If Nell Shipman isn’t a household name or at the very least a part of every Canadian film history curriculum, she certainly ought to be. There’s certainly no better time to discover the woman who helped put Canada on the cinematic world map than the 100thAnniversary of her best-known work, Back to God’s Country.
Born as Helen Barham in 1892 Victoria, BC, Nel showed an early aptitude for vaudeville, ultimately going on tour all across North America in her teen years accompanied by her mother. It was on the circuit that she met stage producer Ernest Shipman in 1910, soon becoming his fourth wife at 18. The pair moved to California to try their luck at the then-new motion picture industry springing up in Hollywood. Nell soon found work acting for films by Famous Players-Lasky and Vitagraph, scoring her big break with 1915’s God’s Country and the Woman.
The picture was based of a novel written by American novelist James Oliver Curwood who at the time was only second to Jack London in the wilderness adventure genre. It was he who coined the term “God’s Country”, a euphemism for the mythical unspoiled white north of Canada portrayed in his novels which would later become the de-facto image of our nation in Hollywood’s eyes for the next half century.
After several more years where Nell both starred in and scripted several western and wilderness pictures, she and Ernest re-located to Calgary and incorporated Canadian Photoplays Ltd. in 1919 to produce Back To God’s Country, an adaptation of the Curwood short story Wapi the Walrus.
In the film, Shipman portrays Dolores LeBeau, a young woman living deep in the Canadian woods with her father (Roy Laidlaw) and possessing a rapport with animals to rival Snow White. She falls in love with government naturalist Peter (Wheeler Oakman), but is soon forced to run after an attempted rape of her by the lecherous Captain Rydal (Wellington A. Playter) leads to her father’s murder. Now married to Pete and travelling with him on an expedition to the Arctic, the pair are once again beset by Rydal who turns out to be Captain of the vessel and still intent on possessing Dolores. Pete is injured but Dolores finds an ally in the ill-treated dog Wapi who comes to her aid in an epic sled-dog chase that will determine her fate once and for all.
The film was just the right mix of exotic far north adventure and romance contemporary audiences sought at the time leading to resounding box office results worldwide, playing as far away as Australia and Japan. Quality aside, receipts may have certainly been helped by the film’s promotion of a nude swimming scene with the poster featuring the tagline “Don’t book Back To God’s Country unlessyou want to prove the nude is not rude.” While the advertising may have taken an exploitive angle, Shipman had insisted on performing the scene in order to portray a forthright “naturalness” of the female figure at a time when such depictions were looked down on as pure debauchery.
Less successful was the partnerships between Shipman and Curwood; who was furious that Nell had elevated the female role over the original animal lead in his story and with her husband Ernest which ended in divorce over her having fallen for the film’s Production Manager Bert Von Tuyle.
The Shipmans divorced and went their separate ways with Ernest producing several more wilderness pictures, none nearly as successful as his 1919 hit. Nell married Bert and the pair formed a new company, Nell Shipman Productions in 1921 and set up shop on Upper Priest Lake, Idaho. There along with a skeleton crew and a zoo’s-worth of animals featuring deer, raccoons, owls and coyotes (some more domesticated than others), the company produced several independent pictures over the next several years including Trail of the North Wind and The Grub Stake.
Shipman would not only act and direct, but also perform her own stunts, wrangle the animals, and supervise the editing as well. Monopolized vertical integration in the film industry as the 1920s wore on saw the collapse of many independent producers and both Shipmans were no exception. Nell left Bert to remarry again and spent the remainder of her film career as a screenwriter whose credits included the likes of Wings in the Dark(1935) starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.
There’s plenty more to Nell’s story than I can touch on in just one article, but with the works female filmmakers gaining more prominence among audiences and critics alike as of late as well as renewed availability of Nell Shipman’s work on the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers collection from Kino Lorber, there has never been a better time to re-discover one of the pioneers that helped to make their work and those of other Canadian filmmakers possible.
Sources for this article include:
Nell Shipman: A Case of Heroic Femininity by Kay Armatage
One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema by George Melnyk