In Their Own League Hall of Fame: Nell Shipman

By Bianca Garner

There’s a high chance that you haven’t heard of Nell Shipman. Like many pioneering female filmmakers of the silent cinema era, her name has become lost in time. So many of us who study film are aware of the ‘great’ film directors of this era: Cecil B. DeMille, Josef von Sternberg, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Erich von Stroheim. However, the achievements of female filmmakers from the silent period have often been overlooked by the history books who favor champion the achievements of their male counterparts. Nell Shipman is one of these pioneers who until very recently had fallen foul of falling through the pages of the history books.

Born in British Columbia in 1892, Nell was destined for great things. As a child, she had been bitten by the acting bug, and her talent wowed even her stern grandfather. When Nell was thirteen years old she joined a touring company and left home. Looking back at this through today’s perspective, it seems astonishing that her parents would allow her to go on tour, but they agreed. While on tour, Nell very quickly adapted to life in the theatre and it was her life on the road that led her to become hooked on films that were just emerging at this time.

At the age of eighteen, Nell would meet and marry Ernest Shipman, a promoter who was twice her age and had been married three times before. After Nell’s tour company had finished, the newly wedded couple moved California just as the film industry was beginning to take shape. Ernest started to set up his own film production company, while Nell struggled to find roles as an actress. It was now 1913 and she had just given birth to her first child. She found herself entering a screenwriting contest which she won (although according to Nell there weren’t any other contestants). Her script was made into a two-reel film and Nell found herself being hired to write scenarios on a film called “The Widows Secret”.

Nell Shipman
Nell Shipman second from the left

Whilst on-set, Nell found herself suddenly taking up the role as director (the film’s first director had essentially run off with the film’s leading actress). Nell took to this role like a duck taking to water although she was only credited as the film’s writer despite directing and starring in the film. The following year Nell would go on to direct “God’s Country and the Woman.” which she adapted from a short story by James Oliver Curwood. This was a groundbreaking film as Nell was one of the first directors to shoot her film entirely on location. The film followed Nell’s character surviving in the wild and it became such a hit that she was instantly dubbed the “Girl from God’s Country.”

Her success saw the likes of Samuel Goldwyn come knocking, offering her a seven-year contract as an actress. This would have been an excellent opportunity for Nell and would have been the answer to her financial struggles. However, Nell knew that being tied into a contract would limit her creative control and she would be typecast as the fragile melodramatic heroine. She turned down the off and would remain independent from the studio system throughout her career.

In 1918, Shipman contracted Spanish influenza during the international epidemic and nearly died. She lost all of her thick, long hair and had to wear a wig temporarily, but luckily her hair did eventually grow back. The illness was enough to keep Nell from working, as during her recovery she decided to create the production company “Shipman-Curwood Producing Company,” in partnership with Curwood. The company produced only a single film, based on Curwood’s short story, “Wapi the Walrus.” Nell adapted this for the screen herself. It was released as Back to God’s Country, to capitalize on her success in God’s Country and the Woman.

Back to Go's Country Nell Shipman
Nell Shipman in “Back to God’s Country”. Nude is NOT rude.

Nell also played the lead in the film, which featured her in a very brief, but controversial nude scene. A promotional advertisement for the film had a line drawing of a nude Nell, shown from the back and frolicking with several animals. Part of the caption read: “Don’t book Back To God’s Country unless you want to prove the Nude is NOT Rude.”

The production saw Nell facing many challenges while filming in Canada and in temperature well below freezing. These challenges included a producer contracting frostbite and losing three toes, a leading man contracting pneumonia and being hospitalized (he would later die as a result), and crew refusing to build sets. Nell’s determination and willpower paid off as the film was released in 1920 and was a major Canadian and international success.

Despite the film being extremely successful and earning over 300% profit, the businessmen made no further investment in the company. Author James Oliver Curwood was infuriated with Nell because she had changed the plot of his short story. “Back to God’s Country” was incredibly modern for its time, Nell’s character was the driving force of the film’s narrative and used her intelligence to solve problems that she faced. It was Nell’s character who saved the main male character, not the other way around. It was and still remains to this day, a proudly feminist film.

After shooting “Back to God’s Country”, Shipman and her co-star Bert Van Tuyle, with whom she was having an affair, moved back to Hollywood. She subsequently divorced Ernest Shipman. Nell decided to create her own production company which she called after herself and she established herself as an independent producer. She began work on her follow up film called “The Girl from God’s Country” in which Nell played twins (one a brunette, the other blonde), she was so devoted to playing the roles that she ensured that each character had their own unique appearance so the audience could easily distinguish between each twin.

nell camera
Nell Shipman behind the camera

The final cut of the film was almost three-hours long, much to the studio’s dismay. The film ended up being cut against Nell’s wishes, and she was so horrified by this that she sent ads to trade papers requesting that exhibitors not show the film. In the end, the trade papers refused to run the ad, and the film was a financial disaster. By now, the studio system was becoming powerful and those who operated outside the system found it increasingly difficult to have their pictures funded and exhibited.

Nell’s next film “The Grub Stake” (1923), ended up costing around $180,000 to produce. The film was well-received by critics, but unfortunately, the film was never distributed. The American distributor went bankrupt and during subsequent litigation, the film became tied up in the legal proceedings. By 1925, Nell’s production company had become bankrupt. Devastated, Nell had to send her collection of beloved animals (which she had collected throughout the years of filming) to the San Diego Zoo because she was unable to pay for their maintenance.

Nell Shipman on location
Nell Shipman on location

Nell also divorced Bert Van Tuyle, and in order to survive, she began writing scripts. Her stories would be adapted by other directors and despite attempts to raise money for other film projects, Nell would never go on to make another picture. Her last major project was her autobiography, entitled “The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart”. It was published posthumously by Boise State University through their Hemingway Western Studies Series. The university also houses the Nell Shipman Collection at Albertsons Library. Many of her films were preserved and are available through the library. Nell Shipman died at Cabazon, California at the age of 77.

Nell Shipman was certainly one of the most influential female filmmakers of the silent era, she didn’t allow others to stand in her way and she pioneered animal rights in films as well as presenting female characters in a positive light as strong, independent individuals who weren’t just damsels in distress. Nell was the type of woman who would face on her fears whether they be male studio heads or wild bears, and if there’s anything we can take away from her incredible journey, it’s that we mustn’t allow fear to hold us back.

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