September 1 2003


September 1 2003



Maclean’s Excerpt

She raced dogsleds, ran whitewater, and pioneered the nude scene KAY ARMATAGE rediscovers Nell Shipnman, Canada's first female director, and the original action heroine.

She’s our forgotten star, a Canadian siren who carved out her own Hollywood North—far north—to become a symbol of untamed wilderness, and untamed womanhood. From 1912-24, Neil Shipman became famous as the heroine of silent film melodramas visibly set in the wilds of Canada, a land she called “the Great White North.” She worked as a writer, producer, director, star-and intrepid stuntwoman. If she were doing all this today, she would be a one-word icon: Neil.

Born in Victoria in 1892, Shipman moved to Seattle with her family at 12 but never lost sight of her Canadian roots. At 13, she left home to join a touring vaudeville troupe. By her mid20s, she had written and starred in a series of popular silent films based on stories by outdoor adventure writer James Oliver Curwood. Braving Whitewater and driving dogsleds, Shipman was our original female action figure. Her biggest hit, Back to God’s Country (1919), remains Canada’s earliest extant feature film. And she was the first Canadian woman to direct a movie.

Now her legacy finally gets its due in The Girl from God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema (UT Press), by Kay Armatagea professor of film and women’s studies at the

University of Toronto and a veteran programmer with the Toronto International Film Festival, which this year is mounting an unprecedented retrospective of Shipman’s work (Sept. 4-13). Armatage relates Nell’s roller-coaster life with a fan’s passion and a scholar’s eye. She insists that Shipman, for all her independence and lack of prudery, was not ahead of her time. “She was precisely of her time,” says Armatage, arguing that she typified a generation of early-20th-century women who were discovering ecology, animal rights, feminism and sexual liberation.

What does distinguish Nell is her Canadian singularity. Yes, her productions were American, and her demise was pure Hollywood-mismanaged by a violent, drunken paramour, she, like so many silent film legends, faded into obscurity as sound and the studio monopolies took over. Yet her vision was Canada personified. And now, as this country’s cinema still struggles to find a voice, it’s illuminating to look back at one of our boldest pioneers. Shipman’s quotes in these excerpts from Armatage’s book are drawn from her autobiography, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart, and her autobiographical novel, Abandoned Trails. BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Her biggest hit was promoted by a sketch of a naked woman and this advice to exhibitors: “Don’t Book Back to God’s Country unless You want to prove that the Nude is NOT Rude.”

SIMPERING Lillian Gish with her lips pursed like a little posy; helpless melodramatic victim tied to the railroad tracks waiting for the hero to rescue her from the wicked landlord; sultry foreign vamp— these may be the popular stereotypes of women in the silent cinema, but they are by no means typical of all movie women from the period. With contemporary research, we discover a repressed image bank of energetic modern women who drove automobiles, flew airplanes, openly expressed sexual desire, and even rescued the hapless hero.

Nell Shipman—one of the very few Canadians making feature films in the silent period-appeared in a series of melodramatic adventures in which she played the robust heroine known as the “girl from God’s country.” Snowshoeing and dogsledding across

The Great White North, she had to protect her husband, defeat the villain and generally save the day, always with the help of a dog and her private zoo of trained wild animals—notably her pet bear, Brownie.

In most of her films, Shipman played the leading role, always of the heroic stamp. Husbands or lovers were either absent or incapacitated: they fell ill, were injured, or were simply “artistic.” Her amazonian beauty, the easy presence of her body, her great sense of moral justice, and the connection with animals and nature: these are the signs of her stereotypical femininity, and simultaneously the source of the heroism that allowed her to resist the cliché of the woman protagonist as a victim to be rescued.

From the moment of her first association with Curwood in God’s Country and the Woman, Nell had become typed as an out-

door heroine. In another Curwood feature, Baree, Son of Kazan (1918), there was “a dilly of a river scene,” dangerous enough that they had hired a stunt double for Shipman. It was a 30-ft., feet-first free jump into the surf; if not timed perfectly, the jumper landed on the rocks instead. The stunt woman was pregnant and terrified by the assignment, so Shipman offered to do it, with the proviso that the stunt woman would be paid anyway. The water was so cold that Shipman passed out as she drifted with the current, and she had to be harpooned by a stout pole plunged into her “long soggy false hair” and hauled in “like a hunk of spaghetti on a twisting fork.”

