Many artists are inspired by the legacy of those who went before, and Canada’s history is rich with talented, creative women. This post is the first in an occasional series celebrating some of those pioneers… in the visual arts, music, film and more. Today is the birthdate of Nell Shipman (born October 25, 1892), so who better to begin with than this trailblazer of the silent film era.
Nell Shipman (1892 – 1970) was born Helen Foster Barham in Victoria, BC. She began touring Canada and the U.S. as a vaudeville performer at the age of 14, with her mother joining her on the road to look out for her. At 18 she applied for work with a theatre company – the interviewer was 39-year-old manager, Ernest Shipman of Hull, Quebec. Ernest soon left his third wife, and he and Nell married in 1911.
The couple had a son, Barry, the following year, and moved to Hollywood. Nell soon became recognized for her talent as a writer, with one of her scripts adapted as a novel and another sold and filmed in Australia.
In 1915 she wrote, directed and acted in three films for Universal Studios. The following year she produced, directed and played the lead role in her first outdoor adventure, God’s Country and the Woman, which made her a star, and she was soon appearing on the covers of magazines.
In 1919 she produced the most successful silent film in Canadian history, Back to God’s Country, for which she also wrote the screenplay. The film was shot on location near Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta under harsh conditions, but it was the perfect showcase to introduce audiences to Nell’s skills with animals and the outdoors, as well as her beauty. She performed a controversial nude scene in the film – one of the first actresses to do so. With profits of $1.5 million (a fortune in those days), the film was a resounding success.
In 1920 Nell left Ernest for her Back to God’s Country production manager, Burt Van Tuyle. She created Nell Shipman Productions Inc. with a crew comprised mainly of fellow Canadians, and Nell as producer, writer, director and star. At the same time the passionate animal lover was speaking out against animal cruelty, and eventually owned the largest private zoo in North America.
At the peak of her popularity, Nell was an outspoken and innovative director and a pioneer in on-location filming. Her movies portrayed the rugged outdoor beauty of northern Canada (although they were, with the exception of Back to God’s Country, filmed in Washington or Idaho) with lots of snow, dogsleds, wildlife, and strong female leads – usually played by Nell herself. Most roles for women in silent films were that of helpless waifs, the proverbial damsels in distress. Nell’s heroines were modern, adventurous women who often rescued their male counterparts.
In the 1920s, major studios began taking over Hollywood, which was the death knoll for independent companies. Like so many others, Nel went bankrupt. She closed her production company, and sold her animals to the San Diego Zoo. She enjoyed some success writing screenplays, the most successful of which was Wings in the Dark, starring Myrna Loy and Cary Grant.
Nell died in California at the age of 77, leaving a legacy as a strong, adventurous, feminist role model and a pioneer of outdoor cinematography. Her autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart, was published after her death. The house she lived in from 1917 to 1920 in Glendale, California is now a museum known as The Doctor’s House. Back to God’s Country is available on DVD.
Images are public domain.