Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nell Shipman - The scenic beauty of Spokane & North Idaho drew a Canadian movie pioneer to the area in the early 1920s.

By Mary Jane Honegger

Nell's strength and tenacity, her love of life and incredible will to survive, made her stand out, not only in a man's world but also in the global community because of her interest and work in animal welfare and ecology. She leaves behind a rich legacy with her restored films and autobiography.
Nell Shipman is one of Canada's unsung motion picture pioneers and was a true heroine both on and off the screen. She is deserving of far more recognition for her contributions and accomplishments. - Joel H Zemel (Nell Shipman: Brief Historical Backgrounder)

Nell Shipman, a beautiful Canadian actress, writer, director, and producer; moved to Spokane, Washington in the early 1920s to join the fledgling movie industry in the area.  A contract actress for Vitagraph Studios and one of the top movie stars at the time, Nell arrived in true Hollywood style with her director, Bert Van Tuyle, a staff of 20 technicians, her substantial wild animal zoo comprised mostly of animals common to the Northwest; and plans to make a movie. 

She partnered with Wellington Playter, an actor she had worked with in Back to God’s Country, to film a play she had written, The Grub Stake, at the Playter Studio, in Minnehaha Park in the Spokane ValleyNell was writer and associate director of the film which was shot with a $180,000 budget.  Unfortunately, due to the bankruptcy of her distributor, the film ended up in prolonged litigation, making money tight for Nell to continue making films.

Undeterred, and drawn by the rugged beauty of North Idaho, Nell and Van Tuyle decided to move the entire company to Upper Priest Lake in the North Idaho Panhandle to focus on making films centered on the character she had played in God’s Country and the Woman (1915) and Back to God’s Country (1919). 
These action-packed adventure melodramas, in which the heroine is called upon to rescue her husband and defeat the villain, were immensely successful. – Kay Armatage, The Girl From God's Country
Following a well-orchestrated plan, the movie company and zoo were soon perched among the towering pines on the northern edge of Priest Lake after a grueling journey by truck and a perilous 22-mile boat ride.  The crew built a new zoo to house the animals and other buildings as Lionhead Lodge, Nell Shipman’s movie camp, took shape.   

From this location, Nell and her crew filmed several movies, each time scouting out striking new locations which often made shooting difficult.  The hardy crew trekked to each location, lugging along their cameras, reflectors, make-up boxes, food and necessities for the animals which included huge rolls of wire netting and wooden boxes of peanuts and candy to keep them under control.

Despite low funds, Nell’s spirit never flagged.  Her cheerful demeanor and indomitable spirit kept her cast and crew at task despite cruel weather, harsh conditions and, sometimes, no pay.  During her time at Lionhead Lodge film camp and studio, Nell produced a series of short films, Little Dramas of the Big Places.

Sadly, by the mid 1920s, Nell Shipman Productions came to an end when she and other independent studios were forced out of the industry by the large Hollywood studios.  Unable to feed and maintain her animals, she was forced to donate them to the San Diego Zoo. 

With her movie production career at an end, Nell turned her energy toward writing novels and screenplays.  She died on January 23, 1970, shortly after completing her autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart.  Her son Barry, who was 14 when she was in Spokane, followed in her footsteps, becoming a prolific screenwriter with a focus on Westerns; and her granddaughter, Nina Shipman became a recognized actor in the 60s.

Memorial Canadian Postage Stamp
In 1996, Canada Post introduced a limited edition series of stamps depicting one frame of a Canadian film from each decade since 1896. A scene (with Wellington Playter) from Back To God's Country honored Nell Shipman's contribution to 100 years of Canadian Cinema.

The Nell Shipman Awards of Excellence in Filmmaking
The Seattle Chapter of Women In Film is named after Nell Shipman, “director, producer and actress, a pioneer of early cinema.”  Inspired by her indomitable spirit, talent and courage, WIF Seattle began hosting an awards ceremony honoring that same spirit in contemporary female filmmakers of the Pacific Northwest.  This black-tie “Academy Award” style gala provides recognition for talented Northwest female filmmakers and showcases their work. The awards include: The Career Achievement Award
The Light of the Community Award, The Spirit of Nell Award, and Production Excellence Awards in multiple categories.

Films of Nell Shipman (either or all: writer/director/producer/star):
The Ball of Yarn (1910); Outwitted by Billy (1913); One Hundred Years of Mormonism (1913); God's Country and the Woman (1915); The Pine's Revenge (1915); Under the Crescent (1915); The Fires of Conscience (1916); Through the Wall (1916); Baree, Son of Kazan (1917); The Black Wolf (1917); My Fighting Gentleman (1917); The Girl From Beyond (1918); The Home Trail (1918); Cavanaugh of the Forest Rangers (1918); The Wild Strain (1918); Back to God's Country (1919); Something New (1920); The Girl from God's Country (1921); A Bear, A Boy and A Dog (1921); The Grub Stake (1923); The Light on Lookout (1923); Trail of the North Wind (1923); The Golden Yukon (1927); Wings in the Dark (1935); The Clam-Diggers's Daughter (1947) 
Read more about Nell Shipman
Nell’s amazing story is told in her autobiography, and other books about early motion picture history.  

The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart, an autobiography by Nell Shipman

The Light On Her Face, by Joseph & Juanita Walker

The Girl From God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema, by Kay Armatage, 2003

Several of Nell's films are available on video through the Idaho Film Collection and Boise State University.


Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

I love her story. Thank you for this lovely tribute to her.

Beth Bollinger said...

Paul Brand does a fantastic presentation on her, with film clips and all.

Mary Jane Honegger said...

Hey, Beth! Thanks for reminding me about Paul's work. I called him to check out the facts and included some information in my next blog. I've purchased all three DVDs, so am excited to see his film. Thanks for writing!