Friday, May 1, 2009

& Then There’s Nell…. (part 1)

Had someone told me back last August when Robert Frost’s Banjo started that I wouldn’t have written a feature about actress/writer/director Nell Shipman until the first of May, I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s true that Nell has come up in a few earlier posts, notably one about Lon Chaney (a review of Nomads of the North) & one about renowned cinematographer Joseph Walker, best known for his work with Capra, but who got his start with Shipman in the silent era, but this is the first post that’s really devoted to her.

Nell Shipman has played a huge role in Eberle & my life over the past several years. As the Alice in Wonder Band was breaking up, we were casting around for a new music project. Knowing my love of silent films & her love of independent women artists, Eberle hit on the idea of writing a score for a film made by a woman she’d heard about who’d made films in Idaho in the 1920s. We purchased a VHS copy of two films, Back to God’s Country & Something New—these were issued by the Canadian Film Archive, since Ms Shipman was born in Vancouver, British Columbia (née Helen Barham).

We were enthralled by her work, especially by the melodrama Back to God’s Country. The film is in many ways a deconstruction of melodrama; although the heroine finds herself in peril, she is the agent of her own rescue (with a lot of help from a trusty Great Dane named Wapi). Her husband, meanwhile, languishes for much of the film in a sick bed while Nell’s character, Dolores LeBeau, affects their escape from a truly dastardly villain, Captain Rydal.

The film, which was released in 1919, was adapted from a short story by James Oliver Curwood, an extremely popular adventure writer of the day—in fact, Shipman made major changes to the original story, making her character a much more active heroine. Curwood apparently was infuriated with Shipman about these revisions, & the two had a falling out. This didn’t prevent the film from being very successful—it was made for $67,000 & grossed $1.5 million during its run. As I conjectured in an earlier post, the falling out between Shipman & Curwood may well have kept Shipman from acting with Lon Chaney in Nomads of the North, also based on a Curwood story & also directed by David Hartford. That would have been a dream match-up of two of the silent eras strongest actors—one of whom is justly immortalized, while the other has fallen into an unjustified obscurity.

As I mentioned, Shipman was Canadian by birth, but her family moved to Seattle & that’s where she began her acting career at age 13; as a teenager, Shipman worked in stock theater & vaudeville. When she was 18 she sold the rights to her novel Under the Crescent to Universal Studios, & it was produced as a serial drama in 1915. However, like much of the early work that Shipman wrote or appeared in, this film has been lost. The novel was available online at one point as a free pdf—I downloaded a copy—but as far as I can tell, it’s not available any longer. It was also around this time that Nell married theatrical entrepreneur Ernest Shipman, a man over 20 years older than her.

Around this time, Nell became involved in films as an actress as well as a writer & director (Shipman always wrote—in fact, even after her onscreen career had ended, she remained productive & wrote the screenplay for the 1935 Cary Grant/Myrna Loy film, Wings in the Dark). Sadly, her films prior to Back to God’s Country are all presumed lost; IMDB lists thirteen films prior to 1919 in which she appeared (usually as leading lady), including her first collaboration with Curwood 1916’s God’s Country & the Woman. IMDB also lists another nine pre-1919 films for which Shipman wrote the screenplay or the scenario.

Following the split with Curwood, & also a split from her husband, Nell formed her own production company based in southern California (her family lived in Glendale at this time, where he father was a doctor). Two films shot during that period survive: Something New, a melodrama set in the desert that mainly features long chase scenes with a Maxwell sedan traveling terrain it never was intended to cross—to my mind, this is the least interesting of Shipman’s surviving films—& the delightful A Boy, A Bear, & His Dog. Around this time Shipman also wrote, directed & starred in The Girl From God’s Country, a follow-up on the big success of Back to God’s Country. Unfortunately the film, which is lost, was a rather expensive flop. Although Shipman would go on to make some fantastic films in the next few years, her fortunes in terms of commercial success were about to take a downturn.

