In the 1920s, Bessie Mae Kelley would travel the country for her vaudeville circuit with a suitcase full of paper, charcoal and a giant donkey in tow.
An animation pioneer, Kelley hand-drawn a mouse couple named Milton and Mary before there was ever a Mickey or a Minnie Mouse. She would inform vaudeville audiences about the new world of moving cartoons in a burgeoning industry called animation. She even billed herself as “the only woman animator” on these tours.
Yet much of Kelley’s story and work was lost in the pages of her own journals and left undocumented—until now.
Earlier this year, animation historian Mindy Johnson was searching for female animators who may have been erased from history when she came across an illustration depicting pioneers of the industry. In the corner of the image stood a lone woman who she suspected was Kelley, despite one of Johnson’s colleagues writing her off as a “cleaner” or a “secretary.”
“Women’s roles were often shunned or ignored, or reduced to a single log line of pretty girls who traced and colored,” Johnson said. But she had a theory that women in the vaudeville era were much more involved in the early days of animation than previously known.
Johnson followed her hunch and went down a rabbit hole that historians only dream of.
She began making cold calls, flying across the country and knocking on the doors of Kelley’s relatives. She eventually tracked down a great-niece and great-nephew who held on to some of Kelley’s letters, artwork and film rolls. Some of it was damaged, but Johnson was able to piece together parts of her story and of her film.
According to Johnson, Kelley was studying art at the Pratt Institute in New York when, as part of the first generation of film, she fell in love with the medium.
“She kind of made a nuisance of herself at the studios and they ended up hiring her,” Johnson said.
Kelley started out in the industry doing small jobs like washing film cells, but she worked her way up and Johnson said she eventually “worked elbow to elbow with Max Fleischer, Paul Terry and Walter Lantz,” animators who were household names. .
Kelley collaborated with Terry to hand-draw cartoons for his famous animated adaptation of Aesop’s Fables, including the mouse couple known as Milton and Mary.
“Even Walt Disney is on record as saying that when he started his studio in Kansas City, he wanted to make comics as good as Aesop’s Fables,” Johnson said.
Kelley both animated and directed shorts that, thanks to Johnson’s research, are now considered the earliest known animated films hand-drawn and directed by a woman. This erasure, Johnson says, is “common in film, it’s common in life in general. Women’s stories just aren’t being told.”
“History is recorded, preserved or rewritten in archives from a male perspective, and especially in the history of animation,” she said.
Johnson’s discovery of Kelley’s work set in motion a project she plans to turn into a book and film about Kelley and other previously unrecognized women in animation. And earlier this week, Johnson presented her discoveries at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, where she also screened two restored short films by Kelley.
The first is a five minute film titled Flower fairiescompleted in 1921. It uses a technique called composite animation in which hand-drawn animation is combined with live action footage.
The second three-minute film from 1922 is mentioned A Merry Christmas, with stop-motion animation in addition to composite animation. Johnson says animators spanning generations, and several of Kelley’s family members, attended the screening.
“It was a great pleasure to sit in the dark and look at the audience and see them take in something that I’ve lived with for years. And to see it change their world,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts and Drexel University, says discovering Kelley’s role in animation isn’t just about filling in the gaps of history, it’s also inspiring a new generation of animators from underrepresented backgrounds. in an industry still dominated by men.
“For my students, I can see them standing a little taller and more confident about their work and where they’re going when they know the path is paved,” she said. “Once they learn that women have always been there, they’ve always been in the room, they can move forward.”