Silents are Golden: Silent Directors – The Adventurous Nell Shipman
It’s fascinating how many silent era directors were more than willing to risk life and limb in pursuit of authentic filming locations. Nell Shipman is a prominent example. Known mainly to silent film buffs today, she was an actress, producer and director who made adventure-themed films in her native Canada, at times in the most frigid and remote locations.
Shipman was born Helen Barham in 1892, to a middle-class family in Victoria, British Columbia. After spending her childhood in Canada her family decided to move to Seattle. In 1905, at only thirteen years old, she decided to become an actress and joined Paul Gilmore’s traveling stage company. During the next few years she grew accustomed to staying in cheap boarding houses and carefully tracking her pennies as the company toured the U.S.
While Shipman largely took the difficulties of stock company work in stride, one traumatic experience would have a large impact on her. In her autobiography The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart she described how she was followed back to her room one night and threatened with a knife. She never detailed precisely what followed, but in later years she thought her near-obsessive love of animals became a way of coping with that horrible event.
When she was 18 she married Ernest Shipman, the manager of a stage company in New York. In a couple years they would have a son, Barry, and would move to Hollywood to try their luck in the rapidly-growing film industry. Nell began working as a screenwriter while Ernest became a publicity man. Her acting debut was in the short The Ball of Yarn (1913), and after a couple more years of screenwriting she produced, directed and acted in God’s Country and the Woman (1915) for Vitagraph. This was the first of her films to revolve around capable women and wilderness settings, and she would often be referred to as “The Girl From God’s Country.”
Having snowy adventure-themed films in mind and wanting them set in her native Canada, Nell would partner with James Oliver Curwood to create the Shipman-Curwood Producing Company. Curwood was a prominent author famed for his novels set in the wilds of Alaska and the Yukon, and Nell wanted to adapt his story “Wapi the Walrus” for the big screen. Ernest created Canadian Photoplays Ltd. and found investors for the project, and soon Nell’s studio trekked to Alberta, Canada to film what would become Back to God’s Country (1919).
Their location was a tiny settlement by Lesser Slave Lake, 150 miles north of Edmonton, composed mainly of fishermen’s cabins with dirt floors and a dining hall. The winter temps would drop to as low as a bone-chilling 50 below zero, and they had to keep their cameras outdoors so temperature changes wouldn’t cause static. The cold made the two-week shoot not only a grueling experience, but a dangerous one. Director Bert Van Tuyle suffered a bad case of frostbite on his right foot, and actor Ronald Byran developed what turned out to be a fatal case of pneumonia.
The completed Back to God’s Country did become a box office hit–in Canada it was the highest-grossing silent film of the entire era. It followed the story of Dolores, an attractive young woman living with her father in the Canadian wilderness. She marries Peter, a visitor from the city. Tragedy strikes when an outlaw sets his eye on her and ends up killing her father. When Peter is transferred to a remote northern location, the couple intends to journey there by ship. To Dolores’s horror, the captain is none other than the murderous outlaw. Peter gets injured, the ship gets trapped in ice, and Dolores must make a daring journey by dogsled to find the nearest doctor. A heroic dog named Wapi also helps to save the day. The film was not only exciting, but there was also a (tasteful) nude scene where Dolores is shown frolicking in a river–which was exploited by Ernest quite blatantly.
The success of Back to God’s Country enabled Nell to keep making other adventurous films, such as Trail of the Arrow (1920) and the aptly-named The Girl from God’s Country (1921). By this time she had split from her husband Ernest, thanks to her long-time affair with Bert Van Tuyle. In 1922 she decided to move her company to Priest Lake in northern Idaho, a rustic location that wasn’t too far from Spokane. By this time she also had an impressive zoo of around 200 animals, including wolves, bears, cougars, porcupines, dogs, elk, and eagles, which were frequently featured in her films. To the amusement of the locals, her menagerie was also carted over to Priest Lake on a series of barges.
It was during their first winter in Idaho that a frightening event took place that seemed to come straight from one of Nell’s films. Van Tuyle’s foot, which was still bothering him, developed gangrene and the pain and fever made him go quite literally insane. Nell found him outside hitching up the dog sled and then followed him as he impulsively drove across the frozen lake, refusing to stop. For hours she pursued him by snowshoe, and then with the dogsled when he abandoned it and kept feverishly trudging along, dragging his infected foot. When he finally collapsed they were found by two loggers, and with their help Nell managed to reach the nearest village. Van Tuyle was taken to a hospital and had three toes amputated.
Sadly, Nell’s filmmaking days would be numbered. An angry confrontation at a New Year’s Eve party ended her relationship with Van Tuyle, and her films were having increasingly high production costs. There were also rumors in the Priest Lake community that her animals were beginning to starve–whether from lack of funds, neglect, or the harsh winters seems unclear. She would declare bankruptcy in 1925 and her beloved animals would be taken away–some ended up at the San Diego zoo.
Nell and her son Barry would move to New York City, where Nell would marry painter Charles Ayres. They had two children, Charles and Daphne, but got divorced in 1934. Nell would keep busy with various writing projects, including her thoughtful autobiography, but never quite achieved a hoped-for comeback as an actress and director. She passed away in 1970, at the age of 77.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.
Fascinating. Thank you for sharing this remarkable story.
What a fascinating story, Lea! I’ve never heard of Nell Shipman – thank you for introducing her to me. That shoot in Canada sounds absolutely harrowing — and how interesting about all of her animals! I’d love to see Back to God’s Country. Is it available anywhere?
Wonderful article. Nell Shipman was my great aunt. I have lots of information, photos and memorabilia which I wouuld be happy to share.