Shipman was unquestionably a true independent; unfortunately, her efforts to distance herself from the burgeoning Hollywood studio system tended to work against her. As the studios began to consolidate power in Hollywood in the early 1920s, Nell was moving her own production company to the rather unlikely location of Priest Lake, Idaho—unlikely, that is, unless like Shipman your passion is location filming. Shipman films routinely included some very intense location shooting. For instance, the arctic scenes in Back to God’s Country were shot at Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta in some truly harrowing conditions—so harrowing in fact, that the original leading man, Ronald Byram, died of pneumonia during the filming & had to be replaced by Wheeler Oakum. Her Idaho films, The Grub Stake & Little Dramas from Big Places also feature scenes with Nell (& co-stars) tramping thru deep snow, climbing mountains & dog sledding across frozen lakes. Shipman was an athletic woman who performed her own stunts, including diving into a rapids during a scene in Back to God’s Country—during which she was almost swept away.

While the location shooting, filmed by master cinematographer Joseph Walker, is both
stunning & evocative, it also separated Shipman from the studio system. After a series of financial disasters, including a catastrophic stroke of bad luck when the distribution company that picked up The Grub Stake went bankrupt, Shipman had to dismantle her studio, & left Priest Lake broke. But although Shipman certainly hit hard times, but it appears from her wonderful autobiography, The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart that she remained optimistic & vigorous, even tho her comeback never came.

There’s a lot more to say about Nell Shipman—I haven’t even begun to talk about how she championed the humane treatment of animals in films, not to mention her uncanny ability to act with animals—including bears. Because there’s more to tell, stay tuned: next Monday, part two of this feature on Nell will talk about wild creatures, romanticism, the west, tree-hugging, & will discuss her Idaho period more. In the meantime, the slideshow presents some images of Nell—mostly either early pictures or pictures associated with Back to God’s Country & The Girl From God’s Country. The music is a theme from our score to Back to God’s Country (thanks for support from the Idaho Commission on the Arts & our most redoubtable benefactor, Tom Trusky of the Idaho Film Collection). The score was composed in 2004-2005 & led directly to our commission for scoring The Grub Stake; the latter score was issued by the Idaho Film Collection on their Shipman box set! Our Back to God’s Country score is still waiting for yours truly to get it together to sync it with the film, tho we've performed it live on several occasions. Be sure to check out the beautiful sheet music cover designed by our friend Lori Hohs (the first frame in the slideshow).

& be sure to check back Monday for more Nell Shipman!


  1. "And Then There's Nell" is very cool. Thank you for getting my toes to tapping. Another Canadian treasure, eh? ;>) I look forward to learning more about Nell.

  2. Thanks Sandra:

    Nell is a treasure indeed, & a presence in the history of film who deserves to be much better known. She was like Chaplin in the sense that she did it all-- wrote, acted, directed, edited, etc. As I tried to suggest, she was a thorough feminist who put a decidely feminist spin on genres like melodrama.

    & so glad you liked the tune!

  3. Excellent post. She brings to mind another fabulous actress/writer/director from the same time period, Frances Marion.

  4. Hi Willow:

    Good call on Frances Marion. As far as her writing work goes, I'm a big fan of her adaptation of "The Red Mill" starring Marion Davies, & "The Wind" with Lillian Gish also has some really haunting moments.

  5. The name Nell Shipman is somewhat familiar to me, but I've never seen her work. I bet my mom has.

    Several years ago, I was the PR Director for the Oklahoma Arts Council, which managed public funding for the arts. NASAA and the NEA along with OAC were always looking for great stories that demonstrated the tremendous benefits of public funding for the arts. I think they might be interested in featuring this subject in their publications or in materials designed to support public funding for the arts. These are tough economic times. I hope public arts funding does not suffer...again.

  6. Hi Jen:

    We received a lot of support fropm the Idaho Commission on the Arts for our two film scores-- as I recall, we received two grants for each, & it really made a big difference. It's sad--not to mention hard on folks like us!--that arts funding is pretty much always the first thing to be cut.

    Glad you enjoyed this!


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.