Monday, May 4, 2009

& Then There’s Nell…. (part 2)

If you recall the lead-off picture from last Friday’s &Then There’s Nell (part 1) post, you’ll recall that Nell Shipman is posing with a dog. That’s a Great Dane named Rex, one of the co-stars of her 1919 Back to God’s Country; Rex played Wapi, a vicious mistreated dog that forms a loving bond with Shipman’s character Dolores LeBeau & one that provides valiant help as she & her husband escape from the villain (in a climactic dog-sled chase scene!)

Rex was a very mild-mannered dog; it was necessary, however, to get shots of a dog who wasn’t mild-mannered, one that could be seen as menacing. Because of this, the Wapi character was portrayed by a second dog as well, a trained guard dog known as Tresore. Tresore was used in scenes where Wapi is agitated & threatening, while Rex was used in scenes that show Wapi as a lovable giant, tamed by affection for Dolores.

According to Idaho Film Collection Director Tom Trusky, one day while shooting Back to God’s Country the filming was moving from a scene where Tresore was straining against his chain, barking viciously, to one in which Rex would be cuddled by Nell. Someone neglected to switch the dogs, however, so Nell made her entrance & hugged & petted the guard dog without incident; Tresore reacted affectionately towards her. Director David Hartford apparently was aware of the mix-up, but seeing that the scene was going smoothly, he kept the cameras rolling. But after the scene was shot, Hartford made some remark about “some guard dog that is,” & walked toward Tresore, at which point the Great Dane went for his throat. Hartford was unharmed (tho presumably gained renewed respect for Tresore). Shipman took this as a definitive sign that she was meant to work with animals.

As you can see in the picture at top, this included bears. In the photo, Nell is seen with one of her beloved bears, Brownie. Brownie acted in several Shipman films, including The Grub Stake. But her films were filled with animal actors—besides bears & dogs, you’ll see raccoons, beavers, cougars, skunks, porcupines, deer, owls & more. In fact, her studio at Priest Lake included a veritable zoo.

But while this is noteworthy, it was hardly unheard of to use animals in films during the silent era. What did make Shipman’s use of animal actors so significant was both her uncanny rapport with animals & her insistence on humane treatment. During this era, animals were often mistreated in films; drugged or abused until they were submissive; shooters were kept on the set, prepared to kill large animals that became threatening. Shipman forbade any mistreatment & banned guns from the set. She believed that animals sensed fear & would react to it in dangerous way; she also believed that animals sensed trust & would react to that in kind. The fact that her filming was never disrupted by any incidents involving her many animal actors is a strong practical recommendation for her humane methods (tho the moral underpinning of her ideas is even more compelling).

This isn’t unconnected from Shipman’s overall vision of the natural world as the place of spiritual regeneration, the locus of spiritual selfhood & connection—“God’s Country” indeed. This is illustrated in The Grub Stake when her character Faith Diggs, hounded by her villanous husband & injured, finds peace & a renewed “faith” (herself) amongst a family of bears after becoming lost in a dark & stormy forest. We see this renewal in her peaceful & playful interaction not only with the bears, but also with porcupines, deer & a wolf; in addition we see her addressing God in the midst of Priest Lake’s breathtaking scenery (brilliantly filmed by legendary cinematographer Joseph Walker); these are Faith’s renewed avowls of "faith."

Nell’s love of the natural world ran very deep, & her feeling for it certainly could be termed “religious” or spiritual. As such she was certainly an inheritor of 19th century romanticism, but her deep cinematic study of this is a singular achievement. As a woman of the (old) west, she portrayed a deep sense of conservation (in a time when this was considered much more than “a personal virtue”); in fact her character Dreena the witch in her Little Dramas from Big Places is seen literally hugging a tree.

