of Manitou Productions.

Mindy: This project began as a labor of love, and it’s now expanding to include a book and documentary I’m in production on with Oscar®-nominated producer Jinko Gotoh, about Bessie Mae Kelley’s story and women at the dawn of the industry. Our earliest known female animator is Helena Smith Dayton, who was doing stop motion Claymation in late 1915/early 1916, and it’s one of my holy grails to find her films which are considered lost. Virginia May was also doing stop motion. Lotte Reiniger began animating in the late teens. But what’s unique about Bessie Mae Kelley’s work is that these films are the earliest surviving, hand drawn animation that were animated and directed by a woman. My research examines underrepresented artists, as well as other early women animators, and the journey is ongoing. It’s literally finding threads and weaving them together, but these discoveries are game-changing and completely shift everything we thought we knew about our collective cinematic past.

AFI: Why do you feel it is important for present-day audiences and animators to remember Kelley and her work, and how do you hope that will impact the legacy of early women filmmakers?

Mindy: This discovery changes every written book, every film and our complete understanding of what we thought we knew about our past. But moving forward, it’s important for people to understand that women have always been at the table. My hope and goal with this, and why I do what I do, is to change that perception. When I play BE NATURAL at CalArts and we talk about the early filmmaker Alice Guy Blaché, my students ask why she isn’t in our text. That’s the mindset we have to shift. We have a responsibility to change the history books. And history is exactly that – it is “his-story.” It is predominantly written about, preserved, archived and documented from a male perspective. There really were more women in front of and behind the camera than there are today, and there were more women working in animation than anyone ever realized.

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