InA Gentleman’s Agreement (1918), Shipman narrowly escaped drowning in a scene that involved two men and an overturned canoe. She recounts the near-death expe-

rience in vivid detail and great length in her memoir, indicating the mark the incident left on her memory even 50 years later: “The leading man wasn’t a very good swimmer, and when we got into that wild, whitewater he forgot what little he knew. I was lucky enough to reach him and we made that big rock out there in the middle. Then poor Jim let go of me—he was scared stiff, you know—and I was swept on downstream towards that place. Can you see it? Where the whole river seems to pour under the rocks? It was ‘bye-bye’ if I hit that and there did not seem a chance I wouldn’t, the current was too strong for me and the boulders too big and slippery. But, do you know, over by the bank I saw two little rocks. I thought—‘if the current will only carry me over there I can grab that tiny pinnacle! ’ And it did! I had just time to seize it as I was

swept by. The others came running and pulled me out, but it was touch and go, I can tell you.”

THE CHARACTER of Dolores in Back to God’s Country pilots a dogsled 250 km across the icy tundra to get her wounded husband to a doctor, physically battling the villain in the process and emerging victorious. An accurate markswoman with no fear of weapons, she holds the villain’s accomplice at gunpoint, then shoots him in the shoulder to force him to assist her. When she loses the gun, she uses a dog to effect a triumphant escape and rescue. Active, competent, courageous and self-reliant women may be found in other genres such as the western, but rarely is the woman the rescuer.

In Back to God’s Country, Shipman doffs the fetters of ladylike decorum to cavort not only

in nature, but au naturel. As Dolores is bathing in a glorious mountain pool, the villains leer at her through the bushes and hatch their dastardly plan. The scene was first shot with Shipman wearing a modest flesh-coloured wool bathing costume. After the first take, when she saw the wet thick wool bunch and wrinkle about her body, Shipman firmly stepped in, shedding the costume and directing the cinematographer so that the mise en scène would invite no prurience while still making her unadorned flesh amply evident. The gesture was exceptional at a time when melodramatic heroines were marked by Gishlike modesty, and nudity appeared on film only in scenes of epic debauchery. In her autobiography, her characteristic sense of humour prevails as she notes that, because Brownie is with her by the pool, she captioned the scene “In a Dark Pool with a Bear Behind.”

She adds proudly, “I know that a beautiful foreign import [Hedy Lamarr] was photographed in the nude in a feature called Ecstasy but I really was ‘first.’ ”

The movie was advertised with posters featuring a drawing of Shipman pulling a shawl across her evidently naked body as she stood knee-deep in water. In the trade papers, the promotion was even more explicit, featuring a sketch of a naked female body arching lyrically on tip-toe, with this advice to exhibitors: “Don’t Book Back to God’s Country unless You want to prove that the Nude is NOT Rude.”

Although it is not uncommon today to think of women who lived a century ago as hopelessly encrusted in outmoded attitudes—they must have been straight-laced, prudish, and sexually repressed—Shipman’s autobiography and her autobiographical

novel paint a very different picture. She represents herself as sexually experienced without any recriminations or slurs of being a “loose woman.” In Abandoned Trails, Nell, who had become Canadian impresario Ernest Shipman’s fourth wife in 1910, presents her extramarital relationship with her film company manager Bert Van Tuyle as belonging to the world of nature, as natural as the flowers in May.

SHIPMAN’S Bade to God’s Country was shot almost entirely on location in northern Alberta. The cast and crew travelled by train to Lesser Slave Lake—the middle of nowhere, about 250 km north of Edmonton. There was no train station, no hotel, just a snow-

drift. The village was “nothing but a collection of fishermen’s shacks on the shore of an ice-bound lake.” The cabins had stoves and blankets, but you could “chuck a cat through the cracks” and the snow came drifting in. The dining hall was “an unpainted board shack with a long table running its length. The table was made of three planks and the benches were single boards.” To this desolate and numbingly cold location the Hollywood director’s wife had packed formal evening clothes!

Shipman’s autobiography reports that they shot one scene, in which Dolores “mushed endless camera miles across the frozen waste,” in temperatures of 60 below. “They loaded film in black changing bags on the dirt floors of our chilly cabins. The men’s whiskers grew and ice rimmed the bristles. Our company manager, Bert Van Tuyle, suf-

fered a frozen foot. Leading man Ronald Byram contracted pneumonia”—from which he eventually died.

American scholar Tom Trusky’s note on the episode offers an amusing addition to the story: “Van Tuyle repaired to a hotel in San Francisco to cure his Lesser Slave Lake frostbite. Heeding the advice of an Alaskan sourdough he had met on the train heading south from Canada to California, [he] ordered bellhops to bring him a washtub, kerosene, cigarettes and liquor, and proceeded to soak, smoke, and get soaked.” Later, after gangrene had set in, toes on Van Tuyle’s right foot were amputated.