In a shameless plug for ourselves, I’ll remind readers that Volume 3 (“At Lionhead Lodge”) of the Idaho Film Collection’s 3-DVD Shipman set contains The Grub Stake with score composed & performed by us—Eberle & me & about 20 instruments. This DVD also contains the surviving Little Dramas from Big Places, which are truly wonderful short films also shot around Priest Lake, Idaho in the early to mid 1920s; & in addition, there’s a fantastic award-winning documentary put together by Idaho Film Collection Director Tom Trusky & Paul Brand (who produced the DVD set) about Shipman’s experience at Lionhead Lodge, her Idaho film studio. The DVD is available here from Boise State bookstore or here from

The slideshow features a selection from our score for The Grub Stake. Eberle plays the melodica on this one, & I’m playing a hollowbody electric guitar. Joshua Housh did the sound, & dear pal Dani Leone kept everything else afloat during a frantic five-day recording session. The selection occurs early in the film & contains a few themes that are developed throughout the score.

The images of Nell are from her time at Priest Lake, with the exception of the painting which is from 1930. Along with the images of Nell, there's a Bijou Orchestrette publicity shot & a picture of us with Idaho Film Collection (& Shipman maven) Tom Trusky.

Our score was composed with generous assistance from the Idaho Commission on the Arts & the Idaho Film Collection.



  1. What a cool lady. I'm intrigued by the amount of control Shipman apparently had over the way her films were shot. She must have been quite a force.

    Completely off-topic: Is anybody else having trouble with Blogger? Some time yesterday, the automatic feed went haywire, and now I can't see either the header or the first few blogs (I googled this one). I gather the feed isn't working. Is it just me?

  2. Hi Sandra:

    Yes, when I was writing these I particularly thought you might find Shipman interesting. She is a very dynamic onscreen presence & everything I've heard about her makes me think that "quite a force" is right on the mark.

    I see what you mean--on "Amazing Voyages" the widget in the right frame doesn't have updated blog entries. I assume this a "blog list" widget? The one here seems to be updating. tho I tend to come to everything thru Google Reader.

    Maybe someone else has an answer for Sandra?

  3. Hi John.I back from a busy weekend.'just catching up with things.I look forward to reading your new posts tonight.

  4. Hi Tony:

    Always glad to see you stopping by-- more of my dad's photos, which I believe you like.

  5. I really enjoyed that YouTube piece, the music, the images, especially that final photo of her by the tree with the dog. I relate deeply to that... have never heard of Nell Shipman or her films but everything you have written here appeals very much to me. I hope to find them and see them soon. thank you

  6. Great slides and music. Some of those stills are amazing: B&W affords much better depth of field than color, and that really shows in these pictures.

  7. Hi Rene & K:

    Rene: I really recommend Shipman's films-- especially to folks who are ok with silent movies. Her stories are strong, & she provides such a vital presence. The fact that Joseph Walker was her cinematographer is icing on the cake.

    K: Glad you enjoyed the slideshow. Some of those shots really are quite remarkable-- the one of her & Brownie, the one Rene mentioned, of her with Tex the dog in particular, & that shot taken from "The Grub Stake" when she's wading into the water are all special favorites.

  8. Nell's name is vaguely familiar, but I have never seen any of the films you mention (although I'm definitely intrigued).
    The Great Dane doesn't look like your typical Great Dane, does he? He's more like an Italian Cane Corso.
    Coicidentally, you mentioned Lon Chaney and Kevin and I are halfway through watching "The Defiant Ones" with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. Lon Chaney plays a reporter following the men in the hunt for the two escaped convicts, Curtis and Poitier.
    (We call our white cat, Blanche, Lon Chaney because she has many unique expressions and positions that disguise her.)


  9. Hi Kat:

    Yes, if you like silent films at all I think you'd really like Nell. Blanche is named after one of my all-time favorite actors, the man of a thousand faces, the senior Lon, who passed away in the early 30s, but played such unforgettable roles as the Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback of Notre Dame & "He" in He Who Gets Slapped. He's fantastic. I really wish Nell Shipman & Chaney could have acted together in "Nomads of the North," & they well might have had she not had the falling out with Curwood.

    Always happy to see you stop by!


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