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Director, Screenwriter, Producer, Actor
Known to film buffs as the "Girl from God's Country" or the "Queen of the Dogsleds," Nell Shipman left her mark on Canadian and American cinema, and was one of the first, if not the first, Canadian woman filmmaker.
Director, screenwriter, producer and actor, Nell Shipman had a prosperous career in the 1910s and early 1920s, at a time when more and more women were moving behind the camera. This pioneer of independent cinema made her name by producing and directing films shot on location and became known for casting wild animals as co-stars in almost all her films.
Nell Shipman, née Helen Foster Barham, was born on October 25, 1892, in Victoria, British Columbia. Her parents, born in England, had settled in Canada with their son Maurice in the late 1880s. Nell was still young when the family left Canada and moved to Seattle, Washington, in the United States.
At the age of thirteen, after studying music and drama, Nell managed, with the help of her art teacher, to convince her parents to let her join Paul Gilmore's theatre company, which was then touring in the region. She went on the road with the company and travelled across the United States, from Hollywood to Alaska, through New York and Chicago, performing vaudeville. At the age of 18, she joined George Baker’s stock company, where she got a role in the play The Barrier. This is when she met producer and manager Ernest Shipman, originally from Ottawa, and would later become his fourth wife. The couple settled in California. In the following years, she left the stage for good to devote herself entirely to film.
After acting in a number of short films produced by Vitagraph, Selig and Universal, she retired from the screen temporarily in 1912 during her first pregnancy and started writing. The next three years were dedicated entirely to film. She wrote screenplays that she sold to Vitagraph, Selig and Universal. Her first film, entitled The Ball of Yarn, which she starred in, would never be released in theatres.
In 1915, she rewrote "Under the Crescent," which she had sold to Universal, and published it as a novel. Writing would be an important part of her life: she wrote several film scripts, as well as reviews, novels, short stories and her autobiography.
Her career as a filmmaker took off in 1916 with the release of the film God's Country and the Woman. Nell Shipman's screenplay for this film was based on a story by James Oliver Curwood entitled "Wapi the Walrus," which she adapted to give the female character a much more prominent role. This film introduced her to the general public and earned her the name "the Girl from God's Country." She became one of the first filmmakers to shoot a film entirely on location. This film featured the type of heroine she would play throughout her career: a strong, brave, independent woman who faces various adventures in a wilderness — often the Far North of Canada — and who confronts the villains and saves her man. She was a heroine of unconventional beauty who had many of the attributes normally reserved for male heroes.
Her film Back to God's Country, released in 1919, was the most successful Canadian silent film, from a commercial and a critical standpoint. Shipman became a real star and decided to form her own production company; the company went bankrupt in 1925.
Nell Shipman adamantly refused any alliance with the major studios, which would then have a say about the content of her films or her direction. In 1917, she turned down an attractive seven-year contract with Samuel Goldwyn that would have brought her fame and fortune. She instead promoted independent cinema at a time when the major Hollywood studios were emerging and starting to take over the American film market. She got involved in all aspects of filmmaking, from scriptwriting to direction, production and even distribution. In the 1920s, the emergence of the major studios, was a serious blow to independent film, which quickly became marginalized. This transition was difficult for Nell Shipman, as for many other film stars of the era. The more she distanced herself from Hollywood, the more problems she had financing and distributing her films.
She then devoted herself almost entirely to writing and had only partial success with the 1934 film Wings in the Dark. An adaptation of one of her stories, this film starred Cary Grant and Myrna Loy and was produced by Paramount Pictures.
Between twenty and thirty films are attributed to Nell Shipman, but unfortunately only a few of these are now available.
Nell Shipman was also known for her love of animals. She had a personal zoo with approximately 100 animals, including several wild animals. A pioneer in animal rights, Nell Shipman fought for the defence and good treatment of animals on film sets.
Nell Shipman was more than just a filmmaker; her unprecedented camera techniques, especially when shooting outside, were original for the time. Some scenes with wild animals that were shot in a severe climate in the wilderness required technical feats of filming and camera placement and were real challenges for her directors of photography.
Like her public of the day, we will remember Nell Shipman above all for her innovative filmmaking, uncommon scenes and her cutting-edge ideas. She was a woman ahead of her time. Director, screenwriter, producer and actor, she was also married several times and had three children. On January 23, 1970, shortly after completing her autobiography, entitled The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart, Nell Shipman died in Cabazon, a small town near Palm Springs in the Californian desert.
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