Shipman came through the material discomfort, extraordinarily hard work, and ferocious temperatures not only unscathed but, in her stylish chinoiserie coat with the lynx-trimmed hood, looking extremely smart as well. She was not only dressed suitably, but the provenance of the material, a fourpoint Hudson’s Bay Company blanket, inscribes the garment with Canadian-ness. In Shipman’s films and Curwood’s novels, God’s country is always Canada, usually in its most far-flung reaches—that continuous, horizontal landscape.

Shipman was plagued by her disastrous selections of men, Including one with as many aliases as he had creditors

LEAVING HER HUSBAND and her partnership with Curwood behind, Shipman returned to southern California to make movies independently. She bought a house in Highland Park, where she lived with her son, Barry, a housekeeper, the collie Laddie, and Brownie the bear. Van Tuyle built a structure on the next-door lot, where Nell did the editing of the movies.

She had purchased the zoo of wild animals used in Back to God’s Country as part of the severance agreement after the dissolution of her partnerships with Ernest and Curwood. The collection also included a little Indian honey-bear and a Siberian wolf. The zoo eventually became the largest privately owned collection of wild animals in the United States.

Brownie the bear’s residence was carved out of the hillside and came complete with

a large patio, a dining table and an overhead shower. Whereas small animals such as raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, a skunk and a desert rat named Ignatz had runs and cages, a small grey desert fox was not caged, preferring to ride on Shipman’s shoulders. Bobs and Babs, a pair of wild bobcats, had the run of the house.

Shipman delighted in taking bear and dog downtown in her car: “Bear and Collie used to ride in the back seat of the old National without leashes, each with a head thrust out as they took the breeze. The effect on even the sparse traffic of that day was bedlam. I’d park downtown and go into a store and leave the pair in the car. Guarded by Laddie, Brownie would stay in the back seat but would perform gymnastics, chinning herself on the top brace or standing on her head to clown for the sidewalk audience. The police asked me not to bring the bear downtown. She tied up traffic.”

In 1922 Shipman moved her home, production company and zoo to Upper Priest Lake in the Idaho wilderness. She lived with son Barry and partner Van Tuyle in a log cabin 21 miles from the nearest road. Their last Christmas together, in 1924, is

worthy of any melodramatic scenario. A 22-year-old actor, Ken Sidney—Sid—has come from New York for a career in the movies. As the radio plays music and the candles gutter, Shipman and the young man begin to dance and then flirt. Van Tuyle, drunk and crazed from the pain of a gangrenous foot (still afflicted years after the frostbite) raves madly as he points a gun at Shipman. In her “high-heeled pumps, silk stockings and crepe de Chine dress,” she stumbles towards the lake to kill herself. Barry follows, screaming, and eventually gets her to the surreal shelter of a “partially roofed, half-walled” film set.

At dawn, Shipman and Barry watch Van Tuyle and the young man take off in the dogsled, heading for the hospital. Relief all around, until, later that day, Van Tuyle reappears. As 13-year-old Barry holds off Van

Tuyle with a .22 rifle, he and his mother lock themselves in the bunkhouse for the night and, fearing that Van Tuyle has murdered Sid, leave quietly on snowshoes at first light. When they finally arrive in Spokane, Wash., Shipman collapses for five days.

BY 1925, Van Tuyle was gone, Nell Shipman Productions was bankrupt, and the landlord sent the bailiff to seize the animals. Shipman owed $795 to her landlord, who sought a court-ordered auction of 100 animals. She succeeded in blocking the auction, and her wildlife collection was eventually consigned to the San Diego Zoo. The Priest River Times noted that “about 40 animals and birds” were sent south, including “dogs, bears, deer, wildcat, wolves, skunk, eagle, rats, possum, coon, and other small animals.” Brownie the bear was in this shipment.

Shipman never lost her love of animals. In her old age, long after her company had gone bankrupt and her wild animals were dispersed, countless dogs and cats lived with her in her house.

AFTER SHE LEFT Van Tuyle, Shipman married artist Charles Ayers. For the duration of the marriage, she supported herself and her family as a writer, mostly of novels and magazine articles, until Ayers became afflicted with permanent artist's block due to the humiliation of being supported by his wife. She let him go. But she remained plagued by her disastrous selections of male partners. After Ayers, she took up with a man who had as many aliases as he had creditors, and bounced around America with him for nearly 20 years, obsessively concocting scenarios to revive her career.

Shipman went through enormous depressions. Despite that, and the horrors of dire poverty, she continued to write. She always had a pocketful of projects to flog. In 1939, she and her fourth partner moved six times. Because her trusty Underwood had been pawned for $40 and remained in California, for a time she had a rented typewriter. When they could no longer afford the payments, she had to write by hand; when there was no money for stationery, she wrote on the back of old movie call-sheets.

In 1970, Shipman died alone and broke, with the manuscript of her autobiography waiting for publication.

Reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press.