Ernest Shipman
"Ten Percent Ernie"
by Joel H. Zemel 1997-2009

Ernest Shipman was an entrepreneur, impresario and film producer in the early years of Canadian independent cinema. He compared the Canadian film industry to a "young giant" which had "no past to live down, no mistakes to apologize for." His most notable production was the 1919 silent film classic, Back To God's Country, from a short story by the popular American writer, John Oliver Curwood, starring his second wife, Nell Shipman. He went on to make six more features within three years.

For the most part, Shipman's choice of plots were about pioneering life and adventure in the Canadian north. He had a formula, "telling the truth in motion pictures" he called it. He would find a Canadian story, raise money for its production as a film in the locale in which it was set and excite community participation in the production. He would then promote "in kind" assistance in the form of locations, facilities and personnel. The lead actors and technicians were imported from the U.S., though they were often Canadian-born.


Ernest Shipman (and friend) with writer, Ralph Connor

As noted in David Clandfield's book, Canadian Film, "He attempted independent production in Canada with an appeal to national sentiment and regional pride. His films elevated the status of location shooting from local colour to the integration of natural scenery and local history into the action."

Ernest Shipman was born on December 17, 1871 in Hull, Quebec, the eldest of four brothers. He was educated at Ryerson School in Toronto where he became interested in promotion and publicity. At twenty-six he was running the Canadian Entertainment Bureau in Toronto and soon after became the president and general manager of the Amalgamated Amusement Company with offices on Broadway in New York.

His marriage to his first wife, actress Rosalie Knott, ended in 1910 when he met Helen Foster Barham later known as Nell Shipman. Nell was looking for work with the George Baker stock company and Ernest in his capacity as manager, was the interviewer. She was eighteen - he was thirty-nine. She got the job and they were later married in 1911. they had a son, Barry, in 1912 and the marriage lasted until 1920.

They moved to southern California in 1912, where a bankrupt Ernest persuaded a retired army officer to back his first motion picture, The Ball of Yarn, written by Nell. Apparently, it was so bad, it was never shown. Next, he produced One Hundred Years of Mormonism while Nell wrote scripts, directed three movies for Universal in 1914 and played the lead in all of them. In 1915, she played the lead in her first wildlife adventure film based on a James Oliver Curwood story, God's Country and the Woman, which made her a star in Hollywood.

Ernest was establishing himself as a publicist and agent but was edging into promoting productions. Based on the idea of a 1912 company he started called the Five Continents Exchange, he decided to buy film rights to established novels, promote their production and organize the publicity for the completed films.

By 1916, Ernest was representing several independent producers, had leased a film laboratory and studio which advertised "Pictures financed, bought, sold and exploited." He was handling fifty-two pictures a year and acting in an advisory capacity in connection with the actual manufacture of some of the pictures.


1997-2009 Joel H. Zemel. All rights reserved.

Nell Shipman

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