A Brief Historical Backgrounder (continued)
by Joel H. Zemel © 1997
With incredible resilience, Nell moved to the Pacific Northwest taking along her substantial private animal zoo. Her interest in saving animals had started with Back To God's Country. The story goes that on the set were two dogs - one docile, the other ferocious. One day, she inadvertently approached the ferocious dog, Tresore, and inexplicably, the animal took an immediate liking to her. From then on, Nell's lifelong love of animals was augmented by her becoming a leading spokesperson in the fight to eliminate the cruel methods used by film studios at the time to get animal actors to work for the camera.
In 1922, Nell and Wellington Playter, an actor from Back To God's Country, shot a new feature at Playter's studio in Spokane, Washington for $180,000. It was a two-hour film called The Grub Stake. Nell was writer and associate director. Unfortunately, the American distributor went bankrupt and the film got caught up in litigation. Nell found it extremely hard to keep her crew and animals fed but somehow continued to survive. She later managed to produce a series of short films, Little Dramas of the Big Places at her film camp/studio, Lionhead Lodge, in Priest Lake, Idaho.
Eventually though, after a series of great hardships, Nell Shipman Productions came to an end. Her inability to sell films because of the complete take-over of every aspect of the film industry by the "Big Five" Hollywood studios, the mental deterioration of Bert Van Tuyle and the presence of hostile locals, their attitude due to monetary debt or simple ignorance, were some of the major contributing factors. Because of lack of funds, Nell was unable to maintain her animals so, in 1925 she was forced to donate them to the San Diego Zoo.
Nell moved to New York for a while. She then travelled to Europe and subsequently settled in Florida. For the next twenty years she continued to write novels and scripts. The film Wings in the Dark (1934) with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, produced by Paramount Pictures, was based on one of her stories. In 1947, she tried one more independent production, The Clam-Digger's Daughter a.k.a. The Story of Mr. Hobbs but the film was not successful. Nell continued writing and spent her last years living near Palm Springs at Cabazon, in the California desert. Shortly after completing her autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart, Nell Shipman died on January 23, 1970.
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.
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)
Sources and acknowledgements:
Dreams made in Canada - a history of feature film, 1913 to 1995 an article by Sam Kula - Archivist, Archives and Government Records The Archivist No. 110, 1995 Magazine of the National Archives of Canada.
Who was Nell Shipman and why is everyone talking about her? an article by D.J. Turner - Archivist, Visual and Sound Archives The Archivist No. 110, 1995 Magazine of the National Archives of Canada.
Articles by Tom Trusky, professor at Boise State University in Idaho and authority on Nell Shipman.
Embattled Shadows - A History of Canadian Cinema 1895-1939 by Peter Morris.
Internet Movie Database.
Photos: Nell Shipman Archives, Boise State University and The National Archives of Canada.
A special thanks to Beulah Shipman for her thoughtful letters to me. Aloha! - J.H.Z.
Two informative books are Nell's autobiography, "The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart" and Joseph & Juanita Walker's "The Light On Her Face".
Several of Nell's films are available on video from Boise State University.
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.