HerStory: Bessie Mae Kelley – Comic Chronicles

One hundred years ago there was one woman drawing and directing animated films.

From animation historian Jerry Beck:

In the earliest days of the animation industry, one woman animated and directed alongside the men who later became titans of the artform, yet her name and work have been lost – until now. The discovery of this pioneer changes everything.

On December 19, 2022 The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will present, along with shorts by her peers Winsor McCay, John Randolph Bray, Otto Messmer, Dave Fleischer, and others, the rediscovered films of Bessie Mae Kelley from 1921 and 1922.

In a landmark event, this ground-breaking artist, and her surviving films, are finally introduced to the world, marking the debut of the earliest-known hand-drawn animation – animated and directed by a woman. Join author/historian Mindy Johnson, as she once again transforms our animated past with a premiere event celebrating the pivotal discovery of “the only woman animator” in the earliest days of animation as well as other women artists at the dawn of an industry.

Flower Fairies (world premiere)
DIRECTOR: Bessie Mae Kelley.
1921. 5 min. USA. B&W. Silent. Digital.

A Merry Christmas (world premiere)
DIRECTOR: Bessie Mae Kelley.
1922. 3 min. USA. B&W. Silent. Digital

The New York Times has the known background of Bessie Mae Kelley (free article).

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.

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.)


The Brattleboro Reformer November 25, 1925



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