The Legacy of Nell Shipman

In my recent list of the Top 5 Canadian Actresses, which consisted mostly of figures still very much alive to this day, the top spot was claimed by Mary Pickford, whose pioneering influence both during and after the silent era is still felt to this very day.


Despite her many progressive achievements in her time, especially as a woman in a male-dominated industry, one particular trend that Pickford is recognised for defining and popularising is the ingénue role in cinema; or, the beautiful, kind, sweet virgin with a touch of naivety and a lack of any real independence. It is essentially a damsel in distress archetype.


A product of its own time, the ingénue is hardly a progressive revelation in the depiction of women in cinema, even despite being a staple in numerous classics. Yet, there was another influential Canadian actress and filmmaker of this period who not just challenged this notion, but actively rebelled against it in her own cinematic depiction of femininity. This pioneer was Nell Shipman.


Nell was born Helen Foster-Barham in Victoria, British Columbia in 1982. At the age of 13 Shipman moved to Seattle, Washington, later gaining experience in theatre before meeting her first husband, 39-year-old fellow Canadian Ernest Shipman (a somewhat influential figure in the development of the Canadian film industry himself), at the age of 18. The two moved to Hollywood and began careers in the film industry, where Nell earned several leading roles, one of which she even directed and produced herself.


With the help of Ernest to attain funding, the couple managed to produce Nell’s screenplay Back to God’s Country in 1919, which went on to make a 300% profit, and is recognised as the most successful Canadian silent film of all time. This was due in no small part to the promotion of Nell’s brief nude scene in the film, which stands as one of the earliest examples of nudity in cinema, and was certainly equal parts controversial and ground-breaking for its time.


The immense success of Back to God’s Country led to Samuel Goldwyn (whose production company was later acquired by Marcus Loew, which merged with Loew’s production company to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) offering Shipman a 7-year contract, but instead decided to start her own production company with Ernest.


However, Nell and Ernest divorced soon after Back to God’s Own Country’s release, and neither filmmaker would achieve the same success as they did with the highly profitable film. The Canadian film industry too saw a momentary decline in its output, though the couple’s influence was already established, as the number of Hollywood films with Canadian plot had increased followed the film’s release.


Nell continued to write, direct, produce and act in films in the years that followed, with varying degrees of success, meanwhile forming several production companies in Canadian cities, adapting a number of Canadian novels, all of which were shot on location.


Ernest, who produced a number of other Canadian productions in the years that followed, fell into relative obscurity until his death in 1931.


Nell Shipman was a multi-faceted filmmaker who has proven to be an immensely fascinating, influential figure for a number of reasons, most notably because of her trailblazing depiction of feminist characters. For instance, in her most well-known feature, Back to God’s Country, Nell’s character is the heroine of the film, resisting the villain who wishes to “possess” her and ultimately saving her husband, which is a complete reversal of the previously mentioned ingénue role that Mary Pickford was known for.


Furthermore, both Nell and her one-time husband Ernest were great believers of shooting on location, something that was unusual for the silent era, with Ernest himself calling it “telling the truth in motion pictures.” This feeds into Nell’s great love for nature and desire to faithfully depict it in the films she made.


If all this was not enough, Nell was also an animal trainer and conservationist, featuring roughly 70 animals in films she wrote, produced, directed and starred in.


Although her name has largely faded from the public consciousness of today, Nell Shipman was an immensely influential figure in the cinematic feminist movement, the Hollywood silent era, and Canadian cinema as a whole. Additionally, her preference for shooting on location and altruistic treatment of animals on and off camera were ahead of her time, and while many may not know her name, her influence can still be felt to this very day.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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